Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The 'feminist' trend AW17

Whether you’ve a lifetime subscription to Vogue, or dress in a burlap sack and couldn’t really care less about fashion, New York Fashion Week post-Trump was of particular import. Almost overnight, the makers and wearers of haute couture, who rarely concern themselves with the struggles of mere mortals, adopted a political agenda. From Tommy Hilfiger to Calvin Klein, apparel appeared to become the new vehicle for social change. Designers printed bold statements on t-shirts, blouses, sweaters, even on underwear, denouncing some of Trump’s most divisive executive orders, from the immigration ban, to the 'wall', to cuts to Planned Parenthood funding.

The plight of women, however, seemed to be a hot topic for many designers to capitalize on. The Nepalese-American designer Prabal Gurung wrapped up his AW17 collection with a display of printed t-shirts proclaiming ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’, ‘Girls just want to have fundamental rights’ and took his final bow sporting a t-shirt splashed with ‘This is what a feminist looks like’. The American designer Adam Lippes unfurled signs reading ‘Adam Lippes stands with Planned Parenthood’ and ‘Girl Power’ outside of his show. I had a feeling Maria Grazia Chiruri’s ‘We should all be feminists’ début as the first female artistic director for Dior would be the overture to this feminist ‘trend’ of 2017. Chiruri drew inspiration for this simplistic design in her Spring 2017 collection from the influential feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

With a price tag of $710 for a printed cotton t-shirt, can we really all afford to be feminists? While I understand and appreciate the awareness many of these designers are attempting to create around feminism in a post-Trump landscape, it’s the disturbing anti-feminist trickle-down effect of many of these designs that I see as problematic.

While many luxury designers may escape scrutiny of their production methods since their garments are costly, created by hand and tend not to be produced in bulk, it’s the much-loved and familiar high-street brands harbouring more ominous secrets. Type in ‘slogan tee’ or ‘printed tee’ into the website search bars of H&M, Forever 21, Topshop, Urban Outfitters, Nike, Primark and many, many more fast fashion brands. One thing becomes apparent. The trend for feminist apparel is no longer confined to the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. ‘Feminism is for everyone’, ‘Revolution♀’, ‘Girls supporting girls’, ‘Fight like a girl’, ‘Equality’ and ‘Girl power’ were all popular buys. Yet somehow I doubt that by buying an overpriced ‘Power to the girls’ t-shirt (that you can frankly make yourself), will put an end to the sexism that is endured in this world. If anything, you may be contributing to the problem.

The 2015 Netflix documentary ‘The True Cost’ is an exposé of the many environmental and social injustices that are borne out of the $3 trillion fashion industry. When we look at the price tag on a t-shirt or a sweater, we’re often blind to the hidden cost behind the perceived bargain we think we’re getting. We often don’t see the many, many hands that have touched these garments. The hands that are being forced to work in inhumane factory conditions because they have no better employment alternative, with little to no workers’ rights, being paid well below a living wage, often forced to forfeit their families, health and sometimes even their lives as we saw in the case of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. And all for what? So we can buy cheap clothes to satiate some innate desire, only to discard of them when the next trend comes rolling in?

America only makes about 3% of its own clothes, meaning garment production is frequently outsourced to impoverished countries so desperate for the work supplied by these goliath corporations that their governments routinely hold down workers’ wages to prevent companies finding a cheaper alternative and relocating. While it’s clear that the garment industry, the most labour dependent industry in the world, doesn’t solely exploit women, but men and children too, one cannot deny that women in these impoverished countries are hit the hardest by these working conditions, with women making up over 85% of the workforce.

To cite an excerpt from H&M’s ‘sustainability’ tab on their website;
“H&M group helps to create jobs, consequently lifting people out of poverty, and contributing to economic growth and improved standards of living… About two-thirds of these jobs are undertaken by women. For many women, this is their first job that provides an income, their first work outside the home and therefore a first step to independence.”
Sounds very wholesome, doesn’t it? The reality is large corporations such as H&M or any of the brands listed above, can afford to make these grand, vague statements because they don’t directly employ the workers that end up being exploited. They can keep themselves at arms length from the 'dirty' business of factory collapses, structural defects, underpaid workers and increasingly negative health effects of sweltering, overcrowded factory floors, as their products are sourced from 'independent suppliers'. All that this shift of blame results in is avoiding any and all responsibility while at the same time reaping colossal financial benefits from cheap labor. Many of these large corporations also blocked the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act, which tried to “prohibit the import, export, and sale of goods made with sweatshop labor”, citing that it would be an impediment to free trade. The message is clear, profits before people.

With companies refusing to implement any solid legislative protection for workers, or prohibition of goods produced by sweatshop labor, all that is in place are voluntary ‘codes of conduct’ which companies can elect to undertake, and even if they don’t, or fail to see them through, they’ll face little to no punitive consequences.

