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Essay: Fashion Power: Examining Feminism & Patriarchy in the Fashion Industry

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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Fashion is often criticised for being an oppressing patriarchal tool against women capitalised by large corporations. However, it has historically been instrumental in pushing the women’s liberation movement for over 200 years. This essay aims to investigate feminist ideologies in fashion, the effects of patriarchal culture in the fashion industry and exploring the solutions to end discrimination against women in the industry.

The first reported reform in women’s fashion was started by the Vesuviennes, a radical feminist party in France that suggested various reforms including women’s rights to dress the same way as men in 1848. Other women liberation movements in different parts of the western world also fought for the issue of dress but these efforts would not result in any real change until the First World War. The greatest female fashion revolution occured after the First World War as women started gaining new rights, becoming educated and entering the workforce in large numbers. Women’s fashion gradually started to change alongside women’s roles in modern society. Dress was also among the central issues during the second wave of feminism. In a protest against the Miss America beauty pageant in 1968, women were seen throwing “instruments of oppression” such as bras, hair curlers, false eyelashes, wigs and copies of Cosmopolitan and Ladies’ Home Journal into a “freedom trashcan” (Kalev & Marzel, 2014).

By the late 1970s, protest T-shirts were used as an active tool to communicate different ideological movements including feminism. Conceptual artist Barbara Kruger adopted unconventional mediums such T-shirts, mugs and postcards to display her artwork centralised around political and social issues especially feminist ideologies. Graphic T-shirts are still instrumental in the feminism combat today. Maria Chiuri Grazia, the first female creative designer of Christian Dior, designed the “We should all be feminist” T-shirts as part of spring summer 2017 collection inspired by the literary work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fashion also became a central issue of the #metoo movement where actresses banded together to wear black dresses on the red carpet in protest of the discrimination against women in the film and television industry.

While women were finally able to attain suffrage and civil rights, women still faced cultural and political inequalities. The second-wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s was focused on overcoming those inequalities and the patriarchal power structures in all aspects of life. This sentiment was manifested through the mini skirt. The mini skirt was symbolic because it represented a rejection of formality and pushed the boundaries on sexuality. It was met with heavy criticism and was banned in certain countries. The mini skirt is significant because it represents a turning point for the feminist movement, it was the first time in modern history where women were starting to own their sexuality and challenged a man’s authority over female bodies. As the decades go by, the skirts were getting shorter and women started to expose their bodies more. Although most would view having the freedom to undress meant women were empowered to own their bodies as they wished, it also birthed new beauty standards. More focus was placed on how the female body should look and new body shaping methods such plastic surgery, diets and exercise were created to achieve an ‘ideal’ body shape – an ideal that was formed by a mainly patriarchal society (Kalev & Marzel, 2014).

These patriarchal views began to impose in how women were portrayed in the mainstream media. Media channels such as film, music and photography were dominated by the male workforce. Therefore most female depictions during that period was created from a male perspective. The unbalanced ratio of women to men at the top positions of the workforce has created a culture that enables men to abuse their position of power. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D, the founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has been analysing psychological effects of people in power for 25 years. He concluded that people in power are prone to two shortcomings which are they develop empathy deficits; an inability to take account the perspective of others and impulsive behaviour such as violating workplace ethics. The research also shows that these two tendencies manifest in inappropriate sexual behavior in male-dominated contexts. Men in power tend to overestimate the sexual interest of others in them and often use their positions of power as leverage for favours in sexual nature (Keltner, 2017). This behaviour echos with the recent outpouring allegations of sexual misconduct incidents in the film industry and the fashion industry .

The Spotlight team of the Boston Globe recently ran a investigation on the sexual exploitation of models in the fashion industry.  In the extensive report released in January of 2018, more than 50 male and female models revealed their accounts of sexual misconduct experiences during their career. Nearly 60% of the models interviewed said they had been “touched inappropriately during work-related situations”. The violations range from unwanted kissing to rape. The report named several highly acclaimed photographers, agents, stylist, casting directors and other industry professionals of alleged sexual misconduct. Some of these cases involve minors as young as 15. Former model Dasha Alexander revealed that photographer Andre Passos inserted his fingers in her vagina during a shoot, saying it would give her photos “more emotion”. One model said she was called a “whore” and a “hooker” by one of the Dior executives on set during a shoot for the brand. Another model who was a teen at the time was suggested having sex with a male model by the photographer to “loosen her up” during a shoot for Vogue Germany because she refused to go topless. These models are often sent to locations unsupervised with no representation from their management. Models who did confide with their agents were told that sleeping with photographers was a good way of advancing in their careers. Some agents even offered the models drugs and alcohol, encouraged sexual relations, forced them into shooting nude and withheld earnings (Abelson & Pfeiffer, 2018).

Conde Nast who owns Vogue magazine stated it would no longer work with some of the names alleged in the report and created a new code of conduct in late 2017 which includes banning drugs and alcohol on set, prohibits work by models under 18 and says no model “should be pressured to expose themselves more than they feel comfortable”. Other companies such LVMH, Kering and Calvin Klein has since then followed suit. Although banning the alleged sexual predators from the industry is necessary, it does not seem to be a long-term solution as these issues stem from a larger flaw in the system itself. As stated from the modelling agency representatives interviewed in the report, most knew that they were sending their models into potentially dangerous situations. Editors, stylists and executives from the brands also allowed these perpetrators to take advantage of their shoots or purposefully turned a blind eye to what was happening (Abelson & Pfeiffer, 2018). This unchecked power given to these individuals is what has caused so many in the industry to be vulnerable to and complicit in the abuse of power.

As the endless tales of sexual misconduct in the industry are being exposed, many women in respected positions have come out to condemn the alleged perpetrators. However, it is difficult to ignore the hypocrisy around their claims because so many of them have benefited from working with these individuals. It would also be very difficult to believe that these women were completely ignorant to what was happening when they had such close working relations.

The challenge to eliminate the abuse of power in this context is to first have those who are guilty to feel remorse or shame. The recent mass coverage of sexual misconduct stories has been positive for workplace ethics reforms because it forces those who are guilty or alleged guilty to confront the court of public opinion. (Blair, 2017)

In terms of creating real change, these code of conducts as the one proposed by Conde Nast not only need to be created but also strictly abided. Similar regulations have been created before but were not strictly imposed and still left many gray areas for certain cases such as nudity. Laws and regulations that protects artist also need to be reevaluated. It is important to recognise that creating these regulations without meaningful education, proper complaint channels and third-party enforcement will not result in change (Abelson & Pfeiffer, 2018). Ultimately, this notion that dissolves moral correctness for the sake of creating provocative imagery needs to be broken and the boundaries of consent need to be affirmatively drawn.

Other suggestions include models creating and joining unions. An organisation called Model Mafia based in New York are pushing models to create their own reforms. Among those reforms is creating a user-review platform where models can have a safe place to share their experience with different photographers. This suggestion seems to be a feasible option as social media has been very instrumental in being  a means for victims to publicly expose their abusers (Abelson & Pfeiffer, 2018). It would be difficult for the fashion system to change unless models themselves demand for the system to accommodate them.

In conclusion, the significance of dress and fashion as a powerful tool in pushing feminist ideologies is recognised. Patriarchal culture has influenced the fashion industry to discriminate against women therefore a more balanced power structure must be achieved in order to create a safer environment for all those involved. Long-term solutions to need to be created to crack the cycle of systemic discrimination. How society will move forward in dealing with this issue will be highly critical for the future of the industry. This moment in time could potentially be the tipping point for a shift on how women are perceived, treated and regarded in the workplace.

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