Why Fast Fashion and Feminism Are Conflicting Ideologies
As someone who studies the industry and has experienced her fair share of catcalls and traumatic experiences, there is no self-style deemed safe.
There is no question that circular fashion has come into prominence over the last few years. With the rise of apps like Depop or Poshmark and the uptick in the popularity of thrifting and upcycling, regardless of intent, the push toward these concepts of individuality and vintage styles is apparent. To address said intent, I believe most people are following this as a trend because of influencer culture, the gamification of thrifting and the excitement of finding clothing that is genuinely exciting and on-trend (which is built into many major corporation business models like T.J.Maxx or Forever 21 or even Zara).
In a way, this small thrill is organic to either system. With thrifting, the entire nature of the industry is to sell clothes from individuals that flow in at random, and with fast fashion, the trends cycle through so quickly (an average of about 50 new styles every two weeks) that you never know what’s in store. The difference in this approach is that thrifting does not adhere to trends or current fashions—they’re always dated, but in a way that makes them constantly up-to-date, as fashion constantly recycles old styles (most recently, the ’70s and ’00s). Fast fashion, however, is constantly outdated and generates more waste. In every way, thrifting is the more economically savvy model, the more “sustainable” model and the one that continues the fashion cycle while allowing for greater individuality.
After watching countless documentaries about the exploitation of garment workers and the mass amounts of waste generated by the fashion industry every year, I developed an interest in the ecology of it. I am currently pursuing an ethical fashion and supply chain degree in New York City as a result. Over the past six or so years, I have more or less forgotten about the existence of labels like Shein or Missguided, and it’s strange to have become a sort of voyeur of that kind of consumerism.
I’ve Learned a Lot About Fashion and Feminism Living in New York
Fashion is at one of the most prominent intersections of art and commerce. It’s a way to express yourself, but that way is heavily monetized and strategized to place a burden on the consumer to “keep up with the Joneses.” This burden is mostly placed onto women and feminine-presenting people—society constantly objectifies us as commodities, and we have to advertise in the most acceptable ways for the times, always changing to suit consumer (read: male) needs.
We are given the illusion of choice, as there is a constant bombardment of fashion brands and a constant influx of new styles. But all they do is generate nearly identical items at varying price points to create a unity in the “worth” of each woman. Your niche style becomes a way for men, or anyone with internalized misogyny, to judge you while walking down the street. There is no free will, just a manipulation of the way we feel free as we market ourselves better and better, regardless of whether anybody stops to think if we have any interest in men at all.
Stepping back has allowed me more clarity of the current state of femininity and fashion. As much as I may protest this current system, I do still exist within it because I will be objectified either way—that is the nature of the patriarchy. As a result, I have spent my time in New York (which was a sort of new beginning for me, as it tends to be for most people) exploring my relationship with clothing and all that ensued as a result. A lot of trauma from my past has come in the search for self and self-expression (attempting to also understand the difference between who we are and what has happened to us), but it’s also allowed me to heal my relationship with clothing and take power in the role of being a consumer that has been forced upon me.
Fashion and Femininity Have a Paradoxical Relationship
Catcalling is common here and, for most people, presents an unwelcome Catch-22: Not being catcalled ensures safety but also means you were deemed unattractive. However, being catcalled indicates danger but means you succeeded in the backward way of being attractive. Men are seldom catcalled and therefore claim this to be a privilege or that women are asking to be catcalled by what they are wearing. Yet there have been days in the dead of winter where I was too depressed to change out of my grossest groutfit (gray outfit)—consisting of slip-on shoes, worn-out sweatpants and a huge crewneck sweater—and I still have been heavily objectified. Then there have been days where I wore a cute sundress and few people do so much as look twice. That argument falls flat on its face on a daily basis for me. I don’t claim to be especially attractive (an entirely subjective term); this is just my experience.
For the longest time, oversized clothing was how I attempted to protect myself from the world: If nobody could see my body—if nobody could see me—then I would be safe. This mindset meant that I was constantly in hiding, crossing the street whenever the only other person was male presenting, in fear of being followed or harassed or assaulted (all of which have happened to me, all of which have been by male perpetrators). Dressing in oversized clothes did not hide me. I was still treated as an object day in and day out by strangers and peers alike, my armor turning me into a shell of a former self. It meant that I rejected my desires daily for the sake of safety. Nobody could say that I didn’t take the correct precautions because at the end of the day, dressing promiscuously isn’t what causes these incidents. The attackers are what cause them.
All Fashion—Fast or Slow—Means Something
How we dress is an intensely personal experience, and the relationship between clothing and personhood is one in the same. How we adorn ourselves has always been a source of pride and a status symbol, so much that I have used it as a mask my entire life. We all do, really, whether you’re a person who follows fast fashion and adheres to the illusion of choice within the industry’s cyclical uniformity or if you’re a person who participates in slow fashion and crafts an external identity for yourself with your clothes. Clothing is a constant form of self-expression, and as a feminine-presenting person, what I wear is how I beg the world to give me my humanity. For all my neutral tones and all my neon colors, it is simply my attempt to show I am alive. I will not hide. I will reflect the society I see and show you what you have done.
But this art has become survival—visible in the way combs have become secret knives or pepper spray attaches to keychains in varying colors (mine is pink, a small attempt at irony). So, until the fall of industrialization is achieved, every single outfit worn on a feminine-presenting person is a feminist statement and an attempt to take back power. And every inappropriate gesture or catcall is a microaggression, leading us further from pure expression of life to a constant protest: Our existence should not be monetized for the sake of male entertainment.