The fashion industry is fraught with controversy when it comes to women’s issues. But clothing retailers, especially those that produce fast fashion, are regularly found guilty of co-opting feminism while engaging in practices that undermine women.
With the rise of the Me Too movement, the Women’s March and increased awareness of women’s issues in general, feminist merchandise like clothing, hats, bags and jewelry are undeniably on trend right now.
“All of it is inflaming people’s desire to reflect and to tell the world what side they’re on, and what they support,” said Katie Martell, a marketing consultant who specializes in how feminism fits into business, marketing and advertising.
Donning a T-shirt with “The Future Is Female” emblazoned across the front lets others know exactly where you stand when it comes to feminist ideals. Not to mention, wearing such a bold statement can make you feel like a certified badass, ready to take on whatever the patriarchy throws your way.
The problem is that many companies have a history of hijacking the feminist movement in order to increase profits without actually living up to those values.
According to Martell, any time you make a purchase or share an inspiring ad on social media, there’s an implicit endorsement of that company. “It indicates your support for the entire brand, not just the message they’re sharing,” she said. So before you purchase another trendy top or tote bag featuring a rallying cry for women’s rights, be sure that money will actually go toward supporting women.
The Troubled Relationship Between Fashion And Feminism
Take Forever 21, which regularly stocks clothing and jewelry featuring feminist phrases. The company has been found on multiple occasions to treat its garment workers poorly. One investigation found that Forever 21 clothing was being produced in sweatshoplike conditions throughout its Los Angeles-area factories, while another found that workers were being paid as little as $4 an hour. Considering that 60% of LA County’s garment workforce is female (the majority of whom are foreign-born), the mistreatment of these employees is certainly a feminist issue. And Forever 21 (which is currently in bankruptcy proceedings) is just one of many companies guilty of this kind of worker exploitation.
Several brands have also been caught stealing the designs and intellectual property of women. Express, for instance, was criticized for copying the famous “The Future Is Female” T-shirt design ― originally produced for Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York City ― without acknowledging its history or original creators. Zara, which is currently featuring a “women in art” line of T-shirts, was accused of stealing artist Tuesday Bassen’s designs in 2016. Just this year, Victoria’s Secret was in hot water after blatantly ripping off the designs of a former employee’s lingerie company, Fleur du Mal, among other controversies. Still, the company has no shame in running its “girl power” campaign that promotes empowering women (and wearing its products, of course).
The leadership structure within a company is also very telling when it comes to internal values. And it’s worth pointing out that the CEOs behind many of the retailers that push trendy feminist fashions, including Forever 21, Zara, H&M, Urban Outfitters, ASOS and others, are all men. Often, other top-level positions are disproportionately held by men as well, and significant gender pay gaps exist.
Even the seemingly “woke” retailer Feminist Apparel, which sells everything from clothing to tote bags to a feminist subscription box (activist edition!), was the subject of a particularly egregious scandal on the part of its male CEO. In 2018, Alan Martofel was confronted by employees after they learned he’s an admitted sexual abuser, and understandably, they encouraged him to resign. He responded by firing his entire staff without severance.
Fashion Is Not Necessarily Activism
Corrupt and hypocritical companies aside, the concept of wearing feminist slogans on clothing is deeply complicated. On the one hand, the fact that these products are so popular means feminist values are becoming more mainstream. And by wearing them, you’re telling the world that you support women’s rights ― something you absolutely have the choice to do. But is that enough?
“It tends to cheapen the fight for women’s equality down to what you can buy,” said Martell, who compares the satisfaction some people feel when they buy these products to a placebo effect. By slipping on a T-shirt, they feel like they’re contributing to change. But anyone can get dressed. How many consumers also spend their time attending events, volunteering and contacting their local representatives?
Retail is, first and foremost, about appealing to the masses to make sales. By commercializing feminism and diminishing it to cutesy slogans and platitudes, the inherently political nature of the movement is ignored. “We threaten to reduce this very real fight for equality down to a hashtag, or down to an act of swiping a credit card, when the real work is a lot more difficult and a lot more serious,” Martell said.
How To Ensure Your Money Actually Goes Toward Helping Women
If you decide that communicating your values to the world via what you wear is the right choice for you, how do you buy responsibly amid a sea of hypocritical corporations and pandering “femvertising?”
Martell said there are some brands that mesh business and feminism well. “The ones that are doing it well are the ones that actually support the cause, and they can do that in a variety of ways,” she said.
For one, the company should live the values internally through things like salary transparency, diversity and fair wages. One tool that can help in your research is GetLedBetter.com, which provides a gender equality index of major brands’ leadership.
Another way is by donating money or using their political clout to impact change in the real world. Wild Fang, for instance, is a woman-founded and woman-led retailer of feminist fashion. The company donates hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to charities and nonprofit organizations that support women, especially women of color and LGBTQ women. Birdsong, a London-based retailer founded by women, produces sustainable clothing with the promise to never use sweatshops or Photoshop.
Ultimately, it’s important to be more critical as consumers. “We do tend to jump at the first example of a campaign or a T-shirt that supports women,” Martell said. “And the reason for that is because for decades, advertising has been less than supportive of women. ... We’re so desperate for companies to not treat us like objects that we’re setting the bar way too low for what support means.” Often, all it takes is a bit of Googling to find out if a company upholds feminist values in meaningful ways.
But the responsibility doesn’t rest solely on the consumer. Martell has a word of warning to retailers as well: “There’s a risk of alienating consumers who want authenticity in brands, and getting called out amid cancel culture.”
In truth, making the world a better place for women takes work, and we all have to work a little harder. So the next time you throw on your favorite “Feminist AF” tee, let it serve as a reminder to donate your time or money to your favorite women’s organization too.