Walking into NYC’s flagship Bulletin store on Broadway and 17th street, you are inundated with vibrant yellows and pinks, edgy fashion, and cute trinkets. But these are not just any pieces of trendy clothing and accessories, they brandish feminist slogans and liberal jargon across them. The store holds denim jackets with “the future is female” painted across the back, patches stating “stop catcalling,” and flasks labeled in pink with “misogynistic tears.” These are just a glimpse into how the fashion industry has captured the prominence of social justice movements.
This trend first came to my attention while attending the 2017 Women’s March in Washington DC, where many women sported pink pussy hats as they overtook the capital the day after President Trump’s inauguration. Somehow I had missed the memo about these iconic hats, but a friend’s mom lent me hers for the day (mainly to keep me warm because in the January cold I sacrificed comfort for style, wearing a jean jacket accessorized with feminist pins).
Since then, I have lost count of how many feminist and liberal t-shirts I own, but it is way too many, I can tell you that much. Fashion brands seem to have realized the frustrations of many Americans and tapped into this by providing an outlet to express their beliefs, taking wear your heart on your sleeve to a whole new level. From t-shirts brandishing FEMINIST to Nike sneakers celebrating LGBTQ pride, many clothing companies have hopped onto the social justice trend.
I say trend, but is this really a trend? To call it that minimizes the decades of work that have gone into social justice movements. We cannot forget our feminist foremothers and the civil rights leaders who have paved the way for us. Social justice movements take years of grueling work to progress. This “trend” will not be over by the time next season rolls around.
It seems like brands have only started commodifying social justice movements because they are now popular and accepted by a large spread of people, to a point where it can be profitable. No company is going to put themselves and their profits on the line for a social cause, that’s just not how business works. Certainly some companies, like Patagonia or Sevenly, are better at incorporating social and environmental causes into their work, but it still has to be popularly supported for this to be an effective business model.
A great example of this is Aerie, American Eagle’s lingerie company. They have developed their marketing campaign around being “real” and embracing bodies of all kinds. This coincides with the surge of the body positivity movement, but those who are activists in this movement have mixed feelings about Aerie. While Aerie is doing important work such as supporting women of diverse sizes and ethnicities as well as donating to the National Eating Disorders Association, activists have called them out for their lack of range in clothing sizes. They preach acceptance of all body types, but their limited size offerings contradict this. While Aerie is pushing the fashion industry to embrace women of many types, they are also held back from fully embracing the body positivity movement because their goal is profit.
Recently news broke of Feminist Apparel’s CEO being a sexual abuser, which is just the contradiction it sounds like. A great op-ed written by Amanda Mull called out how brands cannot really be feminist because they are capitalist institutions. Mull writes, “let Feminist Apparel be a cautionary tale: Brands don’t have the capacity for ideology beyond capitalism. There’s no such thing as a feminist company, and there never has been.” Patriarchy and capitalism are inextricable structures that thrive off each other.
Aerie and Feminist Apparel are not the only companies that are full of contradictions in utilizing social justice movements. Many major companies like Forever 21, H&M, and Nike have been documented as using sweatshop labor to produce their clothing (watch the documentary The True Cost to learn more). Yet, these companies are now championing products that support equality and social justice. Where is the justice and equality for the women working in oppressive, unsafe environments being underpaid to produce our fast fashion? A woman sporting a Forever 21 “feminist” t-shirt needs to stop and think about the oppression she is putting other women through. Many brands feign empowering women while exploiting them for profit.
Not to mention selling shirts preaching equality is in and of itself ironic. Can everyone equally be a part of the fashion industry? Of course not! Would companies want everyone to have equal access to them? Well no, because then they are not as desirable. This was something that caught my attention when I was at Macy’s in June, where they had all of these t-shirts and posters showing their support for LGBTQ month. I appreciate their sentiments but selling shirts that say “equality” does not mean Macy’s exemplifies this, far from it given the elitism such a store fosters.
Despite all these contradictions, I somehow am still drawn to fashion showcasing my liberal beliefs. Even though deep down I know there are issues with how these commodities are produced and what these brands are actually doing with their profits, there is still a sense of pride and unity that comes from wearing clothing that supports my feminist values. I love that when I wear my shirt saying “women are the future,” people I pass on the street say I love your shirt! There is a sense of camaraderie that comes from this.
When you wear products that support your beliefs, you feel a sense of validation because you know others support these beliefs too. It brings awareness to these issues, making your clothes more than a personal statement, but a political one. After all the personal is political, am I right ladies? There may be many problems that come with the commodification of social justice movements which people need to be made aware of, but nonetheless, these pieces show our goal of bringing social change to the world. Clothes are a powerful way that we can bring awareness to important issues. For now, I will strive to purchase products from companies like CHNGE who not only support sharing social justice messages, but do so with ethical production, transparency, and philanthropy. These companies are hard to come by in today’s fast fashion industry, but putting our money towards businesses that practice what they preach further supports the beliefs we are championing, while also rocking that street style.