Fashion is always political

It's never "just clothes".

Not What It Seams is a free, fortnightly newsletter that unpicks the latest in fashion and sustainability. It was created with the average shopper in mind to encourage critical takes on the latest fashion news and demystify the language of sustainability. If you enjoy this post, please feel free to share it. Or you could very kindly gift me a virtual cuppa - it really makes my day and helps keep this newsletter running! 💌

In June, I trialled my very first swapping service which involved sending in a bunch of my old clothes, listing my styling preferences and eagerly waiting for my handpicked preloved clothes in return. When the parcel finally arrived a month later, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I had requested flowing dresses fit for a summer picnic and instead found myself with 11 items of clothing that felt much more granny chic. Of the two items I did like, only one fit. It wasn’t meant to be.

While I was reluctant to even try the clothes on, my dad argued I wasn’t embracing the spirit of swapping. After all, they were “just clothes”. Well, according to the man-now-turned-fashion-expert that wears jeans and a t-shirt everyday! When I told fashion psychologist, Dr. Dion Terrelonge, about the funny remark, she responded: “well if they were just clothes, your dad would have no problem with wearing a sparkly pink dress.”

As I’m writing this, the second English lockdown has begun and the votes are stiiiiiiill being counted in the American presidential race - two political events that will profoundly impact the fashion industry. Under a second Trump government, the USA would stay exempt from the Paris Agreement and Congress would remain reluctant to hold a carbon guzzling industry to account. Trump’s protectionist trade policies could also erode margins as fashion brands are encouraged to move away from sourcing cheap labour in China. A Biden administration would likely involve an economic stimulus package and distribution of the vaccine which would help once booming fashion brands recover from their largest economic crisis in decades. Though, fashion executives may be less fond of Biden’s proposal to raise the corporate tax rate and introduce new labour and environmental regulations.

The fashion industry also has a say in who is elected. In its most overt form, fashion companies and CEOs help fund presidential campaigns. This saw employees at Levi Strauss & Co. donate $477,421 to the Democratic Party while its jeans and apparel rival, Jordache Enterprises, donated $385,500 to the Republican Party. Revlon’s chairman, Ronald Perleman, donated $125,000 to The Trump Victory Committee in 2017. Yep, the same brand who posted a performative black square in June is tied to a man who openly supports a racist president. This is a textbook example of wokewashing by a cosmetic brand that has a poor excuse for a shade range.

Where they couldn’t influence the vote, brands were pedalling out “vote” merchandise left, right and centre (pun intended). You could treat yourself to a Louis Vuitton “vote” sweater as seen on the runway or perhaps Levi’s “vote” hoodie might have taken your fancy. After the election, fashion brands compete to dress high-profile political figures. Against widespread refusal to dress the First Lady, Ralph Lauren controversially designed Melania Trump’s dress for the presidential inauguration in 2017. This is a political statement within itself.

Meanwhile, the wounds from the first global lockdown remain visible for all to see. The #PayUp campaign has successfully forced 19 brands to pay back orders totalling upwards of $600 million but garment workers are still owed more than $1.6 billion in wages from big apparel brands. And with the shops again closed, I worry that high street fashion retailers will continue to refuse to pay supplier factories for already processed or completed apparel orders.

Where the force majeure clause has been used to mass cancel orders, Covid-19 laws are being used to silence garment workers. In Mynamar, unionised garment workers are being fired or imprisoned for demanding hygienic working conditions. Over 5,000 miles across the globe, British retailers have ignored social distancing measures altogether. In March, Asos came under fire for breaking government guidelines in its warehouses, one of which was described as a ‘cradle of disease’. Around the same time Boohoo launched their #BoohooInTheHouse campaign and sold pink face masks printed with the phrase ‘together’, Leicester garment workers were at risk of catching and spreading coronavirus. And as laws were being broken or abused, new ones were being drafted across the pond. In California, state legislators voted against The Garment Worker Protection Act which sought to prevent wage theft in the Los Angeles’ apparel industry.

