Guest author Kim Gerlach is actually active as a consultant to brands and social entrepreneurs in the European fair fashion scene. In this two-part series, she covers pantsuits, seamstresses in the Global South, and why we need fewer beauty ideals.
Feminism and fashion have far more in common than the letter they start with. For almost one hundred years, their paths have developed in tandem. Today, feminism is virtually mainstream and has become much more than just a movement on the fringe of society. In 2020, thanks to clothing, it’s about self-empowerment and calling social roles into question.
According to the dictionary, feminism is one “direction in the women’s movement that, proceeding from women’s needs, seeks fundamental change in social norms (such as traditional gender roles) and patriarchal culture.” And today, the movement goes beyond that to include all genders (that is, even those who do not identify as male or female) and people who are marginalized because of attributes other than gender (such as skin color and origin).
But where did the connection to fashion come from?
Kim Gerlach and her practical trouser pocket © Constanze Neubert
For nearly 100 years, clothing has been a means by which women in particular have emancipated themselves within society. The pantsuit is emblematic of this development. After all, by wearing it, women accorded themselves increased functionality, such as having their own pockets and being able to walk about freely in their everyday life. Goodbye to physical and sociological constraints! In the 1970s, many feminists wore purple overalls and embraced their own natural beauty instead of wearing lipstick and bras.(1)
Today, typical female and typical male attributes have become increasingly blurred. In other words, it’s no longer a question of conforming to a prescribed norm, but rather of developing one’s own individual personality. The movement has accomplished a great deal at breakneck speed. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of areas for improvement in the fashion industry.
What feminism is still focusing on today
There are many challenges and concerns in the context of fashion that might not be apparent at first glance.
The majority of production workers are women.
Second only to China in terms of fashion exports, Bangladesh is the best example of structural inequalities. In fact, more than 80% of the workers are women and a large proportion of them (70–85% of these female laborers) are minors. Due to the lack of trade unions, they frequently have to spend at least 12 hours a day in production factories and don’t receive their wages for several years. The wage that is then paid is equal to 20% of the statutory minimum wage.(2) The women are not covered by health or social insurance and are subjected to inhumane treatment. Unfortunately, the situation is much the same in other so-called low-wage Asian countries like India.
Pre-COVID: The Fair Fashion Demonstration in Berlin, 2018. ©Fashion Revolution Berlin
From beauty ideals to glass ceilings
Particularly in Europe, part of the Global West, a number of ongoing problems and structural inequalities persist. Because whether we’re talking about fast fashion companies or the luxury brands: Women hold less than 25% of industry leadership positions (here). The glass ceiling is a metaphor for the phenomenon whereby certain groups of people, such as women and BIPOCs*, are deterred in their efforts to advance to positions of leadership by invisible obstacles.
Designs and the sexualization of the female body
Women face enormous social pressure. Regrettably, the female body is still regarded as an object of sexualization even today. In their advertising, major corporations continue to emphasize sexily clad women who conform to the modern-day standard measurements – 90-60-90. While size zero was still the order of the day on the catwalks of the world in the 2000s, our understanding of beauty has now converged at a clothing size of 34–36 (US size 4–6). All the same, this doesn’t go far enough, as the majority of women living in Europe wear dress sizes 38 and 40. Anything above a size 42 is very often glibly disregarded and simply not produced.
* BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color.
* The two-gender model was intentionally chosen in this article. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the 21st century recognizes more than two genders, and thus it is not a matter of male/female polarity but rather a spectrum of genders.
Part two coming soon, where Kim will discuss feminism in fashion further.
(1) Source: https://www.das-feministische-archiv.de/wir-haben-sie-noch-alle/die-lila-latzhose-und-andere-mythen
(2) (FEMNET, with their campaign #GegenModerneSklaverei here).
Cover image: guest author Kim Gerlach © Constanze Neubert