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Fashion: art, business, exploitation, or all of the above

By: Ana Palacios
"I made your clothes"

Exploitation is a complicated term that can encompass a variety of oppressive social dynamics at a variety of levels. It is arguable that the fashion industry is mostly focused on women-presenting people as their target demographic, and has been that way for centuries. Furthermore, the fashion industry is an important facet of the cultural zeitgeist that informs the way most people outwardly present, thus, it is part of our everyday lives. Fashion has an insurmountable amount of influence from what we wear to how we consume: the tangible consequences of which we are living in present days.


Fashion as an industry has transformed delicate artistry into an exploitative practice for most of the women involved. From its elitism to the dehumanization of women by way of typifying women's bodies, the fashion industry has a uniquely heinous way of reinforcing harmful beauty standards under the guise of aesthetics and beauty. In reality, the fashion industry is like all others: profit-hungry. In this pursuit for profit, the fashion industry, especially Fast Fashion has transformed the supply chain to keep their clothing low-cost. Working out contracts with factories that will supply the garments to the brands, fashion magnates like H&M are increasingly disconnected from the processes to produce their clothing. Not only are these factories, or sweatshops abusive to workers, but the production practices are harming our environment at an alarming rate.


As fashion transforms into an industry of rapid consumption, we are prompted to ask what it's all for, and most importantly, who is paying the price for our lifestyles?


Art, Elitism and the Revival of Tumblr style ED culture.


Most women have been exposed to the barrage of targeted advertising and media messaging about our bodies. Notwithstanding the recent surge of inclusivity in fashion circles and modelling, the same message prevails: a thin, preferably white body is the standard. This is of no surprise, we can reference 90s supermodels and find enough evidence to prove the latter. In fact, those bodies are not only the standard but are the goal: the epitome of beauty and hence, desire. What is of some concern is the rise in thinness rhetoric. On social media platforms, it feels like we have reverted back to the standard of thin, white, model body type that had previously been trumped by a culture of body acceptance.


We may reference for example Bella Hadid’s new campaign for the famous (or infamous) lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret, who once more used their controversial slogan “The Perfect Body” and featured the world's top model Bella Hadid.


Victoria’s Secret has built its wealth and allure on a brand centered around ‘sexiness’ that promises women desirability and thus a type of pseudo-affection. In other words, the brand effectively reaffirms that a woman's sexiness immediately correlates to their worth in society. Coincidentally, it is V.S. too who may set that beauty standard, which makes for extremely effective marketing.


The famous model, Bella Hadid had previously broken ties with V.S. based on allegations of exploitation and a toxic work environment, which included harassment in the workplace against Bella herself. Following V.S.’s rebrand, the model has agreed to work with them once more. In a statement to Vogue, Hadid stated: “I just look around and I feel empowered again. I feel empowered in lingerie, instead of feeling like my body is some sort of money maker." Regardless of her sentiments, which we must compromise are a net positive, it would be naive to affirm that women’s bodies, especially bodies like hers, are not still money makers (she is a top model after all..)


Now, Bella Hadid herself is not symbolic of ED culture herself, keeping her personal life as such we must not vilify her as the root of the problem: it simply wouldn't be productive.


Even still, public figures like herself have contributed to a surge in weight loss trends across social media platforms. A form of “wellness” culture is proliferating in social media circles which has been, for lack of a better word: gentrified. Cultural practices like meditation and yoga have been whitewashed and marketed for a customer who is of course willing to pay the price. This ‘wellness society’ has transformed the meaning of a healthy lifestyle to one that is measured through thinness. It’s the pilates, green smoothie diet. That schedule and practice is realistically only accessible to a few women. This then makes social acceptability by way of an ideal body type elitist, as it is unattainable for most of the population.


