Feminism: more than just a fashion trend

Should we celebrate trendy feminism or condemn its commercialisation?
Photo by: Nessie Spencer / (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Source: Flickr
Photo by: Nessie Spencer / (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Source: Flickr

In the aftermath of the Women’s March on Washington big fashion brands saw a market opportunity. Dior, inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie´s essay, was one of the first to tailor their spring 2017 collection to the “feminist cause”, with t-shirts reading “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS”, across the front. The price? £490 ($616, €566). Other brands, such as Prabal Gurung were quick to follow claiming, “The Future is Female”. Instyle Magazine then rushed to give us all some advice on how to best wear a chic and feminist look. The brands announced that a percentage of the proceeds of the expensive t-shirts would be donated to nonprofit organizations, namely Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation. It is unclear which exact activities or programmes the donations are destined to, however, it can be argued that this aspect of consumption has become irrelevant for most consumers based on a broader ongoing social trend which the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek has coined as the “ideology of ethical consumption”.

Since a percentage of the t-shirt profits will be donated to charities working in line with feminist goals, one is not only buying said t-shirt but, according to Žižek, we are essentially buying into what could be coined as “feminist ethics”.  Thus, the purchase functions as a “pat-on-the-back” mechanism, whereby a monetary transaction, either through  a company’s sale, or a consumer’s purchase, is sufficient in order to align oneself with the goals and concerns of Third Wave Feminism.

What is the underlying purpose behind companies’ decisions (such as Dior’s and Prabal Gurung’s) to adjust their products and marketing strategies to be in line with the goals and concerns of a social movement such as feminism? Should we celebrate the fact that feminism is becoming “trendy” or “cool”? Or should we condemn the commercialisation of feminism on the grounds that such trends trivialise the concerns and goals this social movement fights for and represents?

We cannot paint a black or white picture; social developments present various nuances and subjective interpretations which must be carefully considered. Unfortunately, feminism has been given a bad reputation over the years, mainly through a misinterpretation of what it generally stands for. It is commonly perceived as an extreme anti-male ideology.  Thus, on the one hand, given this “bad” light, it is arguable that some mainstream publicity can be beneficial and we can therefore, in a sense, “celebrate” the fact that a fashion spotlight on feminism allows for the positive “socialisation” of feminist statements. Furthermore, fashion and the way we choose to dress is an important aspect of identity, therefore wearing a shirt with a bold statement such as “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS”, and which can be said to align with Third Wave Feminism, can have a powerful symbolic effect.

The main argument against branding feminist messages as a fashion statement is in relation to its trivialising effect; feminism is not something to be bought or sold. Our current consumer society has allowed for monetary transactions to dictate our forms of relatedness; the notion that complex issues such as feminism, racism, and poverty can be solved through monetary exchange.  We thus relate to feminism within a monetary mind-set, we believe we can buy into being a feminist. Feminism stands for much more than a statement on a t-shirt. In its current form, Third Wave Feminism seeks to highlight the multiple or intersectional forms in which women face inequality and discrimination, namely on the grounds that are not only based on gender, but, combined with class position, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and many other relevant categories. Third Wave Feminism therefore highlights the complexities of both vertical and horizontal discrimination at the structural level, as well as the inherent diversity across contexts and lived-realities.

Aside from donating proceeds of their t-shirt sales to charities which work to promote feminist goals, it would be relevant if Dior and Prabal Gurung, among all other brands which have capitalised on feminist messages, provided some substance and depth to their symbolic stance in support of feminism. For example, it would be interesting that, alongside their advertising campaigns for their t-shirts in symbolic support for feminism, they publicize  if and what concrete efforts they have carried out within their specific companies and contexts which are in line with the goals and struggles of Third Wave Feminism. Further information along these lines is required in order to assess their substantive alignment with Third Wave Feminism. The point being that if the fashion industry, or any other industry for that matter, seeks to support contemporary feminist goals, the sale of t-shirts alone will not suffice. Concrete and substantive efforts, so as to avoid the trivialisation and reduction of feminist goals into a mere monetary transaction, are needed.

Finally, as consumers we have the power to shape demand, in the products we choose to buy, how they are made, and so on. Thus, we have (some) agency, within a specific set of predetermined options. We must ask ourselves, then, whether we are only just consumers or whether we accept that we can shape our reality beyond our consumption choices alone. Such t-shirts can be bold and symbolic catalysers; reminders of the change we want to see in the world around us. But we must not stop short in reducing our power to create change only through consumption, we can join the movement, educate ourselves about what the movement stands for, get involved in any way possible, so when we wear such an item, it is not only a fashion statement, but a reminder exactly of the baggage and struggle this very important movement stands for. We are more than just consumers, and we can shape our realities beyond what we decide or refuse to buy.

Maria Jose Oomen Liebers

María José is an interdisciplinary social science researcher. She holds an MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and an MSc in Public Policy and Human Development with a focus in Migration Studies from the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-Merit (the Netherlands). In the past, she has worked for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), covering a range of topics such as women’s labour conditions in urban areas, south-south migration flows in the regions of Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean, post-disaster recovery and the role of women, and strategies for upward social mobility among middle-income population strata. Currently, she holds a research position at the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge, supporting the set-up of a planned multi-site longitudinal study exploring violence against children.
    2 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    Nessie spencer
    25 August 2017 at 10:09 am
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    Hello. Really cool post.
    And thanks for putting one of my pictures in your article. I feel chuffed right now…

    • Maria Jose Oomen Liebers
      mARIA jOSE ooMEN
      26 August 2017 at 11:44 am
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      Hi Nessie,

      Many thanks for your kind words. The picture is great, thanks for making it accessible to the wider public.

      Maria Jose

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