Fashionable Feminism

Call me a cynic, but the rise in catwalk feminism is leaving a sour taste in my mouth. Two years ago, at Paris Fashion Week, some of the world’s biggest supermodels marched down Chanel’s catwalk with megaphones and placards demanding equality. The same Paris Fashion Week which is home to haute couture: an industry that has solidified the idea of thinness being intrinsic to beauty. Placards held by the models included phrases such as ‘boys should get pregnant too’ (in brief: they can), and ‘be different’.

Be different in an industry where models continue to be overwhelmingly white and young? Right. Karl Lagerfield, creative director of Chanel, once said that ‘no one wants to see curvy women on the catwalk’. Apparently, feminism is only okay when it sells your clothes. The nice type of feminism though, of course.

Fast forward two years, and political movements are still being used to sell clothes. Gigi Hadid, a model who embodies the beauty standards set by her industry, is the face of a campaign ran by the sports brand Reebok called #PerfectNever. This campaign seeks to ‘promote empowering females to ignore criticism and embrace their imperfections’. So naturally, they have casted somebody who completely fits those standards. Now, don’t get me wrong: Hadid is doing her job. The main issue here lies with Reebok. So Reebok, if your campaign wants to ‘silence body-shamers’ and ‘the idea that everyone has to be perfect’, why are you using a tall, thin, white passing supermodel? If the answer is ‘to sell a brand’, I’m doubting that you really cared about women in the first place. It’s arguably the fashion industry that’s set this standard, and is complicit in the idea of perfection. I’m sure Lagerfield isn’t alone in a disdain for plus-size models in fashion. It just simply does not make sense to have a conventionally attractive, slim supermodel representing such a campaign. A pretty woman with a bit of sweaty hair is not a radical image of gender empowerment. Hadid and other supermodels uphold and epitomise the establishment of fashion, and ultimately female beauty standards. If you’re not tall, white passing, cisgender, or slim you’re not good enough. It’s a kick in the teeth to see a supermodel on a catwalk one week, then front a campaign against beauty standards and body shaming – everything her job exemplifies – the week after.

On the other hand, H&M’s most recent advert campaign could not be more different. The advert features women of colour, trans women, muscular women, Afro hair to no hair to armpit hair – to name a few examples – with ‘She’s a Lady’ playing in the background. H&M paint an image completely different to most high fashion runways, with a pro-woman and pro-diversity message at its heart. It’s refreshing to see women who don’t fit Paris/London/New York (delete as appropriate) Fashion Week’s ideals. It’s ground breaking to see women who don’t fit Western beauty standards representing a multinational brand. Yet H&M, over the years, has also hit the headlines for its sweatshop workforce; a workforce made up of around 85% women. Workers are offered precarious contracts and earn little more than £100 a month. To avoid losing their jobs, pregnant workers are often forced to seek backstreet abortions, as the risk outweighs unemployment. So can we really argue that H&M are any better? H&M utilise feminism as a sales tool in the West, yet turn a blind eye to the suffering of women elsewhere. It’s so important to see positive images countering the aforementioned beauty standards, but at what cost?

It’s not a case of ‘who’s worse?’ because it’s not as simple as that. Both brands are guilty of riding on the back of the popularity of a movement. The purpose, though, becomes a bit murky. Does someone at Reebok and H&M genuinely think that these campaigns are examples of the great strides we’re making? In that case, it still doesn’t make them above criticism. It still doesn’t ignore the huge flaw in casting a, slim, supermodel as an advocate for body positivity, nor avoid the issues faced by Indian and Cambodian sweatshop workers. Likewise, I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never shopped in H&M, or read a fashion magazine. It’s a different debate entirely to question the relationship between fashion and feminism. We need runways and campaigns that represent reality. But these need to be real changes. They need to be committed to by the industry as a whole – from manufacturing methods to Milan Fashion Week – and must last beyond the season.

Start small. Women, and people of all genders, may be #PerfectNever, but let’s at least remind each other of that. Support, look out for, and empower each other. That’s something no brand can teach us.

[Amy Shimmin] 

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