The subject of fashion in relation to feminism has been heavily debated throughout the 21st century. Many have fought against the stifling and oppressive elements of the socially constructed notion of fashion while others have embraced its empowering qualities as a means self-expression. The question of whether ‘the woman of fashion’, as Simone De Beauvoir puts it, has ‘chosen to make herself a thing’, an object to be admired or has liberated herself through her creative choices occupies much of the feminist literature surrounding fashion. Many feminists actively protest against the unattainable beauty ideals set by fashion magazines as well as the lack of diversity in the shape, size, age and creed of models in mainstream media. In recent years movements such as the ‘Slut Walk’ in Europe and North America has sought to empower women through their choice of clothing and remove the stigma associated with dressing ‘provocatively’. While many feminists are vocal about the sexism inherent within the consumption of fashion, the issues behind the production of fashion remain largely unexplored.
Action Aid’s study ‘The Cost of Inequality in Women’s Work’ shows that at least 80% of all garment workers in developing countries are women. They are employed with no basic labour rights, often in dangerous conditions and at risk of violence or sexual abuse. Female garment workers will, on average, earn 10% to 30% less than men for the same job. Despite this, women are also responsible for a disproportionate share of unpaid domestic duties including child rearing, caring for the elderly, tending the home and feeding their families. A distinct lack of solidarity becomes apparent in light of the fact that, according to Forbes, women in rich nations also make up 85% of all consumer purchases.
In 2014, Whistles collaborated with The Fawcett Society, a charity for women’s rights to create T-shirt’s bearing the slogan ‘This is What A Feminist Looks Like’. While initially successful, the revelation that the T-shirt’s were made by women earning just 62p an hour scandalised the venture. ‘Commodity Feminism’ is a term used by Laura Harvey (lecturer from the University of Surrey) to describe the way in which the language and aspirations of feminism are being used by big corporations in an attempt to sell goods. By turning feminism into a commodity, the movement risks loosing its political power and becoming a ‘trend’ rather than a vehicle for social activism.
While the popularisation of Feminism through slogan t-shirts and merchandise highlight a positive shift towards mainstream acceptance, an understanding of the workings of the global chain of goods and it’s implications cannot be understated. Not only does the fashion industry rely on women to produce clothing, retailers also employ a female majority and target women as the main consumers of fashion. While men still dominate positions of power within the industry, women occupy the majority of junior positions and are most vulnerable to exploitation and low pay.
Any company outsourcing production to developing countries such as Bangladesh is likely to encounter some form of exploitation. Rather than create specific boycotts, consumers are advised by Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers Federation to lobby brands to take responsibility for their supply chain and offer greater transparency. The garment production industry is the largest employer of women in Bangladesh and many parts of Asia and as such is an essential part of the economy. In her article ‘Primark ‘cry for help’ labels have painted Bangladeshi women as helpless’ Tansy Hoskins suggests that instead of viewing these women as ‘passive and in need of saving by western people’, it is important that we empower them through support of trade unions and active conversations with the brands we admire.
Hoskins sites Lilla Watson of the Aboriginal Activists Group, Queensland, 1970, “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” It is essential not to shy away from our responsibility as part of a global elite to take into account suffering on a global level. The Women’s March protests, which recently swept across much of the world including North America, Europe, Mexico and Australia was the largest single demonstration in US history. Events such as these illustrate our collective power. Feminism cannot focus only on a certain society, or group if it truly wishes to stand for women’s rights.