Can Fashion and Feminism be Reconciled?

June 14, 2016
Can Fashion and Feminism be Reconciled?

It was a shoot in west London. I turned up with my suitcase full of garments and gear, meeting the rest of the team for the first time. The model was there with a chaperone.  She was from America. She was 15 years old. It wasn’t a provocative shoot; there was no lingerie, risqué poses or sexual implication but this was a womenswear shoot and here was a child modelling in it. I asked her if she’d like a private area to change, she said no. She was confident, professional and harboured an other-worldly type of beauty that I would have dreamed of as an awkward 15 year old. She looked great, the photos looked great, but I didn’t feel great. Dressing up a child and calling it womenswear felt irresponsible.

That wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling. Throughout my career I’ve often felt the weight of irresponsible representation within the fashion industry; I’ve felt uneasy with its standard practices, felt out of step with its ideals. Can you consume the product of, or indeed be a part of, an industry that is in so many ways at odds with your belief system? Do you attempt to change it? Avoid its most disagreeable sectors? Boycott it altogether?

Even if you’re not, as I am, on the industry’s payroll, it’s not an easy one to opt out of. No matter how little you care about trends or fashion week, most of us consume fashion daily. Whether it’s your new dress from Topshop, the latest issue of Grazia or an ad on the side of a bus, it seeps into our everyday lives. Fashion is kind of a forced participation deal.

(If you still insist you do not engage with fashion, I defer here to Miranda Priestly and her ‘Cerulean Blue’ speech. I’m telling you: forced participation.)

From the outside you’d be forgiven for thinking the fashion industry has become a feminist haven. We’re celebrating body diversity! Beyoncè has got a collection out! We’ve got women of colour fronting our campaigns! Zara released an ‘ungendered’ collection! But dig just a little deeper, and I’m talking millimetres deeper, and the whole picture becomes a little less clean cut. 

As an intersectional feminist on a mission to educate myself as much as possible on the history and current reality of the movement, I’m often troubled by my position in the fashion industry and I’ve tasked myself with finding a place within it from where I can reconcile my views and belief system with the career that I love. The problem with this is that the issues within the industry can’t be pinned on any one sector. They run through it, wound around the glamour and the creativity; stealthily undermining its participants with a not so subtle undercurrent of elitism, whiteness, thinness and sexuality.

When it’s such a fight to separate an industry from its deeply ingrained problems, it’s easy to feel resigned to the way things are, not to question things. After all, it’s difficult enough to secure a paying job in the fashion world without criticising the very structure you want to become a part of. However, slowly and surely people are starting to speak up and it’s causing a shift. But that shift is happening at an often imperceptible pace.

Let’s take a look, firstly, at racial diversity, or lack thereof. Vetements, the fashion collective of that DHL t-shirt fame, has been heralded for reinvigorating fashion week with its rebellious spirit and ‘haute streetwear’ aesthetic; Suzy Menkes referred to the label as “radical” in her review of their AW16 show and Dazed declared the collective to be “defiantly tearing up the rules”. But every single model that walked down the catwalk at that show was white. As were all the models at Balenciaga; the French luxury fashion house now helmed by Vetements’ own Demna Gvasalia. Vetements and Gvasalia respectively have been lauded as the future of the fashion industry. The model line ups did, eventually, cause a furore, but not before Gvasalia had received industry-wide praise for his ‘revolutionary’ work.

For an industry which supposedly sets the zeitgeist, fashion falls woefully behind on its representation of women of colour. A quick headcount of the main board of one of the world’s leading model agencies shows that of nearly 150 models, 87% are white. Similarly, a study of the amount of white models cast at fashion month shows it remains hovering around the 80% mark season after season.

When discussing the issue with Sonia Wan, an assistant editor based in Hong Kong, she said, “I do think designers have a responsibility to think about representation in order to create a more inclusive industry.” She also believes that part of the problem can be attributed to a lack of diversity within art schools. Speaking about Manchester School of Art, where she studied, she said, “Even though Manchester is an ethnically diverse city, it’s not represented within its art school students.” This lack of diversity goes beyond the wall of art schools and into the largest fashion houses and the most prominent publications. It permeates the industry as a whole and whilst this continues to be the case, whiteness will always be pushed as the norm. Wan commented that, “It’s only due to my own multicultural background that I am more aware of representation”, but how long can our editors, stylists, PRs, and casting agents continue to feign ignorance?

When said editors and others do make attempts to be inclusive, it’s often under the guise of a celebratory issue, campaign or shoot. The likes of Vogue Italia’s Black Issue and Plus Size Fashion Week are subject to a great deal of debate. Are they really celebrating diversity? Are they exclusionary? Is any exposure better than none? Photographer, Jade Sukiya, has conflicting feelings: “It’s a catch 22. Inclusivity is better than segregation and exclusivity [but this] separates us into different categories.” Others such as textile artist, Leigh Bowser, feel that the industry’s attempts at inclusivity are no more than lip service. On the subject of plus size branding she said: “I don’t understand why it is seen as radical because a woman wearing [a bikini] has curves. Clothing is clothing. ‘Plus size’ women are entitled to wear the same clothing as others, they just aren’t given the option.”

