Feminism in Fashion
Slogan tees: feminist act or feminist fad?
By Louise Gilligan
Illustration by Carmela Tzigana
When walking down a high street or through shopping centres today, it’s a normal sight to see shop windows plastered pink with 'feminist' slogan t-shirts and accessories.
‘GRLPWR’ and ‘The Future is Female’ are among many of the seemingly pro-female mottos that have taken the fashion world by storm. Was it Karl Lagerfeld’s mock feminist protest finale, from the Chanel S/S15 runway, that made feminism fashionable or has the fashion world finally started paying attention to the fight of women worldwide? From Dior to Forever 21, brands have been jumping on the feminism bandwagon rapidly over the past few years. But is sporting a slogan tee a ‘feminist’ act? Or do we need more action than pink proclamations splashed across our high streets?
Some brands have indeed put action behind these highly demanded slogan clothing items. Take Monki for example, who for International Women’s Day this year connected items from their ‘Salut Sisterhood’ edit to charity donations for projects such as The Cup organisation. Or on a high end scale, in 2016 Dior released a t-shirt with the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s feminist essay ‘WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS’. The proceeds of which went to Rihanna’s charity the 'Clara Lionel Foundation’. However, the tee, priced at a stupefying $710, is in no way accessible to the general public. So what’s the next best thing if you want to take part in proudly sporting a feminist view in your day to day at an affordable price? The high street. Since so many clothing items are now being produced cheap and cheerfully, the feminist message can now be spread far and wide by the majority of the public. But does simply showing a seemingly pro-female message necessarily invoke action for feminist causes?
The mass production of these mantras and quotes waters down and even trivialises the words from prominent feminist causes.
For example, ‘The Future is Female’ was originally printed on t-shirts for the opening of Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York. The commercialisation of the phrase separates the words from the history of the lesbian separatist movement in the 70's. Through their mass production, high street retailers are attempting to separate feminism from politics, something which is near impossible. Especially with the now heightened awareness of the poor working conditions and low wages of the people, primarily young women of colour, who make these products.
Although the garment industry’s workers’ inhumane and dangerous working conditions have become the norm in today’s fast fashion world, the irony that comes with these feminist slogan tees is deafening. One of the most ironic calling outs was the feminist t-shirt campaign from the collaborated ELLE magazine, Whistles and gender equality organisation The Fawcett Society. Celebrities and politicians proudly donned the ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ tee for photo ops before claims emerged that the contracted garment workers were paid 62p an hour. The treatment of garment workers is surely a feminist issue, so sporting a pink ‘girl power’ tee doesn’t seem to be a feminist act for these women. In many ways, the feminism that these tees present, is by no means an inclusive feminism. In fact, it embodies a white feminism in which marginalised women are disregarded and ignored.
This is just one example of thousands of retailers using workers in not guaranteed fair factory conditions to churn out feminist slogans. The irony continues from the women in the production line to the infrastructure of the retailers themselves. The CEOs of major retailers, Topshop (Ian Grabiner) and H&M (Karl-Johan Persson) for example, are all male. And the figures of gender pay gaps, released by fashion retailers in 2018, demonstrate that women continue to be paid less. It appears to be that these slogan tees and accessories are benefitting the capitalist patriarchy under the guise of a now trendy 'feminism'.
However, slogan tees can be effective when related to a specific campaign or issue.
During the movement against Ireland’s anti-abortion Eight Amendment, the Abortion Rights campaign sold and continue to sell tees, stickers and badges printed with ‘REPEAL’ and ‘Free, Safe, Legal’. All proceeds go towards the campaign. In this sense, wearing these particular slogan tees is a feminist act - sending a strong message to the government in defence of women’s rights and taking action by financially supporting a cause.
This is far more effective than an empty and vague ‘GRLPWR’. The watered down phrases fail to represent a serious movement which actually strives for change of the socio-political and economical injustices that women face around the world. The tees aim to appeal to a large market with a palatable, pink feminism, but what retailers forget is that the issues that feminism aims to address cannot be summed up in a cute motto. Making feminism into a fashion trend or an accessory overlooks and devalues the issues that women, especially of colour, face all around the world. So, chucking on that ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ tee does not automatically make you a feminist I’m afraid.
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