The connection between fashion and feminism has a long and complex history that marks ambiguous compatibility between the two. We cannot endeavour to objectively resolve such a compounded debate with many factors to consider, but rather, recognise that fashion can be reconciled with both feminist and anti-feminist values.
To discern the compatibility between feminism and fashion, note the distinction between how fashion can be considered a form of art and an empowering bodily practice, and how fashion is consumed and produced within an exploitative and oppressive system.
Within the 19th century, unnecessary discomfort such as the restrictive corset constituted female clothing, symptomatic of women’s lack of socio-economic autonomy of the time. Spanning generations in which the developments of both feminism and fashion have influenced one another in various ways, there exists an autonomy to express oneself through fashion in the twenty-first century unlike any other period before.
The evolution of the Feminist movement.
Over the past few decades, we have witnessed feminism develop and shift meaning gradually through time, often resulting from significant socio-political events causing a shift in thought and ideas. The Feminist movement is still evolving today, attaching itself to a plurality of different cultural understandings with equality as its fundamental aim. So with the significance of the Me Too Movement and the awareness of sexual harassment, the fight against workplace discrimination, a focus on systematic inequalities and the demand that our feminism is intersectional, how exactly do we understand fourth-wave feminism in the twenty-first century?
Livia Van Heerde, an environmental and social justice influencer, believes feminism to be “every person – no matter their gender – [making] an effort to eliminate discrimination, unequal treatment or unequal opportunities based on gender presumptions. Whether it is speaking out when injustice is happening or acting as a role model, everyone can do their part to achieve gender equality.”
We live in a feminist era that reconciles feminism with the enjoyment of what is stereotypically understood to be feminine (the fashion industry included in this), removing the old anti-feminist belief that viewed such feminine pursuits as oppressive regimes functioning to perpetuate female oppression.
On an individualistic level, women can utilise fashion as a means to serve and empower themselves and their bodies. We have seen fashion become a symbol of empowerment and self-expression to express and uplift oneself and each other. Within contemporary society, fashion has been utilised as another medium to communicate a particular message, as a means to protest and to resist unequal political movements. Feminism does not just embrace fashion, but fashion now embraces feminism too. To quote Caroline Rush, the Chief Executive of the British Fashion Council, fashion can “be an experiment with appearances that challenges cultural meanings.”
“When the system is killing us, we must change it”
Despite the progress fashion has made, there is more to be done. We cannot ignore that some sectors of the fashion industry are undoubtedly exploitative and oppressive. Far too many companies participate in unsustainable practices, undertaking fast fashion as a business model.
The production of fast fashion is part of the global capitalist system that operates as one of the most exploitative workplaces. Fast fashion constitutes a violation of human rights for garment working, including inhumane working conditions and miserable wages, approximately 80% women.
The equal treatment of women is incompatible with the brutal working conditions that exist within fast fashion production. Livia Van Heerde adds that to her, feminism “means that female garment workers and other women in the fashion supply chain receive the same rights as anyone else”.
Monika Poppy, who works in sustainability, recognises that “women are slowly progressing into positions of power which are continuing the coming year” and “what’s great to see is that most sustainable brands are set up by women”. However, Poppy also comments on the structural inequalities within the production of unsustainable fashion:
“I hope that there will be more equality in the field of factory ownership. The unethical trade that currently exists and takes advantage of women is more often than not owned by men. I think there would be a significant change in the treatment of workers if more women were the ones owning these garment factories”.
So does an individual’s love of fashion, their consumerist behaviours and their indulgence in the fashion industry make them anti-feminist? Absolutely not. As Livia Van Heerde tells us, “fashion and feminism can be compatible, but there is a lot to be done”.
There is a lot to be done. Fashion is an important tool in cultural meaning, self-expression and socio-political change, yet this is redundant if the debate does not address how the system of fashion and the inequalities that it produces must change.
Images: Getty Images, Dior, Solidarity Center/Sifat Sharmin Amita