How Feminist is Feminist Fashion?

Originally published 06.11.16 on ProjectFEM.com

Feminism is being championed in the mainstream like never before. Whilst women take to the streets en masse in protest for gender equality and celebrities openly back female empowerment, designers and brands are also waving their feminist flags. As ‘FEMINIST’ emblazoned garments hit the highstreets and runways, how feminist is feminist fashion?

Feminism is spreading like wildfire. In music, mass media, Hollywood and streets across the globe, it feels like women’s rights are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Amidst the whirlwind of attention that women’s empowerment and gender equality have received, feminism has made for sell-out fashion too. In September alone, H&M restocked its feminist-stamped t-shirt alongside a sweater and dress adaptation of the design. The fashion brand also released an advert aiming to challenge conventions of femininity by featuring ‘real women’ with traits including armpit hair, size models, females leaders and women of colour.

Luxury designers are also satiating demand for feminist fashion tastes for those with bigger, £580 for a t-shirt, kinda budgets. When Dior’s ‘We should all be feminists’ tee hit the NYFW SS17 runway (ironically adorned by a skinny, youthful, pale-skin model), it became the season’s in-demand piece. Celebs including Rhianna, Jennifer Lawrence and Natalie Portman were spotted in it.

On the surface, fashion’s pro-feminist wears are revolutionary in the context of a fashion system and popular culture historically permeated by patriarchy. Mass media representations and popular culture images maintain the status quo. And, for decades, dominant values perpetuated by those images have implicitly taught women that we’ll fair best by diligently conforming to the feminine ideal – which goes something like “shut up, look pretty, smile and don’t challenge”.

In the past, feminism has received a bad rap in the media. It poses too great a risk to the patriarchal regime that the mainstream media is founded on, and so, has been subject to misleading narratives like feminism being headed by bitter, man-hating women.

It’s only recently that portrayals of the movement have made a swift U-turn, making ‘feminist’ fashion such a cause for curiosity.

For decades, fashion has been in contention with feminism. As a female-dominated industry and marketplace it offers women economic opportunity, yet, it’s paradoxically critiqued for its oppressive and disempowering ways too.

The system is complicit in perpetuating images of the ideal woman as skinny, white, able-bodied and very, very thin. It defines what she should do, look like and how she should behave. This is a machine that’s kept us on a never-ending treadmill toward unattainable beauty. Those messages embed in our minds, batter our self-esteem and ultimately limit our experience of the world which is fundamentally anti-feminist.

As is the industry’s history of outsourcing supply to factories in developing countries. Often, retailers turn a blind eye to the consequences or don’t interrogate conditions well enough. And it’s women who pay the price. The majority of garment-makers are women, paid minimum wage and suffer deadly and dire working conditions.

So, by definition, the fashion industry cannot be feminist. The system is a capitalist institution built on cyclical trends that psychologically dupe us into perpetual consumption. It churns out visual pleasure and newness leaving us incessantly hungry for more. It creates an illusion of empowerment where the pleasure we reap from new designs and the economic opportunity it offers women are all part of the capitalist trap.

For fashion to be feminist, this is the integral differentiation that must be made. The industry, the system, is constructed fundamentally for financial gains. It’s business.

Feminism is a political, social and economic movement, advocating for gender equality for all – not just some. The function of the current fashion system’s workings is incompatible with this value.

Whilst feminism’s popularity has been appropriated by designers and brands, their championing of the movement through visuals and design alone is dangerously superficial. It must go deeper. Until designers, fashion brands, retailers and their supply chains build feminism and social justice into their organisations and working practices with integrity, they cannot be feminist or support feminism.

Feminism must be integrated systemically into the foundations of brands – or into the construction of an entirely new fashion culture.