March marks Women’s History Month, so in addition to commemorating the contributions women make to the fashion industry we also want to highlight the persistent inequities within it.
Women make up approximately 80% of all the garment workers in the world. This means a lot of power but also a lot of vulnerability. Garment workers are not the only part of the fashion industry where women work, and do so in vulnerable conditions. There are designers, models, notion manufacturers, cleaners, and more, women permeate every realm. Given that women drive somewhere between 70 and 85% of all purchases, not just in clothing, there is ample opportunity for women and feminist allies to help shift the industry in the interest of women everywhere.
Everyone wears clothes, so why is the fashion industry so female-dominant? Some would say that this occurred naturally as women are more drawn to fashion than men are. I would argue that it was a much more intentional progression than that. It is not a coincidence that most of the top 15 richest billionaires of fashion are men. Of the 15 brands that correspond to the richest billionaires, no one will be surprised to hear, none of them are known for their ethics, sustainability, or labor practices. Instead, this just another example of men using women for their own gain. Women may be dominant in numbers, but they are not in power. The history behind this and how we got here could be its own tome; however, in this article, I will focus on what is happening now, what we can do, and what needs to be done.
In an article from Labour Behind the Label, a Bangladeshi garment worker is quoted saying “women can be made to dance like puppets, but men cannot be abused in the same way. The owners do not care if we ask for something, but demands raised by the men must be given some consideration. So they do not employ male workers.” In other words, employers are taking advantage of cultural stereotypes. Though gender equality still has a ways to go everywhere, many of the countries that are considered the most unequal countries are also the ones where millions of garment workers are employed, such as Vietnam and India. To learn more about the conditions garment workers endure check out my sustainable fashion documentary watchlist, Made in Bangladesh goes into particularly interesting detail about the connection between cultural stereotypes and the treatment of female garment workers.
The idea that clothing and fashion are ‘women’s work’ leads to the fashion industry as a whole often being trivialized which could be why abuse within the industry is often ignored. Many people associate fashion with runway shows and glamour when the reality is much less beautiful. It is estimated that only 2% of all garment workers, male and female, make a living wage.
We have to include feminism in our fashion because feminist activism and attention are needed in every aspect of the industry from manufacturing to modeling to consuming.
Industry-wide reform has the potential to change millions of lives, most of them women’s. Yes, this is a part that we as consumers have much less control over (except in our buying choices), but that doesn’t mean we get to ignore it.
In 2017, approximately 1 in 3 female garment workers reported some sort of sexual harassment. As much of sexual harassment, violence, and assaults go unreported, even that statistic is likely too low. It is commonplace for factories to lock emergency exits to make sure workers cannot leave without being noticed or take extra breaks (or breaks at all). Sometimes garment workers are denied their pay for months at a time, this has been especially prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At this point, most of us have heard of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, where over 1,000 people were killed under completely preventable circumstances. What is less widely known is that this kind of thing happens all the time. Though Rana Plaza was the most deadly in numbers, other garment factory fires and collapses have caused hundreds of deaths as well. This happens all too frequently because building inspection recommendations are disregarded, emergency exits are inadequate or locked, and fire hazards are ignored leaving millions of women in danger.
A few organizations to check out holding factories and brands accountable:
The modeling industry is a tricky one because it has such a long history of bad behavior, even modern-day models have to endure abuse from racism to not being paid to sexual mistreatment to body shaming.
However, models themselves are not the only victims of the industry. Studies show that exposure to “images of ideally thin” models heightens body dissatisfaction among girls. Studies also show male model imagery impacts men and boys in similar ways, though there is far less research on this phenomenon. Promoting unrealistic beauty and body images isn’t healthy for anyone.
Yes, the modeling industry has its roots in a patriarchal toxic ideal of beauty and body standards (read my article about the history of sizing for more on that), but that doesn’t mean we should abandon it altogether. More designers are finally beginning to realize that representation matters, and that the visibility of different kinds of women is more than a diversity checkbox that can be taken care of with a multicultural photo shoot. There are plenty of models, modeling agencies, and brands (ex. Girlfriend Collective, pictured) that encourage the inclusive side of the industry. The side that excites people who have never seen someone like them on the cover of a magazine and the side that shows how clothing looks on different bodies.
But visibility is not just for models. Fashion and clothes are incredible tools. The relationship between the liberation of women's bodies and clothing runs deep. Just wearing clothes can be everyday micro-activism. Aka, wear things you’re not ‘supposed to’!
If dollars and purchases are votes, as they are often described in the sustainable fashion movement, women cast the most votes. Voting with your dollar when you can is incredibly powerful. Supporting women-owned brands, ones with diverse models, and/or ones that disclose their supply chain are great places to start. Also, check out our Conscious Consumer Guides to Fibers for more information about voting with your dollar when it comes to fabrics. Sometimes it can feel like it makes no difference because in the scheme of things we are each so small but think about every scandal a fast-fashion brand has had and remember that each of those began with people like us not being silent in situations of injustice.
Whether your complaints lie in their representation, sustainability, or labor practices, call out brands for their shortcomings, ideally in the form of considered emails (visit FashionRevolution.org for help). Of course, thoughtful use of social media can raise awareness as well.
Lastly, don’t fall for performative feminism or any other surface-level activism from brands. Selling a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt but failing to pay the workers who made that very shirt a living wage is not feminism. Selling a “Girl Power” t-shirt for children does not mean it was made without child labor. Selling a “The Future is Female” t-shirt does not mean the woman who made it was treated fairly. In an article about her art installation Blood Mountain (pictured below), Suzie Blake describes the phenomenon: “The fact is, proclaiming “I’m a Feminist” via a T-shirt made by a woman who is anything but empowered is, aside from hypocritical, possibly one of the most brazen examples of Western capitalist arrogance imaginable.”
Lastly, it is important to remember people make all your clothes. In a sense, everything we wear is handmade so considering the conditions under which those hands made your clothes matters.
For Further Reading:
- On Fashion & Feminism: The Industry Perpetuating Poverty Is Also The Most Powerful Force To Change Quality Of Life For Women Globally by Kassia Binkowski for The Good Trade
- Why Fashion is a Feminist Issue + Women-owned brand recommendations by Julia Grundy for Good On You
- What It’s Truly Like to Be a Fashion Model by Valeriya Safronova, Joanna Nikas, and Natalia V. Osipova for The New York Times
- Fast Fashion is a Feminist Issue by Yasmin Ahram and Slow Factory Foundation for Teen Vogue
- Are feminism and fashion compatible? by Ella Alexander for Harper's Bazaar
- Combating Sexual Harassment in the Garment Industry by Human Rights Watch