GRL PWR: does feminist fashion do more harm than good?

T-shirts with feel-good feminist slogans can be found at almost any major fashion retailer in the country. 

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If you walk into any H&M, Topshop, Urban Outfitters or Forever 21 in the UK, it’s probable that you’ll find a t-shirt with the slogan “grl pwr”. You might also find a jumper with “international girl gang” or if you’re lucky, a pair of underwear with “female boss” written on them. 

Girl power is inescapable on the high street. Watered down proclamations of female solidarity are everywhere, from Buzzfeed articles titled “25 Items Of Clothing Every Badass Feminist Should Own” to a Girl Power challenge on Love Island where female contestants dressed up as superheroes and smashed watermelons with their bums (yes, really).

In 2016, Dior released a t-shirt with the slogan “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS”, the name of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s feminist manifesto. Adichie defended the shirts, arguing that “feminism is [not] that popular…the goal of feminism is to make itself redundant”. It is certainly true that feminist language has become more and more prevalent over the last few years.  Adichie acknowledged that “it’s a fairly reasonable idea that you do harm to an important idea by commercialising it”. Yet in her eyes, the importance of circulating feminist ideas outweighs the harm.

There are, of course, competing ideas about what feminism looks like. For some, it is a “lean-in” feminism, emphasising the successes of individual women at the top of their professions. For many others, feminism is the rejection of an unequal relationship between men and women based on institutionalised patriarchy. It acknowledges that different women have various privileges based on class, sexuality and ethnicity. The central aim of this is the empowerment of all women to eliminate unequal relationships.

And yet the feminism of the high street is vague and uncertain. It appeals to a notion of girl power without ever really defining what that girl power should look like, or where it comes from. This vagueness is reflected in some deeply un-feminist practises, not least the use of exploitative female labour. 

In 2001, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center filed a lawsuit against Forever 21, naming 19 workers who allegedly worked six days a week for up to 12 hours a day, earning less than minimum wage. The workers launched a national boycott of the company, which lasted for three years.

Forever 21 sued the Garment Worker Center and other groups for defamation in 2002. Ultimately, Forever 21 settled in 2004 with the Centre. Forever 21 has now moved the majority of its clothes manufacturing out of Los Angeles to Asia and Africa, although some micro-factories in the US still produce for the company.

A female garment worker at one such Los Angeles factory in 2011 told Bloomberg Businessweek that she was paid 12 cents for every vest she sewed – vests that then retailed for $13.80. In 2012, a regional administrator for the Los Angeles Labour Department described vendors for Forever 21 as working in “sweatshop-like conditions”. The brand has also refused to sign the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building safety, or commit to stop using cotton from Uzbekistan, a country notorious for its child labour.

Forever 21 is currently stocking a t-shirt with the slogan “FEMINIST” written on it in sequins. But when 80 per cent of the world’s clothing workers are women, their treatment becomes a feminist issue. If companies cannot guarantee fair working conditions for these women, feminist slogans appear to capitalise on an ideal while devaluing it.

There are a number of feminist t-shirts that donate proceeds to feminist causes. Yet these are primarily produced by independent brands, like We the People or political groups like Planned Parenthood. The original Dior t-shirt also donated a percentage of its proceeds to Rihanna’s charity, The Clara Lionel Foundation. Yet the shirt retails at a steep $750, making high street options more accessible for many.

Also troubling is the prevalence of brands commandeering the designs of women artists. In 2016, Los Angeles designer Tuesday Bassen accused chain Zara of using her designs, including a pin with the slogan “Girls!”. Her lawyer sent a cease and desist letter, to which Zara’s legal team responded that “the lack of distinctiveness of your client’s purported designs makes it very hard to see how a significant part of the population anywhere in the world would associate the signs with Tuesday Bassen.” 

Wildfang is an independent clothing brand with the slogan “FEMALE FOUNDED. WOMEN RUN”. According to its website, it raised $75,000 for charities in 2017 via proceeds from its apparel. In 2017, the CEO shared a post on Instagram claiming that Forever 21 had used its popular “Wild Feminist” design. In the post, Emma McIlroy requested that Forever 21 “stop ripping [them] off”.

Wildfang considered pursuing legal action, but McIlroy said: “the only way this is going to change is to stop supporting these brands.” She described the practise of a major corporation profiting off a feminist brand’s design as “more than ironic”. Forever 21 removed the t-shirt from its online store soon after McIlroy's allegations. 

If fashion retailers’ seeming disregard for women in the production process is damning, so, too, is the structure of their HQs. Despite the importance of their female customers, the CEOs of Forever 21, Topshop, H&M and Urban Outfitters are all men. While H&M’s gender pay gap figures in 2018 might be below the UK average, men were still likely to earn eight per cent more. According to the company, the pay gap is not a case of paying people differently to do the same job, but because men hold a majority of senior roles in the company.

Setting the injustices of the fashion industry aside, there is a more open question about whether buying a t-shirt with a feminist slogan causes the casual shopper to engage more with feminism itself. Missguided, an online shopping retailer, sells a £9 swimsuit with “The Future is Female” written on it. This has become a key phrase, seen on everything from towels to tote-bags, yet its origin, less widely touted, is from a shirt produced by Labyris Books, the first women’s bookstore in New York.

The slogan’s current fame stems from lesbian history Instagram account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, which shared an image taken by photographer Liza Cowan of her then-partner Alix Dobkin wearing the shirt as part of a series on lesbian fashion. In a 2017 interview, Cowan made the point that “these shirts are now big business. There were plenty of feminist and Lesbian T-shirts, of course, during the 1970s… [but they] commemorated a place, an event, a group, but usually not a free floating idea”. She points out that the original The Future Is Female shirt had Labyris Books printed on the back.

Critics of the commercialisation of feminism often argue that wearing a shirt with the word feminist on it does not make someone an activist. Cowan agrees. “Anyone can buy a shirt without ever setting foot into a women’s bookstore or a feminist or lesbian event…It’s just something you bought.”

While someone doesn’t necessarily have to go to a woman’s bookstore or attend feminist events to be a feminist, it is arguably impossible to separate feminism from politics, as the fashion retailers try to do. This sentiment was captured powerfully by bell hooks: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression”. The problem is also not really with individual consumers who buy “feminist” clothing from fast fashion retails. Responsibility lies with major companies who produce pseudo-feminist clothing without honouring any actual feminist allegiance.

Yet merchandise can be effective, especially when related to a specific campaign or issue. During the campaign to repeal the anti-abortion Eighth Amendment in Ireland, the Abortion Rights Campaign sold jumpers emblazoned with REPEAL. Other merchandisers donated their profits directly to the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. It was impossible to separate the jumpers from the principles behind them.

“GRL PWR” shirts lack this context. They are emblematic of fashion brands trying to make feminism palatable by watering it down to a few key catchphrases, detached from politics. The aim is to appeal to the largest number of consumers, rather than contribute to a meaningful discussion about women's rights. But feminism has never been about appealing to everyone. It has been about protest – and it should remain that way.

At the time of publication, neither Forever 21 nor Zara had responded to request for comment