The feminist symbol on different colored shirts.

Consumer Culture

Is Feminist Fashion Good Activism?

As the political becomes increasingly personal, more of us are wearing our causes quite literally on our sleeves. But not all feminist fashion is created equally, and it's critical to know the difference.

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If you follow at least one feminist organization on social media, chances are, you’ve seen a sponsored post or two for apparel ranging from Ruth Bader Ginsburg–inspired jewelry to a Wild Feminist T-shirt. Feminist fashion is hot AF right now, which should come as little surprise when our country’s run by a misogynist, legislators are passing dangerous abortion bans, and the gender wage gap shows no signs of closing.

For some, wearing a shirt that proclaims  “It’s My Body, It’s My Choice” or “Nasty Woman” is a way to make a political statement, but buying the merchandise also provides fund-raising opportunities—50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the Nasty Woman tees went to Planned Parenthood. To date, sales from the shirt have raised more than $137,000.

Wearing your ideals literally on your sleeve can feel deeply empowering in this political climate. Unfortunately, today’s retailers have made it a bit trickier to track where your money is going. Some businesses are truly selling merchandise supporting feminist organizations. Others may not directly support a nonprofit, but are run by women and LGBTQ individuals who promote feminist ethics in the workplace, or sell merchandise to keep their lean organizations running. And then there are the predatory, opportunistic corporations, that create faux-woke merchandise and use those profits to support the very organizations and politicians that seek to destroy our values.

Some merchandise really does raise critical funds for nonprofits and other organizations, like this “Together Is Better” T-shirt, which donates 100 percent of its proceeds to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which works to help keep immigrant families together. The Lipstick Lobby sells four different shades of lipstick, and each one is assigned a nonprofit. For instance, 100 percent of net profits from the shade “Kiss My Pink” goes to Planned Parenthood. The Lipstick Lobby also fundraises for the UnPrison Project, the Brady Center, and the ACLU.

Smaller designers are also jumping on board, such as jeweler Jennifer Behr, who created this $125 safety pin brooch, with all proceeds going to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation.

Additionally, supporting a small, women-owned business can be an act of feminism. Take, for instance, Wild Fang, which is a queer-owned business with the catchy tagline “for women who like to raise a little hell.” It sells the “Wild Feminist” T-shirt, along with androgynous clothing such as suits and button-downs. Supporting a smaller company like Wild Fang, a business that employs and empowers those who typically face disadvantages in the workplace, means aligning your business with your principles.

But companies like Express (owned by L Brands, which also owns Abercrombie & Fitch) are blatantly appropriating from small businesses, stealing mottos like “The Future Is Female” and slapping it on their T-shirts. L Brands also owns Victoria’s Secret, which is struggling to stay relevant in the #MeToo era, particularly in light of the company’s unsettling connection with the late Jeffrey Epstein. Additionally, Victoria’s Secret has a long history of commodifying cultural trends, such as its recent scandal copying designs from Fleur du Mal. In addition to stealing, some of these larger corporations have demonstrated an apathy if not outright antagonism toward feminist and LGBTQ issues—in some cases, their business leaders can’t even be bothered to address sexual harassment in their own workplace.

Unfortunately, it’s legal for corporations to steal ideas from independent designers, as U.S. brands aren’t protected under copyright law. Urban Outfitters has a long history of replicating artists’ work, such as jeweler Stevie Koerner in 2011. Its sister company, Anthropologie, has also stolen designs from independent artists, including ceramicist Tara Burke. In addition to ripping off small businesses, companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Anthropologie, and Urban Outfitters are taking up a larger piece of the market, giving independent designers an even smaller chance of succeeding.

The business of supporting abortion rights has become especially lucrative in recent years, as companies such as Prink Shop and Otherwild continue to sell out of pro-choice gear. And then there are heavy-hitters, such as Gucci, which recently debuted a jacket with the words “My Body, My Choice” on the back. In fact, more than 40 designers supported Planned Parenthood at the 2017 New York Fashion Week. This parallels to the “pinkification” of October, when countless companies sign on to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month, including the Oriental Trading Company.

There’s even a website that monitors all of the companies that have supported Planned Parenthood in the past, including Ann Taylor, Ralph Lauren, and COACH. The website notes that 25 percent of Planned Parenthood’s $1.3 billion annual revenue comes from private donations, including corporate contributions.

Even the anti-choice movement has noticed a discrepancy in pro-choice versus anti-choice gear. In a 2019 interview with “Conservative Review,” Carla D’Addesi, founder of COL1972, stated that she started her anti-choice clothing line because she felt “very marginalized by the fashion industry.”

The business of sartorial feminism all came to a head in 2018 when Alan Martofel, the CEO of Feminist Apparel, laid off his entire staff after they confronted him on being a serial sexual abuser. Sure, a company can sell as many “riots, not diets” T-shirts as it pleases. But if a company’s run by a misogynist that mistreats his employees, you’re not supporting a feminist cause. If anything, it’s tied to our society’s desire to own, well, stuff.

This blind consumerism is comparable to LGBTQ gear during Pride month, with major companies such as Express, Bombas, Madewell, and Urban Decay selling rainbow-laden goods every June. For instance, Nike’s “Be True” collection nearly sold out this past June. The company claims it has provided $3.6 million to LGBTQ organizations since 2012. However, several Nike executives left the company in 2018 after widespread allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sure, these companies are bringing in major dollars for important issues. At the same time, though, many corporations still struggle with comprehensive healthcare and anti-discrimination policies for LGBTQ employees. It leaves you wondering how much these companies truly care about the cause, versus how much they care about making a buck. Even President Trump’s campaign tried to sell LGBTQ gear this year, which was obviously rife with irony, considering the president’s repeated attacks on the LGB and transgender communities.

So, does feminist merchandise actually make a difference? It all depends on where it’s coming from. If you’re shopping to legitimately support an organization, read the fine print to ensure a percentage of proceeds actually goes to a cause, and not just a flimsy foundation. Additionally, support companies that maintain and publicly promote feminist policies, such as equal pay, paid parental leave, and anti-harassment policies.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a shirt that proclaims your devotion to smashing the patriarchy. At the end of the day, though, your dollar will probably stretch farther if you donate directly to a cause you care about, as opposed to indirectly via a corporation that’s capitalizing on the feminist movement.

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