is activism in the fashion industry actually doing anything?
It's easy to slap a feminist slogan on a t-shirt. It's harder to reconcile fashion's relationship with late capitalism.
The way we choose to present ourselves— and the way other people see us— is to portray a message. We have evolved from an auditory society to a visual one; you can even get to know someone based on their Instagram feed. Historically, fashion offers the same tool; the way people choose to present themselves spells out a message, which, frequently, has been a symbol of protest (e.g. protestors scrawling peace signs on clothes in the 1970s during the anti-war movement, or women chopping their hair in the 1920s). Now, when it comes to protest fashion, we walk a fine line between exploration and exploitation.
When I was a little kid going to the library with my mom, I would beeline to the historical section to find this massive white-bound book all about the history of fashion, from ancient Greece to the 1980s. I loved seeing the way that silhouettes changed and how things became more colorful as time moved on. I would trace the designs and wonder if what we were wearing would ever end up in those books. It seemed so out of reach, like deLIA’s or Ardene's would never be influential or important. I couldn’t picture my mom’s low-rise Old Navy skinny jeans and fringe vests next to Egyptian queens. With politics becoming something we are all more engaged in, our fashion reflects it; a red trucker hat with white writing slapped on it is a distinctly Republican visual; women have more liberty to dress provocatively as a symbol of progress. But what does political fashion mean when it rides the back of late capitalism in 2020?
Businesses profiting upon “making a statement” isn't a new trend. The fur trade is an early example of this, like colonizers taking advantage of First Nations people. First Nations people are well versed in how to effectively and ethically collect animals, with nothing going to waste; they know the ecosystem and how to keep it intact. What isn’t ethical is when companies farm huge masses of animals, raising them to be killed for their fur. In 2015, there was an extremist protest at a Jean Paul Gaultier store, where protesters dressed in fake fur-coated themselves in fake blood. This isn't the first of this kind of protest, with animal rights performing in this way dating back decades. This brought on a wave of fake fur being the new norm and real fur being shunned away. Even if it seems like the more “ethical option,” at what cost do we get these fake furs? We end up producing loads of plastic, with the price tag deeming it “vegan." These furs are made of plastic, spun into thread— and plastic takes 500 — 1,000 years to completely break down. The argument between which of these fur products are actually better for the environment is ongoing; but, ultimately, trends in fur, like most movements in fashion, are bought into, absorbed, produced, and discarded.
Fashion is inexcusably charged with meaning, because of the ways that we are in control of it. You have the power over which t-shirt you buy, wear every day, and eventually stop wearing; in this way, we give weight to our appearance, which can be for better or for worse. Wearing something without major consideration isn’t a big deal unless the eyes of the country are watching. A particularly notable instance of this is when Melania Trump wore a jacket that said “ I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U?” on the back while visiting an immigrant’s children center on the US/Mexico border. Though the administration swears there was zero correlation between the jacket and the visit, it was not a good look, considering the history between the Trump administration and their immigration policies.
On the other side of things, a trend among major corporations is to market themselves as inclusive. Many corporations put out rainbow-themed items for Pride Month (also known as “pinkwashing”), or fast-fashion companies put out t-shirts branded with “Feminist” or “Girl Power.” These items are shown on models with choice diversity, to show the range of how much a brand is “woke”; in reality, these corporations do not push for these ideals until the world seems to decide it's palatable. At the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement, no companies were jumping to support a small group of women to give (white) women the right to vote— this is because these huge companies, at their core, are not for the greater good of people or in what is ethical; they're here to make a profit. These companies find their relevance in being “socially conscious” so they can receive a pat on the back from their consumers.
As of now, I would say we're riding a political wave of facing off with these capitalism-fueled brands. As fast fashion becomes genuinely discussed and sustainability rises in popularity, these companies— from Forever 21 and beyond— are going to have to comply or be left behind. We have the capacity to push for what's better for the world, by making consistent, thoughtful choices with our purchases. These everyday decisions make up the flow charts that decide the future of corporations that don’t deserve our support. We can ride this wave where we want it to go— to own the system we may not have created, but live in now. ✰