Feminism, like all social movements, has a long history of self-identification with the group through clothing – right from its beginnings with the suffragists’ homemade sashes to the DIY ethos of the Riot Grrrls of the nineties. Now our desire to display our political allegiances on our bodies has been taken over by fashion retailers. Everyone from Primark to Zara have jumped on the bandwagon as the movement enjoys a moment of unprecedented popularity. I think this is problematic because this is tokenism, it is just companies finding the new best way to market their products. Decisions are always made based on what’s good for the shareholders, not to progress political causes and I think cashing in for profit off the back of a political movement is cynical at best, abhorrent at worst.
An infamous example is that in 2013 Elle magazine, the Fawcett Society and clothing brand Whistles partnered to design a shirt with an empowering message for women and have a campaign for women’s rights. The shirts said, “This is what a feminist looks like” and many celebrities including Benedict Cumberbatch and Nick Clegg wore them, creating a huge buzz. But the truth came out when it was discovered that the shirts were being manufactured in Mauritius sweatshops by women who only earned 62p an hour and slept 16 to a room (the shirts sold for £45). Cases like that are typical of an industry where no major clothes retailer has a clean record on ethical supply lines. It is also a clear example of how brands like this espouse ‘girl power’ while creating an industry that pays textile workers (a woman dominated workforce) poverty wages to work in sweatshops. It’s nauseating that these companies profit off feminism’s current moment in the sun while at the same time actively relying on exploitation.
The fashion industry is also exploitative of western and middle-class women as it revolves around fast fashion which exploits women in a way that it doesn’t do to men. It creates a set of social pressures that are decidedly unfeminist as they push women to buy a whole new wardrobe each season, in pursuit of goals constructed to be unattainable for ordinary people, just to get them to spend more and more.
The fact that brands even feel comfortable putting current feminist slogans on a t-shirt proves that effectiveness is gone; if the main slogans aren’t controversial then feminism isn’t pushing for anything outside the boundaries anymore. Maybe we should be celebrating the fact that Nasty Gal sells t-shirts with “pussy power” on now – perhaps it is a symptom of mainstream acceptance and visibility, or even a cause of that acceptance. But how useful is visibility if it comes with a neutralisation of political power. Commercialisation has meant a sanitisation of the movement and all the visibility in the world is useless if people think feminism only means cute slogans and a Beyoncé attitude.
I am not criticising the people who buy from big clothing companies, everyone does, it’s inescapable. To buy purely fair-trade is only possible for the richest in society, so doing it and then sitting on a high horse calling other consumers the problem is short-sighted and a little classist to say the least. The only solution to this problem must be to fix the system at the root. In the end, I just think it sucks that we allow our political opinions to be sold back to us by companies for a profit. Especially when it’s done for such cynical reasons, and by an industry that does not practice what their products preach. I think that feminism should be about sticking it to The Man, not buying 30 quid extra off The Man so you can qualify for free shipping.
-Daisy Thomson, Culture and Opinion Editor