Thinspiration and exploitation: why fashion is deeply uncool

Is fashion a feminist issue? Of course it bloody is.

As September rolls around following a summer that witnessed the emotional peaks and troughs of sporting glory and failure, not to mention society's general readjustment in its attitude to the disabled, we turn our minds to higher things: namely, the glistening, glittering albatross that is the fashion industry. Fashion (or fash, to dickheads) is so important that it gets four whole weeks dedicated to it every six months, which is more time than most people give their elderly relatives (seriously, ring your nan.) Unfortunately, the time we are, as women, supposed to spend being interested in fashion is a lot longer - namely our whole lives, or at least until we can no longer afford the dry cleaning bill for our shit-stained capri pants and our care assistant can euthanise us using a Mulberry Alexa as a makeshift suffocation hood.

If you have a vagina, the assumption is that you're somehow pre-programmed to give a toss about which print goes with which other print, and whether or not that goes with shoes. Is this something that men have to think about? No, of course not. If you don't believe us, ask a male friend what he's wearing out on Friday night. He'll regard you, baffled, while your female bezzie gives you an item-by-item run through of her outfit which stops short of her chosen brand of tampon. That's not because she's stupid, mind, but because fashion magazines have been breathily whispering in her ear all her life that she is not a fully self-actualised human being unless she buys those leopard print tights off ASOS like, now. Is fashion a feminist issue? Of course it bloody is.

At its best, fashion represents the expression of an art form which can be utterly transformative. Some of those Vogue photo-shoots make you gasp with their beauty and creativity, and a great dress cut right can have as drastic an impact on your mood as a shot of dopamine. Unfortunately, the high never lasts forever and at its worst, the fashion world consists of a convocation of vacuous twats who care way more than they should about something most adults grew out of years ago, ie looking cooler than your mates. The eternal irony is, of course, that caring about being cool is actually deeply uncool - and so all fashionistas must pretend that they do not care about being cool, while making up for it by simultaneously being really, really cool. FYI, we have it on good authority that this is no mean feat when you're wearing disco knickers. Frankly, it sounds bloody exhausting, and we'd rather be waterboarded with Vitamin Water than even attempt to be a part of it.

Of course, as far as fashion goes, most heterosexual men have a "get out of jail free" card. The fashion industry as it exists today cannot really be said to be a patriarchy, or even a matriarchy, so much as it is a HATEriarchy (ah, the power of the well-placed pun). The everyday self-loathing brought about by fashion is almost unmatched by any other industry. The fashion circus genuinely impacts upon how us women feel about ourselves on a day-to-day basis; our sense of confidence, of self-worth, can all boil down to whether or not we look crap in a skater skirt on a particularly stressful Monday morning. Yet is this huge amount of power treated as a gift, to be used cautiously, sensitively and with respect? No, duh. It's used to sell us leather trousers.

There is so much feminist beef to be had with fashion that it's difficult to know where to start. The fact that it avoids those markers of femininity (tits and arse) like the plague and worships the undernourished despite the deaths of several young models (and potentially thousands more fashion fans) is not encouraging. The internet was supposed to democratise fashion, but when you look at websites such as lookbook.nu, sites that used to be creative hubs celebrating sartorial individuality, it's clear that they've become little more than thinspiration. Then, if you're not angry enough about the fact that girls as young as five are now asking if their bums look big, there's the long-held idea that shopping is some kind of leisure activity for women, implying that we're all empty automatons who love nothing more than an afternoon trying to smush our fleshy bodies into arbitrarily (and often incorrectly) sized rags. Jesus Christ, the sizing - which assumes that you can't be skinny and have large breasts, or flat-chested with big hips, or indeed any body type other than perfectly proportioned or maybe straight up and down. And the self-hatred that occurs as a result of sizing: the tears that are shed because the "10" no longer fits; the lunches missed; the fingers down the throat in the ladies' at Soho House.

If that still isn't bleak enough, then you have the social exclusion upon which fashion thrives: the sheer wanton capitalism of it all. Fashion's exploitation of interns is legendary. A friend of ours recently left the industry to become an estate agent so that, in her own words, "I can actually afford the fucking clothes". Yet that's nothing compared to the sweatshops and the suffering, the slavery and the starvation that those in the developing world (often women and children) undergo to put that peacock-feathered satin coat on someone's back. Needless to say, whenever fur comes "back in", you can throw a whole load of innocent animals whose only crime was to be delightfully furry in to the mix too, for good measure. And while the most expensive pieces might have been more ethically put together if you're lucky, almost all affordable fashion has a dirty little secret that you wouldn't want to expose for fear of levels of life-ruining guilt.

The fact that fashion is mostly run by women almost makes the whole thing worse. Where's the solidarity? Are women happy little masochists who, at some level, want to make their whole sex suffer for style? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. But calling vertiginous high heels "tools of the patriarchy" may be missing a trick. The anxiety and trauma suffered by women in both the developed and developing world at the hands of other, much more powerful women in the fashion industry is a conundrum to which we do not have the answer. All we know is that it's sad, and that it ruins all the fun stuff about fashion: the joy of dressing up, of disguise, of celebration, of self-expression.

This is not something that we expect the "fash pack" to get their heads around anytime soon, because many of them are too busy taking themselves far too seriously. The only thing we know for certain is that they need laughing at, loudly and urgently. People don't do it enough - only Ab Fab and Hadley Freeman seem to be flying the flag for fashion-based lolz right now. The time has come for public mockery, folks. We need to take a proper look at that Eiffel Tower shaped hat and irreverently giggle. Only then will they realise that a lot of what they do is deeply, fatally uncool.

Models on the catwalk at London Fashion Week 2012 in designs by Mary Katrantzou. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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