The revival of ED culture was jump-started by something I've only been able to label as bellahadidism. I use the term loosely to refer to the ever-changing expectations of women’s bodies. We have seen the drastic change in the physique of celebrities like the Kardashians, who like it or not have an immense amount of influence over American society. It's important to highlight that thinness itself is not the problem, rather, it is the fact that media and society have championed it as a standard for beauty amongst all women. Drastic measures to lose weight have become more popular. For example, the use of the novel drug Ozempic is highly cited across celebrity circles, with a nationwide shortage due to (in addition to supply chain issues) high demand for non-prescription use.


Without morally condemning these practices we must ask: why is there a sudden urge to become thinner? If we venture to say these are just trends, then how can we ignore the fact that we are simultaneously typifying women’s bodies as ‘trends’ and thus, dehumanising women.


Collage of different media messaging

Seeking to be thinner is irremediably tied to the fashion industry. This, is evidenced by the dystopic presentation of all things high-fashion: the Met Gala, where citizens are expected to pile onto the sidewalks of the once democratic streets of The City to catch a peek. All the while, the likes of Kim K speak unabashedly about slimming down to fit a garment. In a statement, Kim referenced her methods; “I would wear a sauna suit twice a day, run on the treadmill, completely cut out all sugar and all carbs, and just eat the cleanest veggies and protein,” She also told Vogue, “I didn’t starve myself, but I was so strict.” The very reasoning of this is disturbing: the desire to change one’s body, to be strict, in the pursuit of beauty..


Isn’t there a connection then, between the aspiration of beauty, aka being in vogue with whatever society expects of women’s bodies (thinness, witness- to some capacity) and a type of mediatic exploitation of women’s bodies.


The fashion industry is a space where artistry exists, however, the industry is uniquely inaccessible to most women consumers and exploitative of women’s bodies in pursuit of profit.


The “mediatic oppression” of women by way of social manipulation that requires women to fit a certain standard to be considered both beautiful and fashionable, creates a pattern of consumption that is aspirational. We want to look like the aforementioned celebrities, the majority of people like to be in vogue, by any means necessary. Can we really be blamed?


This ‘aspirationalism,’ or obedience, then creates a market demand for accessible alternatives to haute couture: also known as Fast Fashion, the designs for which are often copied from high fashion brands. This is done all the while diverting the work put into high fashion: suddenly there is a tension within the industry between the majority of consumers and the creators of high fashion.


Does this not, beg the question, who fashion (as an industry) is really for?


Fast Fashion.


Fast Fashion is born out of market demand for low-cost clothing alternatives to the ever-changing latest fashion trends. Consumers (most of us anyway) cycle through trends at an unsustainably fast rate. Fast Fashion brands like H&M, Shein, and Zara (to name a few) make clothes according to trend cycles, instead of following the seasonal collection model. Thus, with every new trend in clothing, more clothes must be produced in order to meet demand. The novelty of social media has made these trends cycle faster, and thus, Fast Fashion has upped its pace.


A wallet-friendly way to stay up to date with the latest fashion trends is of course alluring to most of us. The issue lies in the supply chain that allows for garments to be produced at previously unheard-of rates and to maintain prices very low. On Shein, for example, prices range from $4-$8 USD for everything between sweatpants, dresses, and ‘cotton’ shirts.


This market is sustained by Western consumption patterns and by the availability of cheap labor. On the one hand, the rate of consumption has skyrocketed, on par with the rapidness with which we consume media and process new trendy items. Western media messaging pressures people to consume in order to feel beautiful and most of us oblige. Once more, an aspirational society that desires to present as in fashion is more likely to shop the trendiest items straight off the rack, rather than mindfully consuming.


As it concerns cheap labour, this impacts most readily “developing” countries, where cheap labour is accessible as per the labour laws in each country. Workers in textile and garment factories are the lowest paid worldwide and are often given no protections or rights in the workplace. Of the 40 million garment workers worldwide, 85% of them are women. Supplier factories outsourcing labour abuse the countries' economically disadvantageous position in the global stage for cheap labour, and often abet in the proliferation of these countries' corruption. Corporations and magnates are the perpetual winners in this situation.


