By Emily Potts
Throughout history, the relationship between feminism and the use of fashion as a tool to create social change has been complex. Social media’s influence on our consumerism has grown massively and has helped cultivate the use of fashion for socio-political movements. The use of clothing is not simply an aesthetic form of expression, but a statement.
From the early 20th century, which saw the suffragette movement come into full force, to the present day, fashion has been used to progress the feminist agenda usually through shared symbolism. Although individuals can make political statements through their clothing, the relationship between fashion and feminism has become strained through the growing market of fast fashion.
Feminism became linked with fashion in the early 20th century, as white was the colour chosen to be worn to lead the campaign behind the suffragette movement. The use of all-white clothing, coupled with the traditional dresses of the time, meant that instead of challenging the impractical dress itself, the suffragettes appropriated the use of white as a ‘pure’ colour to counter with their apparent immorality from their opponents perspective. By using a colour rather than an outfit, it meant that anybody could join the movement, allowing for accessibility of the cause.
Women’s rights movements have been aided by the use of fashion and, fashion pieces have subsequently become symbolic. Wearing all-white and paying ode to the suffragette movement, has been a frequent choice for Democratic women in the House of Representatives.
Firstly, white outfits were seen again in this setting through the political social media movements #wearwhitetovote and #pantsuitnation, where women celebrated the choice of Hillary Clinton as the first woman as a major party’s candidate for president. Clinton herself wore a white pantsuit as she accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.
In 2019, renowned progressive member of the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chose to wear all-white whilst been sworn in, writing on Twitter that this choice was “to honour the women who paved the path before me”.
Now, Kamala Harris has made history being the first female Vice President-elect, as well as being the first woman of colour, being the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants. By wearing a white pantsuit at her first public appearance as the Vice President-elect, the wearing of all-white by political figures represents not only the ambition to reach the heights of the White House, but now stands for having reached this goal.
Although fashion allows individual women to make powerful political statements in this way, big fashion brands don’t always engage with feminism in a convincing way. Brands are continually engaging with social issues, allowing the consumer to have more of a choice in what to invest in.
However, despite their social media engagement, many brands refuse to actually make a physical change within their business model and continue to be online slacktivists.
Fast fashion is a feminist issue, albeit a complicated one. Back in March earlier this year, the campaign Labour Behind the Label reported that approximately 80% of garment workers are women aged between 18 and 35, many of which are the main earners for their families and children.
In Bangladesh, the workers have the monthly income of 5000 takas which is equivalent to £44. Not only are workers underpaid and reliant on the work, the health and safety of many women is placed at risk by their employers. The Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013, killed at least 1,132 people and left more than 2,500 injured.
Many fashion brands use political and feminist movements for commercial use, rather than acknowledging how their own companies have disproportionate negative effects on women of colour. Whilst you can fight for feminism and still buy these products due to a lack of affordable alternatives, be mindful that the companies that supply these products do not seem to share your values.
Fashion can be an aid to feminist movements and can help symbolise the need for social change, whilst simultaneously being used as a tool which undermines this very message.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr and Creative Commons.