Women. Fashion. Power.

Photo by Samantha Sophia

Photo by Samantha Sophia

On International Women’s Day this year we reflect on the title of last year’s exhibition at the Design Museum. What is the interplay between them when it comes to fashion and sustainability? And what can we make of these words in a Post-Weinstein #TimesUp #MeToo world?

What of Women. Fashion. Power…
100 years after some women got the vote? When women’s bodies are still commented on and evaluated publicly with private consequences? When women still earn less than men in most sectors?

What of Women. Fashion. Power…
When sexual harassment has been normalized and made invisible? When cuts to funding supporting those affected by domestic violence disproportionally affects WoC? When those identifying as women are excluded and shamed?

What of Women. Fashion. Power…
When millions of women march together in a defiant call for change? When women who challenge authority are silenced and undermined.

What of Women. Fashion. Power…
When silent cyborg models challenge binaries and disciplinary powers and yet exert them all the same?

Fashion is a gendered industry of that there is no doubt. This can be seen in the production and consumption of fashion as well as in the social meaning it communicates. Currently values such as competition, individualism, and material success are prominent within mainstream discourses within and about fashion. Yet to talk of sustainability within fashion is to place relationships between ourselves and with the world around us more centrally or perhaps even place ourselves de-centrally. It is also to constantly strive for social and environmental justice. Then we can start to discuss not only power but also change, asking as Mary Beard does ‘if women aren’t perceived to be fully within the structures of power, isn’t it power that we need to redefine?’ (See Women & Power. A Manifesto)

Any hope of positive change in the lives of all those involved in the production and consumption of fashion, means acknowledging the value contributed by all involved. This recognises, as Yuniya Kawamura does, that ‘fashion is not created by a single individual but by everyone involved in the production of fashion, and thus fashion is a collective activity’[1].

Those involved are, for the most part, women. It is an industry in which the majority of makers are women who in turn are making things for other women. And yet, it is also worth remembering that when it comes to the balance of power within the fashion industry, men, as conglomerate owners, factory owners and in factories, hold the senior roles in many fashion businesses: therefore, there is a gender power imbalance throughout the industry which needs to be addressed. In this respect it is no different from many other industries.

Fashion’s complicated relationship with representation in the media, and the proximity of these gendered industrial relations, add further layers to the analysis of fashion’s relevance to questions of social and ecological change as well as women’s empowerment. Whose voice is being heard? Who makes the decisions and on what values are they based? These are questions that constantly need asking and answering. Femininities and feminisms are central to the equation and within current fashion and sustainability discourse it is as consumers that women are largely discussed – which is not surprising given that much of the discourse is dominated by commercial thinking.

What of Women. Fashion. Power…

When there is still so much to be done to challenge the power structures in fashion and elsewhere.

Find out more about CSF’s 2 day conference What’s Going On? Where there’ll be a track exploring fashion and sustainability and power.

This is edited extract from ‘The role of fashion in bringing about social and ecological change’ in Why Women Will Save the Planet, a Friend’s of the Earth and C40 Cities Publication.

[1] Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies, Yuniya Kawamura, Berg, 2005