Can fashion’s commitment to feminism ever be more than lip service?

Feminists have long critiqued the fashion industry, which has often responded by – at best – co-opting feminism as a ‘brand’ in order to sell products. Can the two ever genuinely engage with each other?

Harriet Williamson
22 November 2015

Feminism and fashion make uncomfortable bedfellows. The fashion industry continues to champion one body type that’s virtually impossible to achieve for the majority of healthy, adult women, and in doing so, denies the diverse reality of female bodies. It places medically unsafe expectations on models in terms of their measurements, leading to hospitalizations, models eating tissues to fill their stomachs, and, indirectly, it could be argued contributed to the death of several young women, including Luisel Ramos in 2006, who collapsed on the catwalk and died of heart failure caused by anorexia nervosa.

Fashion plays an undeniable part in the prevalence of body dissatisfaction in Britain, where one in four girls aged between 11-to-21 would consider cosmetic surgery and almost 10 million women report feeling ‘depressed’ by the way they look. As of February 2015, a report commissioned by the charity b-eat estimates that more than 725,000 people in the UK are suffering from an eating disorder.

Bar a few high profile examples, fashion largely ignores women of colour and trans women, preferring to populate runway shows, magazine editorials, and advertisements with tall, thin, white, cisgender bodies. Although plus-size models have become more commonplace, the term ‘plus-size’ is entirely arbitrary, illustrated by findings that three-quarters of the plus-size models at BMA models in London were a size 12 or below.

Fashion is an industry that excludes rather than celebrates, peddling the insidious message that we are not good enough to be represented within their ads and editorials, and therefore should continue to spend money on clothes and accessories and beauty products in order to combat this. Designer brands and high street retailers alike have demonstrated a complete lack of concern for the women around the world who produce their garments, the majority of whom live in poverty and are paid starvation wages for their labour. Bearing all this in mind, can fashion ever be compatible with feminism?

Sophie Slater, Sarah Beckett, and Ruba Huleihel, co-founders of the brand new online marketplace Birdsong, are determined to provide that it’s possible. If their initial launch is successful, Birdsong will be crowdfunding to produce non-sweatshop, non-Photoshopped adverts that will be placed on London tubes in the new year. Fans of the brand already include Lauren Laverne and Tansy Hoskins.

I spoke to Sophie Slater, to find out more about this new online marketplace that brings fashion, feminism, and community activisim together. Slater and her two partners met on a free postgraduate course called Year Here, based around social change. She says “we were all in our early or mid-twenties, had done tons of volunteering, and saw the effects that funding cuts were having on organisations. A lot of these groups, like the Age UK centre Sarah worked at, have women making things. The women there had formed a knitting circle that had been going for fifteen years, but they had mobility problems and a lack of digital skills that prevented them from being able to sell the things they were making. We were also excited and inspired by fashion, but knew that sweatshops, and the way that fashion is marketed to women has devastating impacts. So we came up with this idea, tested it, and people really liked it. We won a place on an “accelerator” in January (where they give you money to support your idea, and workshops on how to run a business) and we’ve been working hard to keep generating income for our suppliers since then.”

Slater was determined that feminism and fashion needn’t be in opposition to one another. She has been involved in feminist activism for a couple of years after personally experiencing sexual violence and unhealthy relationships, and has trained with Rape Crisis. Seeing organisations like Eaves having to shut down, after years of dedicated feminist work, prompted Slater to get  Birdsong seeks to support women’s organisations by putting 50-85% of revenue back into the collectives that make the garments and jewellery, and using profits to stop more refuges and non-profits from closing down. Slater says “we want to give them the means to make money, and make them less reliant on government funding that’s let them down”.

Birdsong is launching a campaign featuring inspirational women who aren’t typically represented in the media, that includes award-winning trans activist Charlie Craggs, Muslim feminist Hanna Yusuf and 83 year old knitter, Edna, who knits fairly made jumpers for Birdsong.

Sophie told me “it’s really important to us to empower women and have diversity amongst our models. We use our friends, makers, or people who inspire us, and never alter their appearance with Photoshop. As a team of three young women, we've all felt alienated at some point by a culture that objectifies women. A culture that sets unrealistic standards based on our beauty as worth. We wanted to create a campaign that fit in with our feminist values, so we’re launching #AsWeAre this week. We want to create a conversation around the way women are sold things, who gets represented, and in what way.​

Most fashion is marketed to us in a way that’s a total fallacy. It’s meant to be ‘aspirational’ and ‘unattainable’ but we know that’s not what women want, or need. Most senior positions in advertising are men, and I think that’s why we still have patriarchal advertising for the most part. But we built Birdsong ourselves so we have the opportunity to do things differently.”

