Is fashion good for feminism?
Fashion and feminism have long been intertwined. For well over a century, women have used the power of fashion to further the cause of female empowerment and equality.
The Suffragettes used the way they dressed to help further the cause; after sympathisers were denigrated as 'masculine', leaders of the movement urged their followers to embrace conventional fashion and notions of femininity, taking care to "appeal to the eye" and "dress in their smartest clothes". Over time the Suffragette 'brand' developed, represented by the colours of purple (for dignity), white (for purity) and green (for hope). White dresses became part of the Suffragette uniform and even today, dressing in all-white is linked to the feminist movement. This year we celebrate 100 years since the beginning of women's suffrage in the UK, when (some) women were given the right to vote. Over the past century society has changed dramatically as the feminist movement has taken great strides forward, often marked at different points with key changes in fashion.
The 1920s was a transformative decade for fashion and feminism, the end of the war brought a revived sense of confident optimism and many women left their traditional roles at home to enter the workplace. Coco Chanel capitalised on the changing times by designing the first women’s trouser-suit as well as helping to popularise the new freedom in the fashion trends of the ‘flappers’; women who openly defied convention and Victorian fashion dictates by cutting their hair and wearing short, boxy dresses.
The iconic mini-skirt epitomised the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and the 1980s saw many women power-dressing in tailored suits with shoulder-pads to establish their authority in professional environments traditionally dominated by men.
And how far we’ve come. Or perhaps, in some ways, not. Despite the progress that's been made, there are still millions of women around the world today who don't have access to fundamental human rights. Women (and men) are still fighting the cause of feminism - that ol’ notion that women and men should be treated equally - and fashion still plays a big part in that, often being used as a powerful form of political protest.
The day following Donald Trump’s inauguration to become the 45th President of the United States saw an unprecedented number of protestors take to the streets of Washington and all over the world for the Women’s March. Among the slogan t-shirts, banners and placards displayed by protesters, the sea of pink ‘pussyhats’ stood out as a unifying symbol of protest and female solidarity. Women marched for a multitude of reasons, but the overriding message was that ‘women’s rights are human rights.’
Fashion designers also used the runways to express their political views. When the spring collections were revealed in Paris in September 2016, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first female creative director at Dior, set things in motion with a simple slogan t-shirt bearing the words ‘We should all be feminists’; a statement taken from Nigerian writer and activist Chimamanda Ngozu Adichie’s well-known talk entitled the same. Designers showcasing their autumn collections in February 2017 followed suit; at New York Fashion Week models wore t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like Christian Siriano’s “People are People” and “We Are All Human Beings”, Jonathan Simkhai’s “Feminist AF” and Prabal Gurung’s “Revolution has no borders”. In Milan, Angela Missoni brought her autumn collection finale to a close with models wearing her own variation of the pussyhat.
Many brands have jumped on the slogan t-shirt bandwagon, making the most of a new wave of interest in 'feminist fashion'. But what about the women who make our clothes? Behind the scenes, away from the bright lights of the catwalk and glossy shopfront displays are the millions of workers who produce, sew and assemble our clothes. When it comes to fast fashion, the reality of the conditions they face isn’t pretty.
With female garment workers making up approximately 80% of garment workers worldwide, chances are that the majority of clothes in your wardrobe were made by women.
Women who work long hours.
Factories routinely order employees to work excessive overtime in order to meet deadlines for little or no pay. Some workers also report being denied breaks and being unable to leave work for family medical emergencies.
Women who work in dangerous conditions.
Factory fires, building collapses, overcrowding and unsafe machinery are just a few of the safety issues that affect workers in the garment industry. Factories are typically owned and managed by men and many female garment workers report that sexual harassment is commonplace. The social and cultural stigma that surrounds sexual abuse means that many women don’t speak out for fear of being blamed or losing their jobs.
Women who don’t have job security.
In Bangladesh, women are expected to be passive and quiet on the factory floor. Workers can be fired without pay for not meeting targets, raising safety concerns, requesting time off for medical issues, becoming pregnant…the list goes on. Fear over losing their jobs is an effective tactic used to keep women submissive.
Women who don’t get paid enough to live.
Fast fashion is a highly competitive business; suppliers are constantly trying to cut costs to win business from major clothing companies. The only aspect they have substantial control over is the cost of labour, which means the workers are the ones who pay the price. Women are often given the lowest-paid, lowest skilled jobs with little or no prospect of promotion. Wages are rarely sufficient to cover the cost of living and threats to withhold pay are used by management to silence workers who raise concerns or fail to meet targets. On the morning before the the Rana Plaza tragedy, fear of losing income was what finally convinced workers to enter a building they knew was in danger of collapse.
Women who struggle to have a voice.
In many of the developing nations where our clothes are made, labour laws are inadequate and poorly enforced. Freedom of association is actively discouraged and women who attempt to form or join unions are faced with threats, physical violence and sexual harassment in efforts to silence them and discourage others from following their lead. Many courageous women (and men) have continued to push back against injustices in the workplace despite harassment and intimidation, but as one worker put it: “Whoever raises their head suffers the most”.
Are we content to wear t-shirts bearing feminist slogans, knowing that the women whose hands put them together don’t get to enjoy the same rights that we do? As consumers, we have power to ask questions of big brands and challenge them to meaningfully engage with gender discrimination in their supply chains. We also have the power to take our money elsewhere and support brands that empower women, enabling them to live with dignity.
When it comes to feminism, fashion can be a force for good. But if we don’t ask the right questions, we risk supporting the exploitation of women at one end of the spectrum while trying to empower them at the other.
March 8 is International Women's Day. You can #PressForProgress by asking your favourite brands: #whomademyclothes?