If you wander down a high street in Britain or take a look at the increasingly commercial world of Instagram you’ll be bombarded with a heady stream of fast, throwaway fashion. I’ve recently been struck by the prevalence of what I’ll call ‘feminist-y fashion’: shops now carry items baring the bold EMPOWER WOMEN, the solidaric Girl Crew, and the strangely ‘identifying’ Femme, Her, and a crop top with a pair of crudely drawn breasts. I admit was particularly drawn to the items which directly referenced ‘pussies’ and periods in Swedish clothing retailer Monki’s Carnaby Street store… I’m sure lots of people (unwarrantedly) think those things are gross, and I’m more than willing to make such people feel uncomfortable.
[From top left clockwise to bottom right: Topshop, Topshop, Monki, Monki, H&M].
Great – we need more feminists! Instinctively, we might think the commercialisation of feminism and feminist fashion should be embraced. Fashion either follows existing trends – in which case we should be glad that people are already into their feminism. Or fashion informs future trends – in which case, brilliant: people are going to be encouraged, by fashion, to outwardly identify themselves as feminists. (Really, fashion has both these functions.) But this view of the power, usage, and consequences of feminist-y fashion is just too simplistic.
Perhaps adorning yourself in feminist-y fashion is merely a way to signify to others that you are part of some in-group. You might think that yes wearing such fashions functions ‘merely’ in this way, but that nonetheless this should be embraced as the in-group is now a feminist in-group. Being a feminist is now cool and so people will want to become one!
Not so fast. There remains two glaring problems. Firstly, the wearing of a t-shirt isn’t really doing anything. It’s entirely possible to wear a feminist-y t-shirt and hold misogynist views and/or act on these misogynistic views – either conscious of your hypocrisy or not. Feminism has a long history of radical beliefs and enacting radical change, and the feminist fight is not yet over. (If you don’t believe me – give British rape prosecution rates, worldwide pay gap statistics, or how many men there are called David compared to women in top CEO positions a quick little Google). Yet if feminism is reduced to signifying oneself as part of the in-group of fashionable feminists through the mere act of wearing the right outfit… Then we are able to claim we are part of the fight for justice without really doing anything at all. It is entirely possible to already be a feminist and then wear a feminist-y t-shirt, but there’s a problem with just wearing a feminist-y t-shirt.
Secondly, fashions change. Perhaps next year misogyny will be in fashion – a bold, fanciful claim (I hope) – but not unthinkable. Indeed the latest decal trends of cacti and avocados are already beginning to eclipse feminism as the flavour of the season. If reduced to merely a fashion statement, feminism could be so yesterday: just like millennial pink (keep up).
Moreover, there is something deeply ironic about fast-fashion retailers, which are environmentally devastating and vulnerability-exploiting, selling us the feminist label. Take H&M as an example. They had the greatest number of feminist-y fashion items of all the stores I looked at: Girls Rule the World, not your baby, GIRLS SUPPORT GIRLS. Yet they have been rocked by claims that children as young as 14 were being forced to work for as little as 13p an hour in a Myanmar factory which supplies them, leading to a violent labour protest in March of this year. The good reasons we have for being feminists are also the reasons we should fight this kind of exploitation. Feminists believe people are equal regardless of some morally irrelevant features of themselves, i.e. sex or gender, and we should concurrently believe that just because you live in a less economically developed country does not mean you deserve to be exploited.
Furthermore, the link between vulnerability, exploitation, and the environment has long been discussed by people much more qualified than me. Here I am merely going to highlight two worrying facts.
In a world where one in ten people do not have access to clean water and climate change is as real a threat as ever, we should be asking ourselves: do I need that next fashionable t-shirt from H&M? I’m not saying we have to wear rags forever (or maybe we ought to), but we should at least be conscious in our clothing choices, and we should be aware of the hypocrisy of consuming throwaway fashion which self-congratulates us on our feminism. So we see that feminist-y items which are borne of throwaway fashion culture directly and indirectly exploit the most vulnerable people and women: and these groups are often one and the same.
I’ve been using the words feminist and feminism(s) without even saying what these might mean. It’s difficult – people have often argued over what feminism is or what feminisms there are. What we can say is that feminism(s) are not a fashion statement – nor are they empty concepts, nor reducible to one snappy statement on an exploitatively made t-shirt. Minimally, feminism is a belief in certain things: perhaps that everyone is equal, or perhaps that women should have the same rights or opportunities as men. But it might even be more than that, it might be having these beliefs and doing something, taking action, based on these beliefs. Either way, it is clear that feminism(s) cannot merely be wearing a t-shirt with the word Feminism emblazoned across it. In fact, as we’ve seen, buying and producing these t-shirts might be deeply unfeminist after all.
And now a confession. I may have one of these t shirts. I have a shirt with GIRLS emblazoned on the front from Urban Outfitters. I bought it just before the latest wave of feminist-y t-shirts came out (hipster, I know). Do I wear this? Yes, it’s cool. Do I also feel a bit lame wearing it, because of all the problems identified? Also, yes. Am I going to stop wearing it? No – it cost me thirty quid (but I promise to not buy any more).