“The future is female” is scrawled across Cara Delevingne’s grey sweatshirt as she takes an opportunity to strike a pose at an event. A slogan borrowed from a lesbian feminist publishing group in the 70s has been reintroduced today on OtherWild’s clothing line and on Delevingne’s own. It speaks volumes that this 70s slogan still resonates with the contemporary woman of today, and the growing trend of feminist slogans splashed across cotton tees raises the question of what feminist fashion means and its plausibility, especially when feminism so often conflicts with competing corporate interests.
In the past few years there has been a surge in the sale of feminist-branded t-shirts that attempt to solidify and spread gender equality. Actors such as Joseph Gordon Levitt and Benedict Cumberbatch have been photographed sporting Fawcett Society t-shirts with the catchphrase: “This is What a Feminist Looks Like.” Although these shirts are geared towards women’s empowerment and equality, the company has been accused of producing the garments in sweatshop conditions.
The tees are made by women from Mauritius, a small island country that neighbours Madagascar. The workers are reportedly paid under a dollar an hour and experience lengthy hours and unsafe work conditions. They told The Daily Mail that despite Fawcett Society’s motto on the t-shirts they're making, “we don’t feel like feminists. We don’t feel equal. We feel trapped.”
Queen Bee is also facing similar allegations in regards to Ivy Park, her recent active wear line with Topshop. Beyonce’s label was produced in Sri Lanka in a similar sweatshop environment where seamstresses are overworked and underpaid. Despite aiming to be a pro-feminist clothing line that empowers and inspires women, it showcases the divide between the welfare of female workers and female consumers.
The idea of “branding” in support of a cause is nothing new, but it appears to be caught in a conflict between corporate interests and feminist interests. All of the aforementioned brands support female empowerment in theory, but struggle to maintain ethical practices in the production of their garments. It seems as though brands feel that they can choose to support a cause, but ignore the many, less visible layers of the issue in question – in this case, those involving garment production. The Western, female consumer becomes the priority, and the feminist cause is nothing more than a selling point.
Western women are often credited as being the forefront of the feminist movement. It seems that women who are more economically stable can afford to consume the feminist image, whether through purchasing power, or the freedom to participate in a rally. Feminist fashion demonstrates the contradiction between liberation and consumerism. On one hand, these garments can spread the positive message of gender equality. On the other, they neglect to protect women outside the privilege of a consumerist class. Product knowledge is essential, making it increasingly difficult to support feminist fashion.
If the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” tee caught your eye, Feminist Majority Foundation also carries the same shirt, but this one promises to be sweat-shop free. The charity’s initiative is to advance legal and social equality for women and to educate young feminists so that they can continue the feminist crusade.
In short, making a feminist statement with your clothing is about much more than a slogan; it’s about choosing the right company that uses ethical manufacturing practices and advocates for not only the women who wear their products, but also the women who make them.