Charlie Craggs, founder of Nail Transphobia, says “as a trans person, seeing trans people being visible and represented is vital. It’s not a luxury, it’s so needed. This is advertising done right”.

I asked Sophie whether the relatively high prices (more than £100 for some dresses and £22 for a pair of plain cotton pants) would alienate buyers on low incomes, like myself. She says “cost is something that really influenced our decision not to become another “luxury” ethical brand. It’s tough, because on one hand, if the items are made in the UK, they need to be a certain price to pay the wages of the working class women who make them.”

“Our items start at £10, but there are things like our Palestinian embroidered dresses that take hours to complete, and are higher priced to cover that. Also, we’re working on a super small scale currently, which makes things more expensive. We want to get the balance right. We’re trying to get our prices as near to high street as we can, whilst still paying fairly and making things that won’t fall apart after one season. Our clothes are made really beautifully and carefully, so should last for years. Some clothes are just really unsustainably cheap, and we can’t compare to that. But hopefully, if you find something you can afford, it’s with the knowledge that a big chunk of that money is going back to working class women or organisations that need it. And in the meantime, we’ll be working on getting bigger, at the same time ensuring our clothes are as affordable as we can get them.

We have fourteen suppliers at the moment. Our jewellery brands Relevee and Jit-Win-Yan are made in India and Thailand, by women who’ve survived human trafficking, or are exiting sex work. They earn middle-class wages with the money they make from selling jewellery. We also sell from maker’s groups in Swaziland, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and from single mums in the U.S. Our Co-Founder Ruba is Palestinian and grew up in Jerusalem, so obviously the conflict is really close to her heart. She got Two Neighbors on board, who work together to create dresses across Palestine and Israel, that pay for wages for both sides, as well as medical supplies and water in the Hebron hills.”


Image from Birdsong's promotional campaign.

It's fair to say that Birdsong is more than just a new place to buy cute underwear and gifts for Christmas: it does make a concerted effort to give back to the local community, supporting the Bradbury knitting circle, and Mohila, a group of mums from migrant communities in Tower Hamlets who make the cute avocado-print sweatshirts. Birdsong also supports the Heba Women’s Project on Brick Lane, who’ve been running a women’s project, creche, and seamstressing for 25 years. Birdsong pairs women from Heba with designers and run workshops to boost their design confidence, and ensures their stories are heard by interviewing them for the Birdsong website.

“We really hope that our defiant no sweatshop stance affects bigger companies, and opens people's eyes up to the possibility of fashion that’s fairer for women. We’d love to advise bigger companies on how and where they could source ethically, or do more campaigning work to get them to improve conditions in factories they own. It’s totally viable to stop exploiting workers - they have the profit margins to affect huge change. It’s really sad, because even garment workers in the UK are being exploited and paid less than £3 an hour. With Birdsong, as well as selling things that are cool and beautiful enough to change people’s expectations of ethical fashion, we want to challenge all the ideas people have about the fashion industry. We want people to think about the fact that worker’s rights and feminism are linked, as is body image. Fashion is too fun not to want to change for the better. We want to see a fashion industry that uplifts women and workers, rather than doing the opposite.”

It’s not cynical to feel suspicious of highly successful brands co-opting diversity and feminism, for example in the case of Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, a world-wide ad campaign that encouraged women to see their ‘real beauty’ more clearly. What was this ‘real beauty’? Superficial, outward appearance, of course.  Brands use diversity as a marketing tool when it suits them, with no real commitment to women’s issues or improving the state of advertising in the long term. Birdsong was built as a feminist project from the ground up, meaning that its series of arresting adverts, featuring women of colour, trans women, and older women, are essential to the ethos of the project, rather than a gimmick thought up by a roomful of ad agents.


Image from Birdsong's promotional campaign.

Although it’s possible to criticize Birdsong for promoting ‘consumer feminism’, the reality is that the majority of us buy new clothes to wear. Purchasing them from an organisation that gives back to skilled female creators and to women’s services is more than simply tossing more money into the gaping maw of the capitalist marketplace. Unless you live an entirely self-sufficient agrarian life, you’re a consumer, and clothing brands that do incorporate a feminist and progressive ethos into their work might just provide those of us who care about women and advancing the aims of feminism with a place where we can feel good about spending money.

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