Does this outfit make me look anti-feminist?

A shorter version of this blog post was originally posted on The Fem Soc Zine of LUU. Click here to read.

Fashion has always played a key role in society and this is why it should be discussed. From a historical point of view, it has played a significant role. My favourite example is in East Berlin: people would illegally listen to the Western Berlin radio stations and many heard punk rock music, the music of rebels, which encouraged some to dress as punks as a silent daily protest to the USSR.

Not only in a historical context, but fashion can be a way to connect with your culture at religious festivals or in daily life. Clothing can be a huge part of your religion and/or culture, expressing a certain aspect of your identity. For instance, it can be used to signify your position in society, as well as your gender.

Gender is the key reason why feminism in the fashion industry should be examined. Fashion in the West, in particular, has always been focused on women. Historically (and possibly even in current social circles) a woman’s clothes was used as a way to show off her husband’s wealth, to make her a more beautiful accessory for him to wear on his arm. Even now, most designer brands, which sell mainly women’s clothes, are owned by men and have a man’s name on the label. There have been some changes, with more inclusive steps in the industry such as London Modest Fashion Week; the trend to now focus on men’s fashion as well (progress?); brands such as River Island removing labels as fashion moves in a more gender neutral direction; but, there is still a heavy focus on women. And that’s the side of fashion the consumer sees, what about the women making the clothes?

Anarchy in the UK!

Companies like H&M have been notorious for their use of sweatshops in Asia for decades and yet the problem persists. A sweatshop is a factory, mainly in the clothing industry, which has a lack of workers’ rights which affects people of all genders and it is known that some even employ children. As reported by The Guardian, the physical abuse (as an addition to the unacceptable conditions people are forced to work in) primarily affects women, and this is why feminists should be outraged. How can we claim to be intersectional if we wear clothes made by women who are often beaten and sexually harassed for not meeting targets or just because the supervisor decided he wanted to? Some have argued that sweatshops are a form of Modern Day Slavery – many people are often trafficked into new countries to sign contracts in a language they do not understand and are paid so little, they cannot afford to leave the factory.

However, there is some good news. Recently, people are beginning to suggest that sweatshops in Asia will be coming to an end (possibly within 10 years) due to consumer pressure for companies to change their practices. This can also be seen as many factories have become a little safer. Critics of this argument claim that it has taken a long time to get to where we are and the progress will continue to be slow. There is also the worry that this move away from Asian sweatshops is because companies are moving production back to the UK.

I was initially going to suggest that one way to combat fast fashion’s poor treatment of workers is to buy from the UK, but after having read this article for the Financial Times it is clear that the issue is not as simple as it may appear. Due to the demand from retailers for cheaper and quicker fashion – also known as ‘fast fashion’ – there is an emergence of borderline sweatshops in the UK, most notably, Leicester. These have come about for a variety of reasons (which the article explains) but the essence is that in order to get fashion quickly and cheaply, it needs to be made as close as possible to where they are selling it – the UK.

Both sweatshops in Asia and these pop-up factories in Leicester show the problem with our current fashion trends. The consumer wants what the media tells us we want -what celebrities are wearing. But we need it cheaper. Companies will pay less and less for items, cheapening the quality of garments (resulting in us buying more often) and also pushing down wages of people who often have little choice in finding other work: It is a never ending cycle.

Plenty more camels in the sea

The Independent has reported on how chemically toxic the fashion industry is and what we can do about it. The textile industry is the second largest water polluter. Harmful chemicals get into the water cycle from production, causing long-term health problems for those who drink the water around the factories, not to mention the ecosystem. Likewise, polyester is a common material used but as it is made from plastic fibres. When these garments are washed, the fibres can get into the water cycle, won’t bio-degrade and then get eaten by fish, causing more long-term health problems for sea creatures and the destruction to the ecosystem.

BBC 3 recently aired a documentary about ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’. According to the Earth Observatory, the issue is not as simple as the documentary makes it appear. The USSR did divert water from the massive lake in order to grow cotton, but it was also to grow crops. To this day, water diverted from the river is also used to grow rice, which needs more water than cotton. Due to the poverty in the region, there is not much the governments can do as the countries affected need the revenue. However, this is not to say the fashion/cotton industry doesn’t have an impact – because it does!

Added to the water pollution, in July 2018, it was reported that Burberry were burning an estimated $37 million worth of unsold clothes, accessories and perfumes in 2017 in an attempt to protect their air of exclusivity. With this coming to light, the defence made was that it wasn’t just Burberry, it was a whole host of designer brands. Notably, Richemont was also burning their excess watches. However, since the public outcry at Burberry for burning their product, in September of this year, the company announced that they would start donating and recycling their unsold product.

There is something important for the consumer to learn here. We, as a consumer, have a huge impact on the attitudes of companies. I can guarantee that the majority of people who were rightly outraged at Burberry have never been able to afford any of their products, and yet Burberry still paid attention because they didn’t want the negativity surrounding their company. Imagine how we could change companies we can afford!

But how can I help?

The first way we can help is to reduce how much we buy. Buy second-hand clothes from vintage sales, charity shops, even go through your family and friends’ wardrobes to find new gems for you they would otherwise throw away (80s and 90s fashion is making a come back). We have a lot of power as the consumer by choosing where to spend our money:

  • Firstly, stop buying clothes every week! You are allowed to wear the same outfit twice. And if a garments rips, fix, rework it or recycle it.
  • Instead of buying cheap brands, save money to buy clothes from ethical brands
  • Research where your clothes are being made and how, say no to the biggest culprits of sweatshops, companies which are ethical will shout about it!

And here is where feminists must recognise their privilege. Not everyone can afford ethical brands. Many are, unfortunately, expensive. One of the benefits of fast fashion is that it does allow for those who can’t afford expensive brands to have nice clothes and it is not right for anyone to take that away from a person. What you wear can say a lot about you and how you identify, and why should that just be for those who can afford it? It is therefore up to those who can afford to shop ethically to do so and to not pass judgement on those who can’t.

Don’t go breaking my heels

The feminist and environmentalist debate around clothes is vast. What has been discussed here is just the surface of the actual production of clothes. The feminist debate around clothes goes much deeper, what about the items we chose to wear, is that feminist?

Take high heels, for instance, a very divisive issue in feminism from the start. Some argue that they make women fierce and powerful, others argue that heels are designed for men to stare at women and as they have severe health impacts (joint pain, sciatica) we should not be wearing them. There is also a school of thought that heels are designed by men to make us vulnerable and to trap us, we physically can’t run away from men – Caitlin Moran received a backlash for mentioning this in her book. On the flip side, there are numerous instances of heels being used as a weapon, mainly against men. But they are impractical and cost a lot of money. So why do we wear them?

In 2016, Nicola Thorp was sacked and took a petition to the House of Commons after refusing to wear heels, which was supposedly the dress code. Are women really expected to be uncomfortable at work?

Here are two articles which sum up both sides of the argument: Deborah Orr writes a scathing article criticising heels whilst Camille Paglia argues that there’s much more to heels than the surface arguments, looking at the history.

So, does this outfit make me look anti-feminist?

I would argue it depends on all the issues discussed above. It also depends if this is the fight you chose to battle. Nobody can physically take up every battle and so if everyone were to make active purchasing choices on a couple of things, cumulatively, we make change happen. For me, fashion is one of mine and so I try to avoid buying from brands I know are unethical and buy second-hand where I can. I don’t expect everyone to take up arms, storm H&M and Nike to demand better working conditions in their factories, but I do hope that those of you who read this will think twice about making a purchase for new clothes, when there are overlooked garments in your wardrobe.