Ever since feminist movements began to sprout, they have been intimately linked to fashion and its evolutions. In the context of the deeply globalized world that we know today, it is necessary to broaden the stakes of these struggles to all women, especially to the women from the Global South, meaning all the countries of Africa, Latin America, and the Asian developing countries.
To better understand the link between feminism, fashion and sustainable development, we must unfortunately remember that the exploitation of women is not new.
At the end of the 19th century, the first sweatshops appeared due to the explosion of the demand for employment, in a context of massive migration of European populations to North America (particularly in New York). These workshops are the direct consequence of a very simple observation: we no longer dress out of necessity, but rather to follow the trends. With the invention of the sewing machine in 1851, the Western world witnessed the first steps of ready-to-wear clothing, which arrived with much greater production needs.
Sewing workshops of the 19th century as the ancestors of today’s fast fashion factories.
These sewing workshops are the ancestors of the fast fashion factories we know: deplorable working conditions, miserable wages, unhealthy premises etc. Like today, they employed mostly women, for whom textile work was not an occupation chosen by interest but rather a necessity. As the seamstress and trade unionist Aurora Phelps said in 1869, "you can see them in these workshops, sitting in long rows, huddled together in a hot, narrow atmosphere, working by the piece, 30, 40, 60 or 100 girls (…), working for 20 or 25 cents a day”. In these workshops, we witness the first steps of what will become ready-to-wear, in a time of Industrial Revolution.
In the 20th century, the ready-to-wear progressively became more democratic, coinciding with the liberation of the female body. This meant a major increase in the production of clothing: in Paris, the production was assured by a Jewish immigrant workforce (often working in private workshops). Since the Industrial Revolution, we can see that the production of fashion is ensured in majority by women, often of popular and/or immigrant origin, often exploited and poorly paid.
70% of the clothes sold in France are made in South East Asia, where the price of labor is extremely competitive.
Today, almost nothing has changed. With the emergence of fast-fashion in the 1990s, production was exported to developing countries where the labor force is cheaper and more plentiful, and where labor regulations are less restrictive for companies (eg China, the Philippines, India, Brazil, Bangladesh etc). Today, 70% of the clothes sold in France are made in South East Asia, where the price of labor is extremely competitive. Let's also note that it is estimated that 80% of the worldwide garment-making workforce is made up of women according to Clean Clothes Campaig. This means that a very large portion of women is still being exploited, when the rights of Western women have simulteaneously progressed: they are more independent, have access to comfortable professional situations (although still not quite equal to those of men) that allow them to consider fashion as a means of expression, or even a leisure activity.
Finally, it is a rather deep paradox that raises an important question for Western feminism: feminism yes, but for whom?
Let's take a simple example: a fast fashion brand designed a T-shirt that will be produced in Bangladesh and sold for the International Women's Rights Day. On this T-shirt is written the slogan "well behaved women don't make history". The intention here is to make a profit while maintaining a brand image that is aware of the feminist struggle and supposedly willing to stand with the oppressed community. But the reality is quite different: this slogan T-shirt will be made by women paid $0.32/hour to work in unsanitary and dangerous workshops where they will suffer various abuses related to their gender, for a daily duration that is poorly or not regulated (sometimes up to 120 hours per week). These women will not benefit from basic rights (such as the right to maternity leave), they will have very little opportunity to unionize, and will be forced to work to support their families from a very young age.
"We cannot value other women's lives less than our own, simply because they are far away." - Livia Firth
Although very frequently encountered, this scenario has not always been a strong enough argument in the debate for more responsible fashion. Often, the issue was dismissed simply because there was little information available. Indeed, the exploitation of workers is part of the persistent problem of lack of traceability: to limit costs, each part of the production is spread out in a different factory, and each factory uses countless subcontractors, which makes it very difficult to monitor working conditions. Yet, as activist Livia Firth wisely stated, "we cannot value other women's lives less than our own, simply because they are far away."
Since the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, many organizations have taken an interest in the question of where clothes come from, especially with the emergence of the Fashion Revolution and Who Made My Clothes movements in the same year, instigated by Orsola de Castro and Carry Somers. These movements have gradually given a new definition of responsible fashion, and have included this social criteria. Today, the British Council for Sustainable Fashion attributes to fashion four key identity pillars that help define it: ecological, economic, cultural and social.
**But what is the reality of these evolutions? Do brands and consumers really take this information into account? **
Not as much as they should. Currently, many luxury and mass market brands still practice greenwashing and wokewashing, i.e. marketing techniques aimed at hiding the real actions of a company by highlighting an unfounded commitment. This is exactly the example of the feminist T-shirt in our example: saying that you do something, without really doing it.
Consumers value local know-how in order to end the exploitation of foreign women.
However, we can note a wider and deeper awareness of the damages of fast-fashion and the climate issue as a whole, especially among smaller brands. If many brands are making an effort in terms of ecology (using innovative materials, using eco-design, upcycling etc), we can also seeing a slight improvement from a social point of view, with a desire to return to Made In France: people want to value local know-how in order to end the exploitation of foreign women. However, relocalizing the production in France remains an ideal: many brands widen their choice to a European production, with a marked preference for Portugal, which represents an important competitive advantage in terms of production costs.
These improvements are the result of a growing demand from the younger generations for a fairer fashion (Gen Y and Gen Z in particular). Indeed, these are the categories of consumers who feel the most concerned by climate issues: for Gen Z, 9 out of 10 people believe that companies must address the environmental and social issues they cause (McKinsey). Moreover, we can see that the emergence of social media and cancel culture has created a terrain where brands are held accountable for their actions in real time.
As a true mirror of society, fashion is absolutely inseparable from the feminist struggle.
Fashion has always been a true mirror of society; it has evolved with its struggles and issues. This is why it is absolutely inseparable from the feminist struggle, both as an industry and as a field of expression. As we know it today, fashion is much more feminist than it was a few decades ago, thanks to the fights led by women around the world. There are more women designers, more women in high-paying and important positions, the female gaze is firmly entrenched, thus contributing to the industry's progression towards greater responsibility. We can of course mention Stella McCartney but also Gabriela Hearst, *Amy Powney, *Marine Serre*, all women who are paving the way for the future with each of their creations.
It is no longer a question of centralizing the feminist struggle around Western women: fashion will be with all women, or it will not be at all.
Thanks to the anti-racist and anti-body-shaming fights, fashion is also more inclusive. We saw it with Rihanna's Fenty brand, whose makeup line celebrates all skin colors of women. Many plus-size models have also appeared on the catwalk in recent years: Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser, Precious Lee…
In the context of an increasingly urgent climate, the issue of a truly feminist fashion is absolutely central. New consumers expect brands to make a real effort, so that women workers are included in the equation as human beings and not as a manufacturing tool. It is no longer a question of centralizing the feminist struggle around Western women: fashion will be with all women, or it will not be at all.