When I consider what holds women back in society, I often end up thinking about role models. At a recent Oxford University Student Union meeting there was a vote taken on a motion proposing that at least 50% of the OUSU representation at NUS meetings had to be female. I still don’t know where I stand on positive discrimination, but one of the major arguments given for it in this case was that it would provide role models. Basically, if we don’t see women in positions of power, are we likely to pursue those positions ourselves? The fact that as of this year only 4.5% of CEO positions in Fortune 1000 companies are occupied by women screams to us that something needs to give, but we shouldn’t dismiss the 4.5%. In the vein of holding onto whatever representation you do have in a field that doesn’t seem all that welcoming to you, I decided to write on feminists in fashion because, believe it or not, there are some. Here are a few who have openly declared their support for gender equality:
1. The Journalist: Hadley Freeman
If I had to pick a role model it would undoubtedly be Freeman. She’s written for Guardian fashion since I started reading it and is a fantastic example of how yes, you can like nice clothes but yes, you can also give a crap about being afraid to walk home alone at night because you happen to be female. If you’re currently in the camp of struggling to reconcile fashion and feminism I’d head straight to this article she wrote for Vagenda. She completely hits the nail on the head when she writes: ‘let’s talk about fashion as opposed to the fashion media.’ When people bitterly spit out ‘Fashion is disgusting’ in the comments section of pretty much any fashion article on any newspaper website, I’m pretty sure they don’t mean that a Topshop dress repulses them or a Balenciaga jacket makes them want to throw up. There’s a difference between the industry and the clothes, ladies and gents! She also proves you can be a fashion journalist and still write pieces like this, this and this. So if you’re ever feeling like the contradiction people tell you that you are, google her.
2. The Designer: Diane von Fürstenberg
Simply because the woman cares. I get that any big corporate outfit, especially one that’s part of an industry with a reputation for rampant materialism and superficiality, has a bigger-than-usual obligation to PR. But von Fürstenberg does actually do a lot for women, not just the women who can afford her dresses or live in her zip code, but women around the world who’ve got the raw end of the deal to put it lightly. Her company supports Women for Women, an organisation that helps women whose lives have been torn apart by wars to take matters into their own hands through business and education. Also on her philanthropic radar is The White Ribbon Alliance, which is predominantly dedicated to fighting for the basic right to healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth. There are many women who have the kind of clout von Fürstenberg does, but very few who use that in any meaningful way to help other women out. She also holds the DVF Awards, which not only supports those who support women, but also introduces a sense of community and inclusivity between women into an industry that is infamously superior (and look – here she is with Gloria Steinem!).
3. The Model: Karen Elson
Elson doesn’t have the openly feminist credentials von Fürstenberg and Freeman do, but she did speak out in Rookie about how it’s okay to be a feminist and be into fashion, specifically in relation to modelling. She told one reader that: ‘If you assume that models can’t be political, that we can’t have strong opinions and beliefs, you’re just falling prey to the popularly held misogynist view that beautiful women are stupid’ and ‘As a feminist, you can help change the industry by challenging beauty ideals, speaking out about the treatment of models, and being a role model for other women.’ I think it’s that last comment that really resonates with me. Industries, like anything made up of individuals, are not static entities. And so it’s pretty narrow minded to denounce something or even give up on it just because of how it appears to you on that day, in that year or hell, even in that decade. I started a feminist society at my college because I didn’t like how the hyper-masculine men controlled everything about college life, from its politics to its social side. So I decided to change it by creating a space in which people could come together and speak out about that. Since then loads more people have got on board, there is actually a discernable shift in the atmosphere, and I feel a little less determined by others than I used to. I’d like to think the same is possible in fashion, however long it takes. By taking Elson’s advice and following von Fürstenberg and Freeman’s lead, I hope that the fashion industry can catch up with fashion: liberating rather than oppressing.