The fashion industry, then, is an unequal, hypercapitalist system - not a broken system but one that was deliberately built to serve the white elite. The fashion industry exploits the global working class, trapping garment workers - the majority of which are women of colour - in poverty wages. It drives the working class into low paying retail jobs and offers them poor quality, temporarily trendy clothes. The fashion industry renders previously colonised countries dependent on western trade and then burdens them with our cast offs. It polices women on what they can or cannot wear. It appropriates and plagiarises Black culture. The fashion industry concentrates power in the hands of the few, allowing billionaire CEOs to get richer in a pandemic that has destroyed the livelihoods of millions of garment workers.

It’s never “just clothes”. There is a pair of hands behind every garment and stories of exploitation and political struggle behind every stitch - which is why we need to stop framing conscious consumerism as the be-all-and-end-all solution to the climate crisis. Not only does it exonerate those at fault - since 1988, just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, no thanks to a lack of government regulation - but it has us self-policing each others’ lifestyles in some sort of panoptic nightmare. It overlooks the need for intersectionality, for anti-racism work, for social justice. It distracts us from our real power as citizens.

Because fashion is always political and fashion justice even more so.

In other news…

The #IWantToSeeNyome campaign successfully overturned Instagram’s fatphobic and racist nudity policy. The campaign was founded in response to the widespread removal of this beautiful image of Black plus-size model, Nyome Nicholas-Williams, as photographed by Alexandra Cameron. Because Nyome is holding her breasts, the image allegedly violated Instagram’s nudity guidelines, despite thinner, “more socially acceptable” white models being able to freely post in a similar state of undress. Activist Gina Martin then started #IWantToSeeNyome which flooded Instagram with Nyome’s portrait. The movement quickly grabbed Instagram’s attention who have since amended its semi-nudity policy which will ensure that not all breast holding is deemed pornographic. A Typeform has also been created “so if anyone's images that don't go against community guidelines are removed … we can collect stories that will aid Instagram in ironing out any issues.”

Nasty Gal is doing a cash giveaway while garment workers in its supply chain live on poverty wages. Another fast fashion brand has reared its ugly head in an attempt to seem charitable and philanthropic. The lucky competition winner will have their rent paid for an entire year! The giveaway comes just months after Nasty Gal’s parent company, Boohoo, was found to have sweatshop labour and social distancing violations throughout its Leicester supply chain. Garment workers - who too have rent to pay - were labouring in unsafe conditions for as little as £3.50 an hour. Nasty Gal clearly has the cash to pay its garment workers fairly but chooses every day not to.

Other brand updates and recommended reads:

What is cultural plagiarism?

When I was at the pub on Monday getting my last orders in (big sad), my lovely friend, Fatuma, introduced me to the term ‘cultural plagiarism’. I have previously defined cultural appropriation, though perhaps cultural plagiarism better denotes the act of stealing the knowledge, practices and symbols from an outside, often minority, culture.

If cultural plagiarism refers to undeniable instances of copying verbatim fashion designs without due credit and payment and cultural appropriation is defined as the borrowing of certain elements of that design, both terms reflect a widespread practice in the fashion industry. Central to this is an unbalanced power dynamic in which members of the dominant culture appropriate another community’s cultural dress without respecting or uplifting that community.

This makes Marc Jacob’s defence of styling white models in dreadlocks in 2016 - "Funny how you don't criticise women of colour for straightening their hair" - redundant because white women have never been oppressed for their natural hairstyle. So, while Black people might be stereotyped, ridiculed or policed for their cultural dress, the same fashion item might be seen as socially acceptable or fashionable when worn by a white person. This serves as another reminder that anti-racism work and fashion justice are intrinsically linked.

To learn more, watch this IGTV by Samira Mahboub who is campaigning to reclaim Moroccan heritage, a heritage that has been the exhausted source of cultural plagiarism in the West. She explains “The fashion industry has been appropriating and stealing from (and not only!) Morocco & the North African countries for quite a while. In this case, high end French fashion house @celine has copied our beloved Moroccan #babouche shoes and is selling them for hundreds of Euros. This is W.R.O.N.G. This is violent. This is the new (and old) version of Neo-Colonialism.”

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