In a politically tense climate with a generation more socially aware than ever before, it’s no wonder activism-inspired apparel is in the window displays of fast fashion retailers everywhere. But when each stage of the production cycle invalidates what these clothes are trying to communicate, the feminist movement becomes no longer trendy, but tacky.
The Future Is Female, Wild Feminist, GRL PWR.
You’re not at a women’s rights march, but in a fast fashion clothing store. Instead of these politically charged slogans being painted in bright red on placards, they’re being bedazzled on crop tops. Instead of these powerful phrases being shouted into the air, loud, bold and unambiguous, they’re haphazardly falling off coat hangers, crumpled on the floor of changing rooms, and being dumped into bargain bins.
Fast fashion describes the modern phenomenon where retailers are able to rapidly produce runway-inspired garments reflective of the most in-the-moment trends, sometimes taking designs from sketch books to the store racks in as little as three weeks.
Their clothes are watered down versions of the designer pieces that walk the runways of Milan, Paris, London and New York. In 2017, fashion houses like Dior, Ashish and Prabal Gurung featured feminist slogans on t-shirts in their collections, so it was only a matter of time before designs at irresistibly low prices started filling the racks of Zara, H&M and Forever 21.
The timely trend of political fashion has well and truly seeped into the fast fashion bloodstream, and while on the surface the humble femme slogan tees seem harmless, the true cost of their creation couldn’t be more damaging.
The fast fashion machine, and their activism-inspired apparel, is hypocritical at every stage of the production process. In an era of social media, digital art and blurred copyright laws, it’s becoming more common to see big fashion retailers ripping designs straight from independent artists.
In 2017, American retailer Forever 21 directly copied Wildfang’s $40 best selling ‘Wild Feminist’ t-shirt, which has been seen on the likes of celebrities including St. Vincent, Sophia Bush, Kate Mara, and Ellen Page.
Not only was the Forever 21 version sold for a quarter of the price of the original, at $10.90, but the Wildfang tees directly benefit charity.
“When you rip off that t-shirt, you’re not just ripping off us, you’re also taking money out of the pocket of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, because 10% of every product that we make goes directly to them,” Wildfang CEO and designer Emma Mcilroy told Refinery29.
While Mcilroy plans to take legal action for trademark infringement, she highlights the alarmingly low price point of Forever 21’s version of her product.
“I would love to know how much everyone in that supply chain was paid, because I can tell you that I pay well above minimum wage for anyone in my company,” she said. “I don’t know how you make a garment like that — ethically and sustainably — for 10 bucks.”
This is where the true cost of cheap fashion comes from. In her TEDx Talk, Maxine Bédat, creator of sustainable fashion brand Zady, stated “80% of the people who work in the apparel industry are women, and 98% of them are not receiving a living wage.”
The workers are mostly underage, with fast fashion documentaries like The True Cost revealing some females as young as 12 pose as 18 year olds in order to maintain their jobs and provide for their families. They work 14 hour shifts in extremely hazardous conditions to earn as little as $3 a day.
While the realities of these sweatshops seem world’s away, the disturbing truth became global news in 2013 when the five story Rana Plaza factory building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing over 1,300 people in the deadliest garment factory accident in history.
It’s difficult to feel empowered by a shirt reading ‘Girls Support Girls’ on the rack of a fast fashion store when knowing the deadly, dehumanising and disastrous conditions females endured to make that cute pink top.
The solution to this problem isn’t to boycott fast fashion labels. After all, millions of women in third world countries depend on these jobs in sweatshops to provide for themselves and their families. The answer lies on the shoulders of the heads of the fast fashion industry. The workers who slave over their products deserve healthcare, regulated building codes, and equal human rights. Considering Zara’s CEO Amancio Ortega is the third richest person in the world with a net worth of $76.1 billion, improving work environments shouldn’t be an impossible ask.
As for consumers, education is key, and voting with your wallet is essential. If you want activist-inspired apparel, shop around and support ethical brands who engage in sustainable production practises. More importantly, if you want to wear a feminist t-shirt, stay informed, vote in elections, support women of all kinds, donate to responsible charities, walk arm in arm in women’s marches, and have your voice heard.
Essentially, be a feminist.
Note: This article was originally written for my Fashion Writing unit as part of my overseas university exchange at the European Institute of Design. I really love how it turned out so I wanted to also post it here. If you enjoyed it, feel free to give this post a ‘like‘ so I know!
All the love,