Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Jezebel, among other places, notes that the price of clothes is about to go up. Due to an increase in the price of raw materials, as well as higher wages for workers in Chinese factories (mostly caused by labour shortages, and not, unfortunately, unionization or legal regulations about fair labour practice), the price of clothes is expected to rise by 10% over the next few months, and more by the end of the year. While reading the post, I was struck by the multiple, intersecting problematics that clothing--and fashion more generally--pose for feminism.
The problem with the fashion industry (along with the cosmetics industry, and a host of other beauty-related consumer goods markets) is that it exists squarely at the interstice of vast networks of inequality and oppression. Many, if not most, workers in garment factories are women. They are paid subsistence wages (if that) to make clothes that they will never wear, unless, by chance, they happen to return to the country in the form of used clothing donations, which often devastate local textile industries. And buying "Made in America" doesn't mean too much either; in order to put the label on the clothing, all that is required is that the item undergo its final 'substantial transformation' in the United States. In practice, this has often meant that the clothing is made in sweatshops in US protectorates such as American Samoa or the Northern Mariana Islands, which are exempt from American wage and labour regulations. That the clothing can be offered at the low price we've come to expect in the post-industrial West is, in many ways, predicated upon the exploitation of workers (particularly women workers) in these territories.
At the same time, there are expectations of what is appropriate for women in Western culture to wear. Part of being a successful professional woman in North America is looking the part -- having the right suit, the right shoes, the right hair, and the right jewelery. On top of this, women's social locations are often, in part, constructed and represented through the clothes they wear. This is evident even in elementary school, where brand-consciousness is displayed by children of kindergarten age. Here class, race, and gender intersect to place demands on women to spend obscene amounts of money on beauty and fashion. In 2009, Newsweek published a graphic showing women's spending on beauty treatments (not including clothes) over the course of a lifetime. The projected amount spent? Almost half a million dollars. For those women who don't have the financial wherewithal to shop at high end stores, or even at mid-range popular shops like Anthropologie or J. Crew, the 'fast fashion' of Forever 21 and H&M is the difference between keeping on-trend or abandoning fashion to the dustbin of desires. Thrifting, often touted as the fashion maven's solution to high prices, is only possible if you have quality thrift stores within an accessible distance -- certainly not a guarantee anywhere but a big city -- and the time to pour over racks of items that may not have anything on them that fits, or only clothing that needs to be significantly altered before wearing. All of this adds to the price of fashion, and to the burden of women who shop.
To which many might say "so what?" Isn't fashion shallow and a ridiculous thing to be spending money on anyways? Wouldn't it be better if we all shopped at Goodwill and stopped caring about trends? Well, yes and no. In different social contexts, ignoring or pooh-poohing fashion is almost a trend in an of itself; the number of academics who walk around in muumuus and mom jeans is a testament to that fact. But the notion that fashion is unimportant, frivolous, or somehow inappropriate as a serious topic of conversation is evidence only of a discourse that systematically renders women's interests and activities as trivial. Thinking seriously about fashion means being able to confront the difficulties of clothing production, but also the bind of clothing consumption. Being fashionable, like having the right car, the right house, the right electronics, the right cell phone, and even the right taste in music, is a cultural marker. Its meaning is socially constructed, but that doesn't make it any less real for the women who are facing the social consequences of not looking 'right'. Owning clothes that look 'right', like owning a home, is part of our construction of what a successful life looks like. Fast fashion, while not of the same quality as higher-end clothing, allows women to participate in the exchanges of meaning that form the milieux of contemporary Western social life.
By choosing to work towards a PhD in the social sciences, I've had the opportunity to extricate myself in some ways from this tangle. As previously noted, academics aren't known for their fashion sense, and if called on my poor masquerade as an academichic fashionista, I can always fall back on a Marxist feminist critique of the beauty industry. The thing is, I don't want to. I like fashion. I like nice clothes and pretty things. I enjoy the process of shopping and putting together outfits (whether or not I'm good at it is a different question altogether). And I'm lucky enough to have a lifestyle where I can do all of those things, and yet still have the option to abandon it entirely should my finances take a turn for the worse. But my situation is unique; there are not a large number of careers where opting out of fashion entirely is an option. Even in those situations where it is a possibility, we all go home at night, and out with friends and lovers on the weekends. To be unable to participate in the cultural narrative of the fashionable woman is to be ill-equipped to move in and out of various social fields. This is true not only of mainstream consumption cultures, but also subcultural groups where clothing and adornment practices play a central role in allowing an individual to be recognized as a peer.
Like other common experiences primarily gendered female, struggling to think through the rock and the hard place of clothing production and consumption is an opportunity to observe the intersectionality of privilege and power in everyday life. By purchasing fast fashion, we engage with the exploitation of women's labour worldwide. By spending huge amounts of money on something as transient as trendy clothes and makeup, we participate in a culture that encourages the collection of assets by men, and the collection of debt by women. By suggesting that people simply "save up" to buy better quality (and 'exploitation-free') garments, we whitewash the elements of class and privilege that are deeply embedded into the world of women's consumption. And by disengaging from the discourse and practice of fashion entirely, we close off avenues of power, respect, and recognition that would otherwise be open to us, on top of displacing routes of fulfillment and happiness (feeling pretty is one of life's pleasures) that we should not have to reject in order to be 'properly' feminist or political. Ultimately, the uptick in clothing prices points us toward the intersections of privilege and inequality that characterize womanhood in a globalized society, without providing any easy answers for those of us who are just trying to get through the day and feel okay about how we look while doing it.