Despite having a predominantly female consumer base, the business of fashion is mostly run by men at executive levels. Then there is the ultra-skinny body image glorification. So is it possible for fashion and feminism to go hand in hand?
An industry that appears luxurious and empowering on the surface can be cruel and manipulative on the inside, especially for women working in the early stages of fashion production. Every time a designer decides to support feminism through their collections and runway shows, people question whether the fashion industry is truly invested in the feminist cause or just another passing trend on the fast-paced fashion world.
Last year, Maria Grazia Chiuri, who previously worked at Valentino, was appointed Creative Director of Christian Dior, making her the first women in charge of the fashion house in its 70-year existence. She celebrated the accomplishment during her first fashion show sending a model down the runway wearing a slogan t-shirt saying “we should all be feminists”; this was the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous essay about feminism in the 21st century. The Dior feminist fashion show comes after Karl Lagerfeld’s runway feminist protest for the Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 collection, where models stepped out with megaphones while carrying signs with words like “ “He for She” and “History is Her story”.
THROUGH THE YEARS
The first women who stood up for their rights in the UK founded what came to be known as the famous “Suffragette Movement” led by Emmeline Pankhurst. A large group of women who fought for the rights of women to vote, were workers at garment factories and the textile sector; where underpaid women had to endure abuse and extremely long hours. This happened over 100 years ago and sadly, it is still an issue in many countries around the world. Today, 80% of factory workers are women and most high-street brands factories are located in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, where misogynistic behaviour is endured by hard working women on a daily basis; and to make matters worse — according to the Clean Clothing Campaign, a non-lucrative organisation, the women who make clothes for retail giants like Zara and H&M work up to 96 hours per week, not earning more than £1.5 per day.
A Bangladeshi factory worker told the Clean Clothing Campaign, “Women can be made to dance like puppets, but men cannot be abused in the same way. The owners do not care if we ask for something, but demands raised by the men must be given some consideration. So they do not employ male workers”. Women in these factories constantly suffer physical and verbal abuse, as well as sexual harassment. Suddenly that sweater with a £15 price tag doesn’t seem very appealing anymore, does it?
The habit of giving men the position of power does not happen only in factories but in the entire fashion industry. Men, especially on the executive levels, dominate top roles across all areas of business. Take LVMH for example — a corporate group that owns several major fashion houses like Céline and Louis Vuitton, has 10 men and only one woman on their executive committee. Last year Bussiness of Fashion, a renowned website which engages with the fashion industry, conducted a survey of 50 major fashion brands to find out that only 14% were run by a woman, which is ironic considering that the business targets mainly women as consumers. Despite having talented people like Stella McCartney, Sarah Burton at McQueen and Phoebe Philo at Céline, women are still a minority. The Artistic Director at Sonia Rykiel, Julie de Libran told BoF “It is an industry directed by men, and when a choice is between a man and a woman, the men always comes first.”
However, the recent appointment of Bouchra Arrar at Lanvin and Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior as creative directors, is an optimistic sign. Kering, another large corporate group that owns brands such as Gucci and Saint Laurent, is slowly incorporating more women at the top levels; today their executive committee has 10 men and 4 four women making the most crucial decisions. There is still a long road towards equality, but these changes give us a future to look forward.
the perfect body
There is also the idea of ultra-thinness that the fashion industry has been promoting for years, and this is nothing other than unacceptable. Women are constantly pressured to put beauty above anything else, and spend a great deal of time trying to emulate size 6 cover girls, with “perfect” skin tones and body shapes. This kind of perfectionist ideals support the objectification of women as a beautiful accessory or a price to be won, and has led to 1.4 million women suffering from eating disorders in the UK.
On a positive side, this is one of the areas in fashion that is going through some changes, and considered long overdue. At last season’s London Fashion Week, The Women’s Equality Party launched a campaign titled #NoSizeFitsAll, which aims to pressure the British Fashion Council and designers to show at least two sample sizes of UK 12 or above. The campaign also encourages magazines to have at least one plus-size spread per issue and ensure the teaching of body image classes in schools.
Plus-size models — with bodies that resemble the ones of average women, are slowly being introduced to the high fashion world. Ashley Graham, one of the most well-known plus-size models, has been named the cover of January’s edition of British Vogue; and recently Mattel launched a Barbie with Graham’s measurements to encourage a positive and healthy body image for little girls. Women come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and cannot be defined just by their weight and other superficial characteristics.
There is no doubt that fashion is a contemporary feminist issue. Despite great advances on the issue like the introduction of women on executive floors, and the increased promotion of a healthy body image; there is still a lot to accomplish. More people are getting informed and campaigning against fast-fashion brands that exploit women in factories, however, this is an issue whose outcome remains uncertain. As Linda Scott’s brilliantly points out in her book Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism, “Feminism is not a matter of appearances. It’s about giving proper value to the various kinds of work women do, having careers wherein they are paid and promoted on par with men. It’s about restructuring our society such that youth, beauty, and sexual availability aren’t a woman’s most vital currency”. Fashion has the power and the obligation to tackle feminism and give hardworking women the respect they deserve. Beyond the glitz and glamour of this industry, Feminism and fashion can and should definitely go hand in hand.