By Shannon Carey
The link between fashion and Feminism is one that has appeared throughout history – from the liberation of women in the 1920’s, represented by flapper dresses and short hairstyles, to the mini-skirt revolution of the 1960’s, coinciding with second wave Feminism. While fashion has often reflected the development of Feminist politics, 2017 has seen fashion embrace female power in an entirely new way. Earlier this year at arguably one of the most prestigious events in the fashion industry, New York Fashion Week, the catwalks displayed models sporting not their typical elegant dresses and avant-garde creations, but simple t-shirts bearing Feminist slogans from the likes of Dior. High-street stores have begun to replicate this trend, with companies such as Topshop showcasing T-shirts adorned with the female gender symbol, as well as the aforementioned slogans such as “Females of the Future” and “Babes Unite”. To some, these may just be T-shirts, however, this new trend highlights a change in the relationship between Feminism and fashion. Fashion is no longer just a reflection of Feminist movements, but instead Feminism has morphed into fashion.
‘Feminism’ historically has been treated as a dirty word by the majority of people (particularly those who are not politically engaged) and internet spaces in particular often seem to reflect an antiquated perception of Feminism. Anyone who has ever deigned to even mention the ‘f’-word on social media will be able to describe to you the backlash they’ve received from so-called ‘Menists’, online trolls and other commentators. ‘Feminist’ has become synonymous with terms such as ‘Feminazi’ and ‘man-hater’, showing that for many, the Feminist ideal isn’t a welcome one. With such a backlash, it’s hardly surprising that some women shun the label ‘Feminist’. Only a few years ago, there was a trend of female celebrities distancing themselves from Feminist ideology, with big names such as Kaley Cuoco, Shailene Woodley and Lana Del Rey all publicly refusing to call themselves Feminists. While their reasons for this were varied, and while they all still advocated the need for equality, the refusal to associate themselves with Feminism spoke volumes: for these women, Feminism was a negative label, and something to play down quickly. For a long time, this was the common trend, with the ‘Feminism’ label being associated with hard-line activists, rather than the ordinary girl on the street wanting to be equal with her male acquaintances. That is, until the fashion houses stepped in and reclaimed Feminism for their own.
This new trend of Feminist fashion is welcome for many reasons. Rather than being hidden away, the confidence with which female consumers go out and purchase ‘Feminist’ clothing items suggests identifying a Feminist is no longer a source of shame. Now that women are consumers with spending power in their own right, they can chose to invest in products which speak to them. Therefore, as fashion reflects the world around us, brands create products to cater to the world their female customers live in. Judging by the popularity of ‘Feminist fashion’, this can be a method of empowerment for women and girls alike.
Of course, as with most things, there is a controversial side to the Feminist trend. Whether it’s Tamagotchis, Pokemon Go or butterfly clips from the 1990s, we all know that trends rarely last. While it’s great to see Feminism featured in fashion now, will we see a dip in the number of Feminists out there once the trend is no longer relevant? And what about those of us who have been fighting the Feminist cause long before Topshop decided to stock T-shirts with slogans on them? The reality is that Feminism isn’t and can never be just a trend. Decades of struggle and strife cannot be represented in fabric. An item of clothing cannot tell you that the gender pay gap in the UK still stands at 18%, or that one in 5 women in the US will experience rape during their lifetime. While it might be fashionable for a young girl to wear a T-shirt boasting a Feminist statement, it’s much more important that she knows the reasons why we still have to fight for female equality.
Additionally, there is a lingering hypocrisy surrounding the image of the ‘female empowerment’ as a fashion trend, in contrast to the conditions and pay of the (outsourced) female workers who produce our high-street fast fashion. There has been vocal criticism of Beyonce’s fashion label Ivy Park for this very reason, and soon after this of fashion giant H&M (this backlash in particular was catalysed after the release of a diverse advertisement, which although perceived as a move in the right direction, highlighted the need for more work in other areas to improve the ethics of the brand). Some have raised the issue of ‘Empowertising’ – that female consumers are merely manipulated by fashion advertising into exchanging their cash for a superficial sense of empowerment.
This illustrates how Feminism itself is a complex issue, and Feminist fashion trends trigger the discussion of different issues such as capitalism, fair pay, working conditions for women and whether girls are really engaging with Feminist thought. Of course, it does not matter if Feminism is fashionable or not, a trend should never take focus from the roots of the fight for gender equality. However, if a few garments can convince a new generation that Feminists is something we should all be, and if it can help shift the perspective of Feminists from feminazis to trendsetters, then it is clearly positive. Regardless of how many T-shirts Dior or Topshop sell or how long the trend lasts, the fact that fashion is embracing Feminism represents its growing acceptance into society – and that is something to celebrate.
 For more on this, the podcast ‘Stuff Mom Never Told You’ discussed this in depth. [http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/podcasts/empowertising.htm]
About the Author
Shannon is an English Language graduate, with a passion for writing. She has been interested in gender studies since her school days, and believes equality should be achieved for everyone, everywhere. In her spare time, she enjoys exercise, blogging and drinking a cocktail or two.