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Why Fashion Is A Feminist Issue

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Photographed by Victoria Adamson
We’ve lost control of fashion. From the mistreated garment workers who make our clothes to the models who help sell them, the medium that once gave women voices when they had none is now a morally bankrupt money machine. At one end of the chain it perpetuates misery and mass environmental damage and at the other it encourages us to spend our disposable income on clothes that we will in turn dispose of.

Fashion Revolution is attempting to draw attention to this global problem this week (which coincidentally or not coincides with H&M’s Recycling Week) and a key point that came out of their Fashion Question Time in Parliament on Monday was this: fashion is a feminist issue. Garment workers are suffering for what is largely a female addiction. And 80% of garment workers are women.

These women have no collective bargaining power. They’re often forced to work extremely long hours, with little financial compensation. This is an area the Fashion Index (a survey of most major fashion brands' practices) picked up on, reporting their surprise upon finding that 30% of companies surveyed "do not have whistleblowing or confidential complaint mechanisms" in place for workers in their supply chain, or at least none that they mention publicly.

This means that workers have little chance to speak up about poor conditions or abuse, or may not be able to do so without fear of repercussion. No rights and no choice but to turn up and do what they’re told, for as long as they’re told to do it, for fear of losing their only source of (meagre) income.

One group of women who were able to protest for better conditions for garment workers initiated what we now know as International Women’s Day. That was over 100 years ago but for many women around the world, little has changed. Yes, fashion has brought women jobs and incremental economic advantages, but job security and workers' rights are still little more than a pipe dream.

By wearing clothes that perpetuate the mistreatment of other women, we’re no more feminist than the men who decide we should get paid less than our male counterparts. Sophie Slater, who co-founded the London-based feminist fashion brand Birdsong, says it’s crucial we remember that it’s all part of the same conversation. “We can’t campaign for equal working rights and maternity pay on the one hand and still be perpetuating this exploitative system on the other.” Birdsong’s manifesto is ‘no sweatshop, no photoshop’ and promises to only sell clothes that empower women: at every stage of production, advertising and sales.

But how, as well-educated, liberal western women (and yes, men too, but mainly women), have we ended up here? “The reason why fashion is a feminist issue is because right now the fashion business as we know it is extremely male,” suggests Fashion Revolution founder Orsola De Castro. “So it’s not surprising that something that is intrinsically as poetic as fashion – or was so poetic as fashion and so female – has changed in its nature so fast, because it’s been taken over by male business and a very different formula.”
For thousands of years, fabrics and clothing have been made by women, and women have used them to tell stories. Now a rising number of designers (like knitwear designer Katie Jones) are returning to the craft of actually making their own garments. Women are slowly reappropriating the art of making and storytelling.

For Birdsong, this is at the centre of everything they do as a business. Amongst their fifteen different suppliers from around the world, they have a group of women escaping exploitation or sex work to make clothes for a living on a good “middle class paycheck.” Then there’s the single mums making underwear in the U.S. And the elderly knitting group in London, who are paired up with amazing young designers who sell their wares for them. Those are the kind of stories our clothes should be telling.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped valuing the making part of the fashion production line, and started celebrating buying instead. As Birdsong shows, we can do both.

For Orsola, this is another reason that fashion is such an important contemporary feminist issue – and it’s all tied up with consumerism. “We’ve been told all along that buying clothes is empowering” she says. “It’s not, it’s about spending money. It’s completely different to empowerment. And we’ve been told that by buying clothes, we’re empowering other women, but we’re not. We’re exploiting them.”
In the post-World War II excitement of mass production and being able to buy things again, we simply stopped caring who we gave our money to. We stopped being citizens and started seeing ourselves as consumers. And when it comes to compulsive shopping, this has affected women in particular. There’s a reason the bored, shopping addict housewife is such a cliché.“It comes from a void,” reasons Orsola. “If you think about it, women have been culturally subjugated for such a long time, so it tends to be the female who is more impulsive. We tend to do the over-eating of the chocolate. We have a cultural void to fill. Because ultimately we’ve been subjugated and relatively ignored and we want a way to be noticed. And we tend to do it in excess.”

Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco-Age, agrees: “I read something recently about how young girls on Instagram are ashamed to be seen in the same clothes twice. And you think, how sad is that?” She continues “as if what you wear defines you. It’s the other way around! It’s so sad – we are wearing fashion because it’s on trend, not because it says anything about who we are.”

Fashion has become an indomitable force, but one that’s given women the world over employment. Now as it continues to grow, it’s time to make that employment fair and empowering, for everyone.

You can take part in Fashion Revolution week by taking a selfie with the label of your clothes and asking brands: #WhoMadeMyClothes?
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