Feminism may be in fashion but the industry is anything but
This is largely a response to the i-D piece “fashioning a new feminist movement” by Sarah Mower, but it’s also something I have been thinking about for some time. The point of this post is not to simply criticize an industry I’m distant from and do not engage in. I love fashion and have a vested interest in its future, but I would be remiss if I didn’t address the issues I have with it.
Feminism is having a moment right now. I, a self-identifying feminist, am happy about this for the most part, but since part of being a feminist means also being a total buzzkill, I obviously can’t just be happy about this. Amandla Stenberg has talked about how the most visible feminism right now is white feminism. Kitty Stryker, in light of tweets from Stoya about James Deen, wrote about feminism as a brand that has become a major seller. So more exposure does not always mean better.
The fashion industry is something that has largely been for women (not necessarily by women, an important distinction to note) and third-wave feminism, especially right now, has goals like abolishing gender roles and stereotypes, including embracing and valuing the typically ‘feminine’ as opposed to simply acting like a man—so it’s not altogether surprising that if fashion were to ever have a feminist moment, this would be it.
This notion was never more visible than when Karl Lagerfeld sent a flurry of models down the street in Chanel’s spring line yelling from megaphones and carrying signs with quintessential feminist rhetoric. You know, stuff like “history is her story” and Simone de Beauvoir quotes.
The problem is that the fashion industry, even right now, is not feminist. It does not matter how many Cara Delevignes, Coco Rochas, or others spouting things like “we need more diversity and to celebrate all women!” They’re still ultimately cogs in an anti-feminist machine. So why isn’t fashion feminist? And why don’t I think it ever can be?
While feminism is not inherently anti-capitalist, it does lean that way and the fashion industry cannot survive without capitalism. It preys on women’s insecurities and bodies in order to sell. We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we do not look good enough, are not good enough…but we could be close if we had this one thing. Feminism is about acceptance and body positivity, something the industry knows nothing about.
On that note, fashion designers and the industry as a whole will bend themselves into a pretzel in order to suck their own dick for figuring out that gender is a social construct and we don’t need to conform to it. Yet, rebuking the similarly constructed beauty ideal is somehow lost on them. For every Barbie Ferreira or Tess Holliday, there are heaps more straight sized, thin women. For every Fei Fei Sun or Aya Jones, there are—quite literally—catwalks of white women.
14 out of Models.com’s Top 50 Models and only four of their 16 Legends are women of color. None are plus sized.
In fact, only three plus sized models are seen on any of their lists: Kate Upton, Ashley Graham, and Candice Huffine. All are white. Even androgyny (that whole rebuking of the gender binary thing) is always done in the same way: skinny white women with sharp jawlines and undercuts wearing suits.
The common labor practices of the fashion industry are a feminist’s nightmare. Factories (that could likely collapse at any moment) are full of underpaid, undervalued workers, and I am sure it’s not surprising that most of them are women. Are these women benefitting from fashion’s “feminism”? No. As a matter of fact, they’re suffering for it. While I am aware that not every company does this (Everlane is a pretty standout example when it comes to radical transparency and ethical labor sourcing; American Apparel, while certainly addled with all kinds of problematic behaviors, has always been “sweatshop free” and made in LA), the ones who don’t are the outliers. So if the industry is doing anything feminist, its feminism is clearly for upper and middle class, (likely) white women.
Even the Chanel S/S 2015 show is not what it seems. Lagerfeld is commodifying feminism and removing anything “unsellable” from it so that it is just pretty women walking down a street, but their message has no real teeth. They’re not actually doing anything real to make the world, or even their own industry, more feminist. The timing is also meaningful: amid protests, rallies, and movements; it’s now “cool” to be (or at least appear) politically active.
I’m not saying that the industry hasn’t made strides over time; it certainly has. And not everyone in the industry is oblivious to both its successes and its failures. I also understand that no feminist is automatically a perfect feminist. Many of us better our feminism over time. But fashion hasn’t done enough to call itself feminist and it still operates within the inherently anti-feminist capitalist framework. The white, Western patriarchal society we live is going to be dismantled by someone else. Fashion is about profiting from the ideals of society—it will not be here that the ideals are changed.