Saturday, 21 January 2012

On Why Fashion is not Feminist

A big chunk of the style blogosphere has been tackling the complicated relationship between fashion and feminism for some time. Feminist Fashion Bloggers have written one interesting post after another, and the current must-read is the article threadbared's Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote for Ms. Magazine.

The unlikely marriage between fashion and feminism is one of those weird, interwoven arrangements that don't quite make sense, but where strong connections and connotations exist nevertheless. Fashion is frivolous, fun, serious, and meaningful to a lot of women, including myself. On the one hand the framework of fashion creates unrealistic demands for what women should look like and how they should behave, but on the other, it also gives women the power to use fashion as means to an end. (Minh-Ha T. Pham's article resonates this power beautifully, so I will not dwell on that.) However, almost by definition the notion of feminism doesn't sit all that well with the level of fluidity and flux associated with fashion: after all, feminism is more than an idea. It is a project and a movement whose purpose is to create and defend equal social, economic and political rights for women. When it comes to what feminism really aims to achieve, the world of fashion is a big complicated lump of consumer-driven identity politics and business, post-colonial hypocricy and active wrong-doing.

The framework where fashion meets feminism goes far beyond the notion of the consumer who uses fashion to suit her purposes and her quest for gender equality. We like to think of fashion as an inspirational, expressive platform for our feminist identities, and in this scenario, we are the women feminism talks about. What we fail to see is that we are on top of a pyramid of women, that issues global feminism must face are ugly and complicated, and that as fashionable feminists and consumers of fashion we establish demand for women to be subjugated and abused elsewhere. We conveniently forget that fashion employs thousands upon thousands of women and girls in sweatshop conditions in the developing world - women who work 14-hour days 7 days a week, women who often get paid subsistent wages if they are lucky, women who work in deplorable conditions so that we can get our fashion fix. We fail to ask ourselves: when we talk about women, fashion and feminism, where do those women fit in? I readily confess that I spent years not asking that question, and there are still times when I shy away from asking it out loud.

I have written about sweatshop labour elsewhere so I will not repeat the sad facts and figures about sweatshops and how deeply connected every aspect of clothing production, be it low-end or high-end, is to sweatshop practices. But I will say that sweatshop policies and feminism are at polar opposites when it comes to talking about rights and equality. Yet fashion production, fashion consumerism and identity politics belong to the same process: the process where clothes are manifactured, sold, worn as identity markers, and eventually disgarded. Regardless of the ideological aspect of using clothing as tools of power in the consumerist Western world, within that same process there is oppression of women elsewhere. That oppression can a) go unnoticed, b) get noticed - and then we shrug our shoulders and move on -, or c) make people act. Unfortunately, a large chunk of fashionable feminists will fall into the second category, where sure, we see the oppression of women elsewhere, but since it's not in our backyard, we choose to look elsewhere and keep buying, because we can't bear to face the reality. I've been there just like everyone else has. We don't like to think that perhaps our feminism is very limited in its scope, that perhaps it only has a white face, or that yes, in theory we do think that sweatshops are horrible, but those clothes are so darn cute and we can't resist them, or, damn, as working women we have the right to spend our money in whatever we want. Because we like to think that that's a part of our feminist vision: that we get to act as proud consumers of the money we have earned, regardless of who pays the price.

When we think of ourselves as fashionable feminists, or when we choose to see fashion as a powerful tool in shaping what it means to be a woman, which women are we talking about? Well, it's pretty obvious that we are not talking about the women who sew our clothes. We are not talking about the teenage girls who pick the cotton our clothes are made of. So could it be that fashion remains deeply anti-feminist after all? It is a framework of exclusion rather than inclusion. It is a playground where racism and colonialist thought rages on. There is nothing feminist about that, and until fashion consumers everywhere reject the idea of using cheap female labour in developing countries, it will remain so.


Esmeralda Baltazar said...

I love this article. I work for Fuerza Unida in San Antonio, TX., women formed their own sewing collective soon to be cooperative, and use the money to maintain a community based not-for-profit that empowers women and their families to achieve economic, environmental and social justice...there are examples of fashion being taken back for good. The organization was started after Levi's Strauss moved their sweatshop to Costa Rica from the U.S. in 1990.

Robin said...

Thank you for posting this. I admit to falling in the camp of feminists that know sweatshops are terrible, but I buy cheap clothes anyway. But you have inspired me to think harder about this issue and make smarter choices from now on.

Anonymous said...

Well, I buy my "cheap" clothes second hand, so that IS a step in the right direction, though I confess to feeling a bit powerless beyond that. And when I ponder the problem, what can I do to improve working conditions for women in sweatshops abroad, are my expectations of working conditions there the same that their own expectations are. Changes in working conditions likely need to start from within those sweatshops.

Rad in BK said...

You are amazing. I agree with you completely. But at the same time, I disagree with consumer politics as a politics in and of itself. I mean, one or two or 200 consumers making conscious choices are not even a 1/100 of a drop in the proverbial bucket, if it is merely done as a way to promote individual ethics and self-satisfaction. There needs to be something more conscious, organized, and articulated in conjunction with individual actions and moments of protest.
In the meantime, we can donate to International Labor Rights Funds, which provides resources for women in the "Global South" to do seek to advocate for themselves.

Ily said...

I really like this post. About 2 years ago, I read "No Logo", and it has a chapter that talks in detail about sweatshops. I'd known they were bad, but until reading that book, I had no real image of them in my mind. I don't have a lot of money to spend, so I try to thrift clothes rather than going to places like H&M. Beyond that though, I'm not sure what I can do to help. Yesterday, a friend told me that eating ethically was more important to her than individual foods, and I thought of this post. I think the same idea could be applied to fashion--like dressing ethically could be more important than having specific garments. I'd like to adopt that kind of philosophy, but I'm not quite there yet.