Feminism in Fashion: is it possible?

what_isAs you know, the subjects of fashion and feminism are favourite subjects of ours, so when we learned of the recent Feminism in Fashion talk at the Victoria & Albert museum, we asked consumer trend analyst, creator of the blog How Things Are Done, ex colleague and friend of ours, Gwyneth Holland to attend on our behalf……

The panel was made up of such luminaries as fashion commentator (or as I always think of her, Clothes Show presenter) Caryn Franklin, leading fashion film-maker and curator Kathryn Ferguson, ShowStudio writer Lou Stoppard , who, along with moderator Hywel Davies, led a passionate and thought-provoking talk of the role of feminism in fashion.

Much of the discussion centred around the massive impact of fashion advertising (and advertisers) on the way women are portrayed in the media. Franklin believes that it’s important for young women to  “see beauty ageing beautifully” so that they can get more realistic image aspirations. She said, “Advertisers have little empathy for the end users – the young are being conditioned to only see smooth skin as an acceptable ideal”, in spite of the fact it’s often entirely faked in fashion imagery. She’s concerned that kids have internalised imagery that is false, so are being set up for a lifetime of body insecurity.

Franklin has set up the All Walks project with supermodel Erin O’Connor to encourage more diverse ideas of beauty in the fashion world. She said she “wanted to celebrate the diverse consumer – to create imagery and messaging positive about the body”

But it’s not just about big evil commerce against us little consumers. The panel agreed that the tide is starting to turn, and a more feminist fashion industry depends on individuals recognizing their power against the big guys.

Kathryn Ferguson is just one of those individuals, using her position as a fashion film-maker to better represent women on screen. Ferguson pointed out that currently only 6% of UK film directors are women, but more are picking up the camera for the first time  and creating a new, distinctive voice for women in cinema. She points to The Bird’s Eye View Film Festival, which focuses on the work of female film-makers, as helping amplify that voice. The festival is back at the BFI Southbank after a funding-shortage-imposed hiatus in 2012, with a programme Celebrating Arab Women on 7th & 8th March.

Birds Eye ViewFerguson curates the Fashion Loves Film strand for the festival, but in her own client work, she finds a less positive relationship between women and the fashion industry. She described how many of her fellow female fashion film-makers have been asked to stretch model’s bodies in films, or change the colour of their skin, and how they felt powerless to argue with the all-powerful client. Given the massive power of fashion film imagery these days (and the greater importance it holds for fashion giants), she believes there’s a growing responsibility among women film-makers to show women in more diverse and realistic ways. Echoing the recent MAC campaign which celebrates strength.

Mac Strength Ferguson cited Alicia Smith Leverock’s film I Want Muscle (nominated for a Design Museum award) as new example of strong (literally in this case) and empowered women on (and in) film.

Lou Stoppard, of the influential ShowStudio, discussed some of its more “feminist” work, such as the Fashion Fetish project , a series of films made by all-female creatives. She believes that because ShowStudio founder Nick Knight isn’t from a fashion background originally, they are able to push boundaries with the kind of content they publish, not least showing different body types and different ages. But Stoppard also concedes that part of the reason they can show diversity, is because they don’t have to rely on advertising income.

She also made the controversial – but fair – point that evil advertisers are not the only ones encroaching on feminism in fashion – it’s the designers, and female ones too. “So many male designers put outfits out there which are not compassionate to a woman’s body, but women designers do the same – some female designers get positive press that they don’t deserve” (she mentioned *cough* Phoebe Philo at Celine *cough*).

All of the panelists agreed that things are changing for the better, albeit slowly. When I started working in fashion, almost 15 years ago, feminism and fashion were barely mentioned in the same breath, so I guess we’re seeing progress. When influential sites like Jezebel cover fashion alongside feminism in a natural way, designers are increasingly willing to call themselves feminists, and fashion columnists like Hadley Freeman found their writing in a feminist mindset, that’s not nothing.

However, the overwhelming message of the evening was that for real change to happen, more women must take responsibility, individually and collectively, for the impact of the fashion industry on women. This means women within the industry (such as leading fashion magazine editors), as much as your average gal on the street. The panellists believe that recognising and harnessing the huge power we have as consumers, could help create a more feminist fashion world.

Fashion is a highly interconnected industry: advertising may force editorial decisions, but if consumers take a stance against advertisers and they way they depict women, the whole ecosystem could change. As Franklin pointed out, it only takes 17 complaints to get an offending ad removed, as MP Jo Swinton found last year with some overly airbrushed L’Oreal ads. But it doesn’t even require complaining. We could simply refuse to reward brands that show women in a stereotypical, demeaning, unrealistic or objectified manner, by not buying from them.

Right now, the fashion industry needs us (especially powerful demographics such as TWR readers) more than we need them. Money talks, baby……………………



  • Monix says:

    It’s blogs like yours that’s turning the tide Jane -women that previously did not have a voice are given one through your medium. How did our mothers “embrace” middle age? Not like us, and despite them being the generation to encourage feminism their power withered once they aged and were not in the media/fashion mainstream. I often mock social media but in this instance it does empower us. Thank you for the platform TWR.

  • Jane says:

    Thanks Monix, yes hopefully we do offer a platform for older women to be heard. Women are so good at utilising social media because they are so good at communicating and I’m so glad we don’t have to put up and shut up like our mothers generation
    J x

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