Put a Feminist on it: why I’m sick of feminist fashion












By Amy Gray

As a writer, I’m a huge fan of window shopping: it combines the thrill of looking at things you can’t afford with the excitement of not buying them.

One major clothing store has a range of t-shirts emblazoned with “feminist” and beanies embroidered with “Not Yours”, a cheeky defiance against entitlement. A bookstore promotes a new line of totes, again screaming out “FEMINIST” in bold capital letters. Another bag exhorts you to “Read. Resist. Repeat.”, while another utilises Trump’s dismissal of Hillary Clinton as a “Nasty Woman”.

Later online, looking at winter clothes for my daughter, she could buy shirts and jackets with “Not Your Baby” or “No Man’s Woman”. It was a nice distraction from all the men screaming abuse at me on Twitter at the time.

It’s reminiscent of a scene from comedy series Portlandia where they enter stores to “put birds on things” because they’re so damn popular. Nothing is safe from bird application.

Perhaps feminism is the new bird. If we believe in a free market economy where supply meets demand, then there is obviously demand for feminism. There must be so many feminists out there demanding more tshirts, jackets, hats, bags and ephemera. They’re demanding more feminism, so the market is bound to follow them. Simple.

Yet reality is rarely simple. The market isn’t suddenly feminist: the market is selling feminism.

As Ruby Hamad noted in her keynote speech for QVWC on International Women’s Day and our interview, the craze for these clothes often masks the oppression of women in sweatshops, offering superficial representation instead of the complex work of structural change.

This was perfectly illustrated when collaboration between Elle UK and the Fawcett Society used sweatshop labour to produce their “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” tshirt. Women in Mauritius were paid lower than $1 per hour to make these tshirts. As Sam Maher from Labour Behind the Label says, “this is an entire system of exploitation”. In this case, a tshirt made by exploited women of colour to satisfy the whimsy of white people eager to make a statement but not make change.

Ruby’s point is as strong as it is ignored – our craze for superficial representation means nothing when it relies on the exploitation of other women. It’s ignored not because it is easier to wear a tshirt than actively lobby for structural change. Be a feminist, but don’t worry about doing feminist things.

I’m not perfect here – four years ago, I helped create a short release of feminist-themed tshirts. There were slogans, names and imagery so people could proclaim their feminism. We found a local printer so we could support Australian business and chose a tshirt manufacturer that appeared to have strong ethics and was a member of Fair Labour Association.

I later discovered that at the manufacturer’s factory in Haiti, workers earned $12 a day to make tshirts – it’s more than other factories on the island, but not enough to meet the average living wage of $28 per day. No matter the rate, it’s still small change to those running the billion dollar company.

I had treated human rights as a checklist on my way to making something to sell. They didn’t change anything but made people fleetingly happy instead of permanently secure. I hadn’t interrogated what I was doing and its impact.

In ‘No Logo’, Naomi Klein recounts talking with school students about sweatshop labour. Their response was direct – tell us where to shop instead. Klein reiterates it’s not about questioning where you shop but realising what we buy into sells out others.

A tshirt won’t liberate anyone and a jacket won’t break the male gaze of entitlement. That comes from structural change – constant, vigilant work to ensure women have the same political, social, economic, professional and legal opportunity as men. It’s not available in shops, but it fits like a dream.


    This entry was posted in Newsletters. Bookmark the permalink.

    Comments are closed.