It’s fair to say that feminism has become somewhat ‘trendy’ across fashion catwalks of late, with the likes of Karl Lagerfeld promoting a message of gender equality at Chanel’s SS15 Paris Fashion Week show where the models staged a mock protest in support of Emma Watson’s HeforShe Campaign.
Another example of a feminist statement in the high fashion world can be seen in the work of Rick Owens. During his AW14 catwalk at PFW he was praised for showcasing his garments on muscular black females in stark contrast to the archetypal thin white woman that Western society has become so used to seeing. Even more recently, we have seen this message filtering through onto the high street with numerous high-profile manufacturers backing the movement.
UK clothing retailer, New Look, recently unveiled a t-shirt for sale on its website with the words “RESPECT WOMEN #DUMPTRUMP” emblazoned on the front. According to the company this was intended to spread a feminist message rather than a political one and, on the whole, it received a positive reaction from the public on social media. The garment was designed to make a statement about the inappropriate behaviour and sexist comments made by the current President Elect towards women.
This is not the first time a high street brand has publically endorsed the gender equality movement. In early 2016, fast fashion brand, H&M, released a tee which featured the quote “Feminism: The radical notion that women are people,” intended to poke fun at the ignorant attitudes prevalent towards females in some communities/amongst some individuals. A few years prior to this, in 2014, Whistles collaborated with ELLE to create a similar t-shirt in support of the Fawcett Society’s Campaign that brandished the phrase “this is what a feminist looks like” on the front. The top was marketed at both men and women, with various well-known faces flaunting it, from Ed Miliband to Benedict Cumberbatch.
However, the designers of this garment received criticism from the press for exploiting the female workers who manufactured it and were thereby labelled hypocrites. This is an issue that received a lot of attention in the news and raises the question “can the fast fashion industry ever truly promote feminism?” With tales of the women producing these clothes working in sweatshop conditions and earning abysmally low wages, it would be easy to accuse these companies of merely jumping on the feminism bandwagon without there being any real meaning behind their words. All the same, there are some major fast fashion retailers doing their bit to help through charity work. ‘The New Look Foundation’ works with partnerships in India, helping girls and young women access fundamental tools like education and work-based training in order to provide them with equal opportunities. Benetton launched a similar campaign towards the end of 2015 entitled the ‘Women Empowerment Programme’ which focuses on issues like healthcare, education and sustainable living. Of course even without such campaigns, the main counter-argument here is that without such jobs the women living in these poor countries would be much worse off.
Another general criticism of the fashion industry is that it encourages the objectification of women and consequently contributes to negative body image issues amongst young girls. In response to this, many high street clothing chains have extended their sizing ranges to cater for more women. A more diverse representation of ethnicities, ages and identities is also now more obvious in much high street branding. For example, H&M’s sister company, &Other Stories featured transgender models Valentijn De Hingh and Hari Nefstylist in a recent 2015 ad campaign.
Though high street fashion has been guilty of exploitation in the past, it appears to be making some tiny positive changes that are gradually making a significant difference to the lives of women in the Western world, at the very least. The promotion of positive feminist messages alongside the wider accessibility of plus size clothing in recent times has helped to break down social barriers to some extent. When it comes to the women who are manufacturing many of the garments, there is still a long way to go. However, we are seeing some strong corporate-social-responsibility initiatives being carried out by a few fast fashion retailers, hopefully paving the way for the rest.
While trends come and go, it’s important for fashion brands to remember that feminism is a movement that’s here to stay and consumers are more switched on to it now than ever before.
What do you think about feminism within high street fashion? Don’t forget to tweet us @santmagazine with your thoughts.
Words: Kate Dooley
Hashtags: #feminism #fastfashion #highstreet #ethicalshopping #plussize #diversity #sweatshops #heforshe #equality #emmawatson