Fashion + Feminism

Feminist merchandising: are we talking out of our hats?

The rise in feminism over the last few decades has had an undeniable effect on marketing and consumerism. The use of feminist slogans on articles of clothing has become a trend of sorts. The products have swept the fashion industry from Dior to Zara. While this can be viewed as a positive form of support and expression, some take the more cynical view that it is a mere marketing ploy to capitalise on feminism.

Another point of contention is that some of the companies producing these products are notorious for the maltreatment of garment workers. Statistics estimate around 80% of workers in the garment industry worldwide are women. In light of this, is it fair to call ourselves feminists for throwing on a sloganed t-shirt or tote bag? It’s time for fashion retailers to practice what they preach. To ensure safe, humane conditions and fair pay for workers. We too have a role to play here. Its up to us to know who is making our clothes. 

A sordid high-street history

In 2014 the high-street brand Whistles, Elle magazine and the Fawcett Society collaborated to release a feminist slogan T-shirt. It read “This is what a feminist looks like”. The T-shirts were soon being sported by opportunistic politicians such as Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg.

However, the enterprise soon came under fire after it was found the £45 T-shirts were being produced in a sweatshop in Mauritius by women earning as little as 62p an hour. The newspaper article also alleged that workers, who were locked into a 4 year contract, toiled for at least 45 hours a week and slept in cramped dormitories. As shocking as these allegations are, this is not the first time a high profile retailer has been called out for faux-feminism.

No stranger to controversy, Forever 21 has been caught up in similar accusations. Despite regularly pushing products emblazoned with feminist messages, on multiple occasions the retailer has been found to be mistreating workers. In 2001 they were brought to court by 19 Latino workers. They sued the company on the grounds of unpaid overtime and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.

In the wake of the case settlement in 2004, Forever 21 pledged to improve conditions for workers in the local garment industry. It would seem their efforts were all for naught. A 2012 investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor found that Forever 21 products were being made in “sweatshop-like” conditions in Los Angeles factories. Given that the majority of LA garment workers are female, Forever 21 is yet another brand guilty of shamelessly pandering to growing feminist audiences. 

Are we the problem?

While it is all well and good to point the finger at the fashion industry and the corporate greed of large retailers, we are ignoring a large part of the problem. By purchasing these products, we are giving money and support to corporations who so freely abuse their power and invalidate the very message we are hoping to spread.

Sure, chucking on a shirt or a hat can make us feel like we’re making a difference; and maybe we are in some small way. But we cannot ignore the fact that mass production of feminist merchandise trivialises what remains an extremely serious issue. It reduces it down to a fashion fad; soon to be neglected and pushed to the back of our wardrobes. 

Making a real difference

Whether feminists are choosing to turn a blind eye or are genuinely unaware of the ramifications of sporting such fashions, it speaks to the state of modern feminism. Feminism does not only stand for equality in the corporate minefield, but for the equality of women from the boardroom to the factories.

With Me Too and Time’s Up flooding the news, it has been disturbingly easy to forget the struggles of women in the developing world. It is this fight that we must help to shine a light on. This doesn’t mean donning a hat and taking a selfie for Instagram. Instead we need to educate ourselves on where our clothes come from and which retailers are truly socially responsible.

Fashion Revolution is just one of many amazing sites that encourages people to join the fight against the exploitation of workers and the environment. They also provide action kits and useful resources for citizens and influencers.

It is crucial we have these conversations and begin to ask companies about where our clothes are coming from. We can march all we like, but if the T-shirts we wear come at the cost of another woman’s rights, then we are hypocrites. Real change is a much tougher and less glamorous battle, yet it comes with a feeling of gratification that cannot be bought or sold.

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