Feminism in fashion is rarely intersectional: racism is rife, with the industry favouring Western-European ideations of beauty; models endanger their health to maintain their ‘fashion normative’ bodies; the commodification and appropriation of minority culture is commonplace amongst designers; transgender, non-binary, and disabled persons are routinely excluded; and garment workers, most of whom are women, are forced to work in cruel conditions. How can the exploitative system that abuses women attempt to imbue a feminist rhetoric in its work?
Eighty percent of garment workers globally are women; favoured for their nimble fingers and strong eyesight, they are forced to work unreasonably long hours in dangerous conditions. In 2016, Sisters for Change and Munnade released a report disclosing the atrocities women garment workers in Karnataka, India, are victim to. One in every seven women has been raped or forced to commit a sexual act at work, whilst one in fourteen has experienced physical violence. Eighty percent of workers report that their health and safety are at risk due to hazardous working conditions, and one in four feels unsafe at work. Eighty-nine percent of workers did not formally report the sexual harassment or abuse to factory management or the police out of fear of repercussion. Of the cases that were reported, action was taken against perpetrators in just under four percent of incidents, with no criminal charges brought in any. An estimated seventy-five percent of garment factories have no functioning grievance mechanism or Internal Complaints Committee, as required by law. These statistics are from respondents in only one region of India. Estimates suggest that over forty-five million people are employed in India’s textiles and clothing sectors, and between sixty to eighty percent are women. The evidence is resounding: the fashion industry needs stronger bodies of accountability and control.
Fashion Revolution is a body comprising various industry leaders, including designers, academics, writers, policymakers, and more. Their goal is to tackle this global issue by unravelling the structures of the fashion supply chain to ensure greater transparency for brands, stakeholders and consumers. Transparency is integral in encouraging scrutiny and vigilance: with further clarity, we can better understand and ameliorate the abhorrent conditions garment workers are forced to work in, as well as the environmental devastation caused by the industry. In 2017, Fashion Revolution released the Fashion Transparency Index, a review of major fashion brands’ practices. The report found that whilst many brands are transparent about their suppliers, supply chain management, and business practices, they remain mute about their tangible impact on the lives of workers in the supply chain and on the environment. This is exacerbated by inconsistent standards for disclosing environmental and social issues, allowing brands to reveal only select information. Several brands, including Dior, published absolutely nothing at all, shrouding their processes in complete mystery.
When Maria Grazia Chiuri joined Dior as creative director in 2016, the appointment was revolutionary – as the first woman to take charge of the prestige house, she aimed to rejuvenate the brand with a surge of modernity. Her debut Spring 2017 collection saw a stark departure from the full-skirted, white-gloved elegance reminiscent of the New Look, with tarot-card imagery embroidered on tulle dresses and skirts, oversized quilted visors, and futuristic lace-up knee-high boots. The most sought-after and recognizable garment of the collection was a humble T-shirt with the slogan ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, the title of a TEDx Talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The speech went viral: Adichie was praised for her discussion of the complicated discourse surrounding modern gender roles, weaving stories of her past experiences battling sexism with complex historical theory. By urging us to unmask the systematic misogyny steeped in cultural and social practices, we can strive for greater gender equality and representation.
Whilst well intentioned, Chiuri’s homage to this notion is grossly hypocritical. Despite donating a portion of sales from the now infamous T-shirt to the Clara Lionel Foundation, created by Rihanna to help fund education, health, and emergency response programs across the globe, the house of Dior fails to uphold values and procedures indicating ethicality and social equality. As evidenced in the Fashion Transparency Index, Dior is not a transparent brand: its factory working conditions, treatment of garment workers, and environmental impact cannot be assessed, and thus guaranteed to be moral. The most obvious irony, however, came on the catwalk, with only nine of the sixty-four models being women of colour, and zero being plus-size, disabled, or transgender. According to Chiuri, we should all be feminists: only, however, if your feminism is exclusive to thin, white, able bodied, cisgender women and could potentially support the mistreatment of under privileged garment workers, the majority of whom are women.
Fashion Month has long celebrated the white and slim body, with dismal rates of diversity; many casting directors consistently choose all white or overwhelmingly white line-ups, with tokenistic casting of genderqueer, plus-size, and disabled persons, as well as models of colour. Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Vetements and Balenciaga has only used one model of colour in the five collections he’s designed, and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons has not employed a black model on the runway in over a decade. In Fall 2017, brands like Junya Watanabe and Undercover didn’t cast a single model of colour; this season, however, was the most diverse ever. New York Fashion Week saw each show contain at least a single model of colour, whilst twenty-eight percent of the models that walked in London were non-white, as were twenty-six percent and twenty-four of those in Paris and Milan, respectively. Whilst indicative of progress, these statistics also stand as a stark reminder of how much further the fashion industry has to go to achieve greater inclusivity.
Its barriers of exclusion are slowly breaking; with Somali-American teenager Halima Aden walking for Yeezy Season 5 and posing for the cover of CR Fashion Book in a hijab, disabled model Kelly Knox opening for Teatum Jones at London Fashion Week, and transgender model Hari Nef gracing the covers of Love Magazine and Elle UK (amongst editorial work and being one of the faces of Gucci Bloom, nonetheless), change is apparent. One cannot help but wonder, however, if this shift to greater diversity is honest, or simply a one-off occurrence fuelled by public pressure. Dior is only one of many brands endeavouring to make social equality a brazen trend: N-P-Elliott slapped “INTERSECTIONALITY” on a jumper for Spring 2018, and Acne’s Fall 2015 collection included sweatshirts, knits, and scarves boasting phrases like ‘RADICAL FEMINIST’ and ‘WOMAN POWER’. Whilst successful in generating revenue and commercial praise, they fail to aid in tangible progression. Gender equality, diversity, and ethicality are not fads, nor should they be commoditised: they should be inherent in our lives. The fashion industry must understand that actions speak far louder than words, and the world will start listening when it begins to practice what it preaches.
Words by Isabella Corbett
This article first appeared in volume 88 edition 7 SOFT