Exploring the intersection between the two ostensibly unrelated issues
By Vrinda Garg
The essence of fast fashion lies in its replicability and its ability to be of the moment. Their relevance is often short-lived resulting in countless environmental problems, consumerism and drained workers. They rely heavily on cheap labour and materials to produce quick clothing at low rates. This essay examines issues surrounding fast fashion from a feminist lens and analyses how the violence of fast fashion is gendered.
Fast fashion is only described as replicating recent fashion trends and designs, mass producing them at low costs, and selling them in markets where the demand is high. Consumption of clothing around the world has increased by 400 per cent since 2000 and while the Global North is largely responsible for this increase, it is the Global South that has to bear its brunt. In Ghana, for example, the ever-increasing piles of textile waste are referred to as obroni wawu or the dead white man’s clothes. While these clothes arrive as charity from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia; most of them end up in landfills due to their poor quality. This is an instance of how the rampant consumerism in high-income countries has a direct impact on the health, living conditions and environment of people in low-income countries. This essay, however, will attempt to view the issue of consumerism and fast fashion from the lens of gender and feminism and critique the process of production and consumption of fast fashion. I will also analyse the role of class in this conversation.
Inhumane working conditions
Fast fashion lies at the intersection of class and gender-based exploitation and therefore, is a feminist issue. Nearly 80% of garment workers are women. This isn’t a coincidence but a result of discrimination and the assignment of gender roles that permeate the fashion industry. Women between the ages of 18-25 with minuscule means and low bargaining power work for over 14 hours a day for less than three dollars. These are more often than not women of colour from the global South, considering these are favourable locations for companies as they get cheaper labour with flexible labour laws in these regions. These systems are often informal and do not follow the labour laws that protect the basic rights of workers. When women don’t earn a wage that can sustain their life and livelihood, they not only lose opportunities for a better career, education or quality of life but are also forced to be dependent. Moreover, many female workers are denied maternity and sick leaves. It is also reported that nearly one in three female garment workers has experienced physical or verbal sexual harassment in their place of work. These inhumane working conditions have a consequent detrimental effect on women’s reproductive, sexual and maternal health. This includes miscarriages, issues with the menstrual cycle, anaemia, fetal harm or reproductive organ damage. These workers are often objectified and seen as a means to an end, thus allowing for a lot of violence and cruelty involved in their work to be neglected.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation’s investigation found that women textile factory workers in Chennai were illegally given a pill to help with their menstrual pain. A chilling reminder of this negligence of basic human rights was an incident at Dhaka’s Rana Plaza building which collapsed, killing more than one thousand people. A similar incident took place in Cairo in 2021 wherein within the span of two weeks, 28 people were killed due to a factory fire and building collapse in two garment factories. Thus, a feminist vision for fashion requires equal and sustainable pay, safe working conditions, healthcare and a good working environment.
A driver of insecurities and body image issues
Fast fashion is a convenient result of rampant consumerism and capitalism fueled by the need for instant gratification. People are buying the narrative of not repeating outfits or wearing what’s “trendy”. This not only empowers a system that is both exploitative and harmful to the environment but also feeds into deep-seated systemic insecurities, especially in women. It idealises an unrealistic body type and caters to a narrow target audience. Their “standard” sizes are often skewed towards a certain section of society and thus, not aligned with the standard body types of the people they are catering to. Moreover, many of these fast fashion brands are very Eurocentric and do not cater to or customise their sizing based on the diverse body types across the globe.
Many non-western countries have rich histories of identities, fashion and norms that transcended the gender binary. In an attempt to codify racism, often the lack of stark difference between men and women of a particular culture, race or region was seen as a sign of being primitive. Thus, fashion, as we see it today, isn’t simply gendered but it is gendered in a blatantly Western-centric way that makes it an issue of marginalising BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of colour) identities.
Thus, the beauty standards set by the industry are extremely white-washed. The conversation becomes one of fitting into fast fashion and not clothes being designed to fit an array of body types. Fast fashion thus creates an unhealthy space for women, driving insecurities and creating body image issues.
Deep-rooted in the gender binary
Clothing, across eras, has served a function that goes beyond the material or utilitarian value of the cloth. Clothes have been a means to express oneself. For many gender non-conforming people, moving away from the social construct that expects them to dress a certain way, has been a powerful tool to both live authentically and also challenge the norm. For example, in the 1960s a new generation of men chose not to conform to the conventional masculine etiquette. Popular figures including Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and more welcomed feminine fabrics, flamboyant prints, and effeminate silhouettes, opening the doors to a whole new world of gender-fluid dressing. In the 1920s-30s women chose to break away from the norm by moving away from long hair, corsets and dresses and embodying suits and cargo. The desire to move away from rigid categories has existed across time and in various spheres of life and fashion is an important means to do this. During the 19th century, with an increasing emphasis on gender as a social construct as well as increasing technological development in the garment industry, clothing became deeply gendered. Tailors and designers started focusing more on clothing for women versus men and clothes became a marker of both social class as well as a person’s gender identity. Today, fast fashion is becoming more and more gendered by closely defining and demarcating women’s and men’s aesthetics. Gender has become entrenched in the vocabulary of fashion with clothes being identified not by their fit or colour, but often using gendered language. This is not to say that clothes should be made within a “one size fits all” framework, but instead of assigning them to a specific gender, they can be assigned to a particular body type. It’s also interesting to note that more often than not unisex clothing is closer to stereotypical masculine wear, reaffirming that the norm, even within fashion, continues to be set by men. While many contemporary brands echo the “fashion is comfort”, this comfort of freedom and expression isn’t extended to a large chunk of the population that chooses to define itself outside the gender binary. Thus, it is imperative to degender fashion.
Hence, fast fashion is a feminist issue. There is a need for systemic change that guarantees workers in garment factories safety, healthcare and dignity of labour. It is also essential for us as consumers to know how our clothes are being produced, raise questions and if possible, switch to more ethical and sustainable clothing. Magazines, advertisements and media platforms that glorify certain beauty standards need to be called out for attempts to make money off of people’s insecurities. In the end, the onus lies on people with social, cultural and monetary capital to make better choices as the brunt of our choices is largely borne by people who lack these privileges.
About the Author
Vrinda Garg is a second-year student of Economics and International Relations at Ashoka University. Through her writing, she attempts to rethink and challenge commonplace notions that permeate our everyday life, our institutions and the way we see the world.
Image Source: Heuritech