Much like racial diversity, designers are slow to eschew the uniform sample size body type, perpetuating the ideal of women as white, thin, hairless and highly sexualised. They disregard the spending power of women who don’t fit within those ideals, excluding a shocking percentage of women from enjoying fashion. “As a woman who has struggled with my weight since I was about 17, I would argue that I don’t find fashion fun”, student adviser Jess Popplewell tells me. “I know women my size and bigger who do, but I know a lot more women in my position too, who feel like we don’t deserve to spend money on a really pretty dress…because we’re too fat to wear it ‘properly’.”

This loops almost directly back to my initial story. Why are we holding up children’s bodies as the epitome of what it is to be a woman? Is the reality of our bodies unpalatable? That’s certainly the message many girls grow up with, bolstered by the advertising imagery they’re subjected to daily. As womenswear graduate and partnership fundraiser Charlotte Matthews notes, “Many high-end designers beautify violence towards women… Dolce and Gabbana and Calvin Klein are just two brands out of many that glamorise sexual abuse. Not to mention the continuous objectification of women’s bodies in Tom Ford’s highly sexualised imagery.”

With its runway shows, style guides and editorials, fashion defines, to many, what it is to be a woman in a physical sense. And the parameters set are restrictively narrow. No matter whether the woman (or child acting as woman) is being put on a pedestal or being ‘put in her place’ by disturbingly abusive imagery, the woman is thin, she is waxed, she is bronzed, and she is usually white. That the fashion industry disregards so many women’s worth is almost laughable when you consider that women prop the industry up with not only their money but with their skill and labour.

This is one issue in particular which Jessie Shaw, a designer, feels needs to be acknowledged and addressed. “Around 80% of garment workers are women, [many of whom] work in terrible conditions for minimal pay; they don’t have sick pay or a union.” Indeed, this issue has recently come to light after the revelations surrounding the supposed ‘slave labour conditions’ under which Beyoncè’s Ivy Park collection was manufactured. Topshop claimed the collection ‘empowers women through sport’ and the backlash against this was swift and fierce once the story broke via The Sun newspaper. Whilst it emerged that the workers were, in fact, being paid above the legal minimum wage, Broadly reported that this still falls far short of the recommended living wage and that the factory employees are subject to strict curfews and are not permitted to unionise. Many were quick to chastise Beyoncè for at once championing empowerment and utilising poorly paid female garment workers to manufacture her collection. But Beyoncè cannot be singularly held to account for this as it’s a symptom of wider, ingrained problems within the industry; just at the feminist issues addressed within this piece are symptomatic of society as a whole.

It would be short sighted of me to think that issues that I find problematic within my field are happening in a vacuum. As Jess Popplewell put it, “It’s not possible to get to a point where one thing is perfectly feminist and egalitarian whilst the rest of society still isn’t.” Knowing this, however, there is still room for changes to be made from the inside. Like me, Jade Sukiya struggles to find the balance between her career and her ideas. She tackles this by harbouring an inclusive attitude towards her work and by teaming up with like-minded people: “I work with people who have the same excitement as I do to be more inclusive of varying skin colours and tones, different sizes and varying body types. Similarly, writer and illustrator Hattie Rex chooses to work with “female fronted platforms such as Sister Zine and Polyester Zine, so a lot of my audience are young feminists which steers the direction of my work on some projects.”

For many, feminism informs their body of work as a whole. This is certainly the case for stylist and photographer Jessica Gwyneth who notes, “Feminists are speaking out and it has become somewhat of a trend in itself.” For Layla Sailor, her photography work also encompasses her feminist viewpoint: “I know I like to show women in control mainly, if girls appear vulnerable it is the beauty of adolescence I like to show.” As well as her views shaping her body of work, Sailor also tries to befriend and mentor young professional photographers wherever possible, noting that women often have a different experience in the industry.

The power to change doesn’t lie solely with those who work in fashion, however. Arguably many of the changes we’ve seen have come from outside forces or industry outliers. The body positivity movement gained momentum through bloggers and Instagram, whilst the most diverse casting often comes from niche, up and coming labels. And if we’re looking at buying power, all of the women I spoke to for this article said they actively avoid shops, labels or designers who have ethics, produce advertising, or utilise manufacturing methods which are at odds with their views.

Change comes when we question the norm and choose to defy it. For my part, I can speak out against the norm, I can question the casting process, I can use designers who support fair pay, and I can do more to address diversity within my own portfolio.

Fashion and feminism don’t represent the most harmonious of partnerships but withdrawing from it completely will only serve to let the problem stagnate. Feminist voices in every facet of every industry are vital to furthering the cause so, whilst we’ve still got a long way to go, it’s our duty to speak up and ensure the fashion industry hears and acknowledges our voices.

Image credits – Photography: Jessica Gwyneth, Collage: Izzy Whiteley, Project: That’s What She Said

This piece was originally written for Sistrhood.

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