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.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.