I can’t help but think about the women sitting in a garment factory in Bangladesh or Cambodia, earning less than $3 a day and stitching the words ‘Girl power’ or ‘Equality’ onto t-shirts without finding the situation to be quite perverse. One poignant, yet resonating line from 'The True Cost', spoken by a female Bangladeshi factory worker lingered with me; "I don't want anyone wearing anything that is produced by our blood". We may think we’re empowering one another by wearing t-shirts with feminist slogans on them, however if they originate from a patriarchal and capitalist system in which thousands of women are forced to work in inhumane conditions for a pittance, then the irony is overwhelming.


Aoife Mee said...

I have for a long time regarded myself as a feminist, but as an avid consumer of fast fashion brands (including many of the ones you mention), I recognise my own hypocrisy.

Last year, back in our home university, I actually wrote a paper on The True Cost documentary and some of the issues you discuss in your blog. The more I researched the topic the more I was appalled at the conditions so many women are forced to work under in the factories that produce our clothes, and the shocking abuses they face when they try to unionise or ask for better treatment.

Perhaps, what is most appalling, is the fact that these huge international corporations who outsource their production to factories in the developing world have the power to change this. They have the power to select factories that treat their workers with respect and dignity. They have the power to pay factory owners a fair price for their produce, which, in turn, should allow them to pay their workers better wages. They have the power to conduct inspections to ensure these better conditions and wages are actually implemented, and maintained. But why won't they exercise this power? As you correctly point out, such ideas are not good for profits.

B. Williams said...


Some of the examples of feminist "high fashion" you pointed to in your post seem sort of... lazy. I am by no stretch of the imagination a fashion expert (think of me as pre-makeover Anne Hathaway in the "Devil Wears Prada") but I can easily imagine better ways to promote feminism in fashion beyond monochromatic t-shirts appropriating feminist quotations. Perhaps blurring gender lines in clothing, producing fashion for a variety of body types, and employing symbolism/metaphor and traditional "women's crafts" (like the pink pussyhats worn at the Women's March after Trump's election https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwBjtQGbV7gEZU1TdUd2b1JIZGM/view) would be a more clever and powerful way to promote feminism is fashion.

Of course, no matter what methods high fashion uses to convey support for feminism, fast fashion will still adopt the look and recreate it in the cheapest, most profit-driven way possible. This, of course, means women (and children) will still be subject to the working conditions of the garment industry in their home countries where fast fashion clothing is made. That said, I do think the topic is very complex. While I 100% support increased wages, unionization, and safe working conditions for factory workers, I also recognize that due to globalization, manufacturing and garment-making are naturally being outsourced to developing countries and contribute in a huge way to the financial well being of individuals in these societies. While this shift has led to instances of exploitation, it has also contributed to increased independence for women (relative to other options) in many countries. Women who work in garment factories often leave their small villages, avoid becoming child brides, and can live apart from their families (often while helping to support them financially). As an article from the Pulitzer Center puts it, factory work allows women and girls to move from the margins to the center of society (https://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/bangladesh-women-find-liberty-hard-labor).

This doesn't absolve the western world of responsibility. If anything, feminists and activists should continue to press the fashion industry (big companies in particular) to use its immense power/influence to improve the lives of these women even more... even at the expense of profits and even if I have to pay more for t-shirts and dresses at Target.

Joterias! said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joterias! said...

Suzanne, Bravo! I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Can you believe that after high school I was going to attend FIDM to study fashion design and merchandising? At the time I was accepted, I was interested in urban menswear. How the world turns!

I agree with your general point that feminist fashionistas need to re-examine their productions methods, and that consumers need to educate themselves about the ethical implications of their purchases. Personally, the majority of clothes I own—affordable clothes—were likely produced by foreign women, under work conditions that wouldn’t be legal or suitable for American workers. And yet I still call myself a feminist. I guess I draw the line at being overtly hypocritical by wearing a (“this is what a feminist looks like”) shirt, whose message clearly belies its fabrication.

Your article also reminded me of “maquiladoras,” factories that specialize in producing export goods cheaply, and that proliferated in Northern Mexico post-NAFTA. Maquiladoras primarily employ/exploit female workers, including underage women, many of who travel to Mexico’s northern states in search of better economic prospects. And, to be fair, some maquiladora workers do make economic gains, and are perhaps able to send remittances to their loved ones residing in other states. (https://nacla.org/article/maquila-women) Yet, I doubt the modest economic gains are worth the risks. Many young women who flocked to Cuidad Juarez to work in maquiladoras, for example, meet an early death. (http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2002/05/work-and-die-juarez/#) Indeed, feminicide is rampant in Cuidad Juarez, and many women still remain or go “missing.” (https://elpais.com/internacional/2017/11/22/mexico/1511307168_804661.html) Sadly, it’s doubtful the climate of fear in Cuidad Juarez will change in the near future.

Given the information in your article and the exploitative nature of global capitalism, it’s seems that we, feminists, should at minimum advocate for fair trade practices and good working conditions throughout the world. (It’s heartbreaking when incidents like this happen: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/afp/article-3926110/13-dead-Indian-garment-factory-fire-police.html; http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/26/world/asia/bangladesh-fire-kills-more-than-100-and-injures-many.html)