Chances are if you walk into a Forever 21, H&M or Urban Outfitters, you’ll find a t-shirt with the word ‘feminist’ emblazoned across it. Or possibly a sweatshirt that proudly proclaims ‘girl power’ in rhinestone lettering. Maybe even a pair of crew socks with pink Venus symbols printed on them. Right now, with the women’s rights movement growing stronger than ever, many companies are mass-producing their feminist apparel. But does buying a crop top that declares ‘equal rights’ actually contribute toward equality?
Chances are, your purchase is actually supporting some deeply anti-feminist practices.
A bit of history on feminism in fashion: in 2016, Dior produced a t-shirt with the slogan ‘WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS’. ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ is a manifesto penned by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The design was met with mixed opinions. Some said that Dior was commercializing the women’s rights movement. Some said that the design was a great way to make feminism a more mainstream idea and possibly enable more people to identify as feminists.
Adichie, the author of the manifesto that inspired Dior’s design, spoke in favor of the idea. “The goal of feminism is to make itself redundant, and to get there it needs to be a mass movement”, Adichie commented. Although she admitted that “it’s a fairly reasonable idea that you do harm to an important idea by commercializing it”, she followed up by saying that “feminism is [not] that popular”. In Adichie’s opinion, the importance of spreading the feminist message outweighs the harm that might be caused by commercializing it.
In 2017, Dior put the cotton graphic t-shirt up on their website. It retails for $710. Dior released a statement saying that they donated a portion of their profits from the shirt to a women’s charity.
The next season, designers such as Christian Siriano released their own political statement pieces. T-shirts with phrases like ‘people are people’ and ‘the future is female’ walked the runway. It is generally agreed that Dior’s product was the first feminist design to be produced by a major fashion brand. Dior’s shirt paved the way for other designers to express their opinions – because if Dior can display a ‘controversial’ message without experiencing a drop in their sales, then it’s okay for other brands to do the same.
It’s a tale as old as time: where haute couture brands go, fast fashion follows. In February 2019, Kim Kardashian donned a gold dress designed by Kanye West most likely under his Yeezy label. Mere hours after her post, a copycat dress popped up on retailer Missguided.
Image via @diet_prada on Instagram
Fast fashion brands are notorious for their exploitative labor practices. In 2012, a regional administrator described working for Forever 21 as “sweatshop-like“. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor investigated 77 Los Angeles garment factories. They discovered that workers at those factories, many of which were sewing for Forever 21, were paid an average of $7 an hour for 10-hour work days.
80 percent of the world’s clothing workers are young women.
H&M, a brand similar to Forever 21, is the largest buyer of garments from Bangladesh factories. A video by The Lip brings the dangerous working conditions in those factories to light.
It’s extremely hypocritical for companies to underpay women that create garments that declare, ‘the future is female’. And yet they continue to do so because they value profits over the safety of their workers.
At the time this article was written, Forever 21 is stocking 37 products that display feminist phrases.
Yet the conditions in which these pieces were made are very anti-women. These companies mistreat impoverished women in order to make money. Their decision to capitalize on the feminist movement, while simultaneously endangering their female employees, is deeply problematic.
Here’s how you can help.
Your decisions do have an impact. Before you invest in a ‘girl power’ tank top, do some research. All it takes is a quick Google search to figure out the brand’s values. Does the brand have multiple lawsuits for ethical violations? Are their factories suspiciously secretive about wages and production conditions? Sadly, most of the major brands have faced controversy for human rights issues. However, there are many independent brands that treat their workers fairly.
Some feminist brands that actually promote feminist practices are The Outrage, My Sister and Otherwild. These clothing lines ethically source their products. And they actually donate a portion of their profits to charity – unlike Forever 21 or H&M.
You could also DIY your own custom feminist apparel with some fabric paints and an old tee. This way, you’re recycling an old item and promoting a worthy cause. You don’t have to support an exploitative brand in order to wear a piece that you love. Make your very own item or support an independent brand instead!
The problem is not with the individuals who buy “feminist” pieces from fast fashion retailers. It’s with the companies who take advantage of the feminist movement without actually honoring the feminist message. “Fast fashion feminism” isn’t all that feminist after all.
Featured image via Instagram