A Discussion on “Feminist” Fashion

With feminism and other social justice movements becoming more widely supported causes within mainstream dialogues, it was only a matter of time before brands saw fit to commodify them in the form of t-shirts with “feminist” slogans on them. This in and of itself is not an issue; as a matter of fact, the proliferation of feminist ideas through mainstream brands helps in many ways to normalize these ideas, and there are certainly worse things that have been put on t-shirts (just Google “Urban Outfitters Kent State”!). However, this “feminist” clothing has attracted a range of valid criticisms, with some questioning the inclusivity of phrases like “the future is female,” and others pointing out that mass-produced shirts are more often than not made by underpaid women in peripheral countries.

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The “the future is female” shirts are perhaps the most popular and well-known articles of “feminist” slogan clothing today. According to this article from the National Review, they were first debuted at a feminist bookstore in 1975 and repopularized sometime around 2015. This particular writer is concerned with how the shirts and Disney’s “Dream Big, Princess!” campaign are exclusionary to her white sons and tie into a movement championing what she calls “on-demand abortion.” These particular criticisms are not criticisms I agree with, as I would argue that society already tells boys to “dream big” and has done so for more or less all of human history. I also fail to see how the shirts or phrase in any way mention abortion. 

A more leftist criticism I have seen has been that “the future is female” excludes transwomen and other oppressed groups who are not female, and some shirts and posts have been made declaring that the future is not “female” but is instead trans, queer, etc. While I see some merit to the initial criticism here, I do not believe that responses such as “No, the Future is Not Female. It’s Nonbinary” are any more productive. Firstly, this helps peddle a factually incorrect notion that the categories of “female” and “trans,” “queer,” or “nonbinary” are mutually exclusive. Secondly, this creates a competition of identity politics that fosters divisiveness within the feminist cause–why should anyone identify with “nonbinary” any more than they do “female?” Thirdly, these criticisms also tend not to take into account the lesbian separatist origins of the shirt, instead (mistakenly) believing it to be a product of a Hillary-Clinton-type of feminism. A more constructive solution would be to add to or modify the phrase rather than replacing it, or simply to make a wider variety of slogan shirts available, which many already have. 

Other than the content of the shirt, critics have cited the poor business practices that are behind the manufacturing of these shirts. In 2019, it’s no secret that “fast fashion” brands more often than not utilize cheap, overseas labor, meaning that their clothes are made by laborers — disproportionately women laborers — who work in poor conditions for little pay. The hypocrisy in selling a “feminist” shirt made by underpaid women should be evident, as feminist critics point out. This is an important criticism and point to consider when shopping for all clothing, not just feminist clothing, although we should be mindful so as not to shame people who can’t totally avoid fast fashion brands — after all, they’re popular because they’re cheap. This criticism of hypocrisy is most applicable to feminist slogan shirts made by big brands like Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters, however, and, upon a quick internet search, doesn’t actually seem to apply to Otherwild, the brand selling “the future is female” shirts. According to Otherwild’s “about” page, the brand is a small graphic design/retail fusion store in LA with a “dedication to fair wages and labor practices” and “researching/changing/ensuring that exploitation and destruction do not define our chain of production” listed in its mission. Whether it completely fulfills these goals calls for more independent research, but those who assume at the outset that the “future is female” shirts in particular are the product of underpaid labor may not be investigating thoroughly enough before making these claims.

The bottom line is that any political clothing you wear is just that — political — and bound to convey a message that not everyone is going to agree with. There is also no way to be a completely ethical consumer in the world we currently live in, especially if you can’t spend 30 USD (roughly 23 GBP) on a t-shirt. My only real advice is to think carefully about the message you’re trying to send before buying a political slogan shirt, and to do research into the company’s practices if you can afford to avoid fast fashion. If that’s something you’re interested in, here is a list of brands to explore in this vein:

Matriarchy Now

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Wear Your Voice

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VAVA Lingerie

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Birdsong

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Dazey LA

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For more, check these lists out:

prettyprogressive.com

vinazine.com

 

Calla Selicious

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