We should address the elephant in the room: the inhumane conditions suffered in Fast Fashion factories. These, the well-known and aptly described sweatshops, include subpar pay, dangerous conditions, and harmful practices for the environment and for people tasked with carrying them out. The women and children who suffer under these conditions are the martyrs of the fashion industry.


This is not a phenomenon that most of us are unfamiliar with. In fact, the Global Labor Justice has well-documented testimonies of over 540 workers at factories that describe incidents of “threats and abuse.” As most factory workers are women, this is an issue that impacts women uniquely. Furthermore, then the exploitation of labour, and incidents in factories include allegations of sexual assault by their superiors. Now, furthermore, than labour exploitation, women suffer a unique kind of gendered violence at the hands of a system designed to be disadvantageous in search of profit.


The director of Global Labor Justice, Jennifer Rosenbaum encapsulated this sentiment when she said: “We must understand gender-based violence as an outcome of the global supply chain structure. H&M and Gap’s Fast Fashion supply chain model creates unreasonable production targets and underbid contracts, resulting in women working unpaid overtime and working very fast under extreme pressure


As per the aforementioned Global Labor Justice reports, incidents of gender violence range from harassment, abuse, coercion, and routine deprivation of liberty, that is, forced overtime. These reports, conducted throughout 2015-2018 interviewed 898 workers employed in 142 garment supplier factories across Asia. The Global Labor Justice organisation gave a myriad of reasonings as to why there is rampant abuse lived by women in these factories. For one, there is an unbalance of power between subordinate female workers and male supervisors. They furthermore listed: “ Multiple and different gender-segregated and spatially separate working environments within the same factory” and “ Daily wage contract workers, migrant women, single women, and women from socially marginalised communities may be at increased risk of violence within the factory.”


This is not the first well-documented incident of threats to the well-being of workers in garment factories. April 24, 2013: the factory complex Rana Plaza in Savar Bangladesh collapsed. This factory made clothes for the world's biggest fashion brands. Its collapse took the lives of 1,100 people and injured 2,500; most of which were young women. This was the fourth-largest industrial disaster in history. A building collapse of such a degree is never sudden. There is documentation citing workers expressing concern for their well-being inside of the building, and other retailers that occupied the lower level even shut down following the same concerns. Still, the global demand for garments trumped the lives of so many young women and thus, the factory remained open and unchanged.


The global disregard for women labourers led to the tragedy: without transparency about where clothing is made, retailers may have little idea if the human rights of their workers are respected. The disconnect between consumers and producers led to the Rana Plaza disaster and continues aiding and abetting in the proliferation of human rights violations of women- workers worldwide.


The environmental cost: what's the use?


The cyclical nature of Fast Fashion has in its epicenter the disposability of clothing. The fast cycling between trends and attention-grabbing garments then contributes to the growing number of clothing that ends up in landfills year by year. Not only are garments becoming more ‘disposable’ because they are quickly out of fashion and thus not re-worn, but firms find it more expensive to put their clothes back in circulation than to simply throw them away. As per recent statistics, items are recorded as being worn only ten times before being tossed. In 2020 there was a record 2.6 million tonnes of ‘returned’ clothing in landfills. Often it's the same developing countries that pay the environmental cost of this type of production approach.


According to Oxfam: “Fast Fashion Produces more carbon emissions per minute than driving a car around the world six times.” This form of waste from textile factories often remains in the countries in which they are produced, and has previously contaminated important local water sources and immediately poses a threat to the health of locals and textile workers. Even still, Fast Fashion brands produce twice the amount of clothes today than they did in the 2000s.


The fashion industry is a form of neo-colonialism that we all participate in.


The Solution?


The answer here is logical, we all know we probably don't need new clothes, and the consumption we may engage with is almost always in an attempt to feed our own vanity.


It's important to note still that I wish not to condemn any consumer of fast fashion as malicious, especially because that market is especially inclusive to plus-size people who may not have many other options. Nonetheless, I think it is an opportunity to be a part of a solution that is all-encompassing: targeting environmental and social issues that perpetuate this type of consumption and of production.


Engaging in slow fashion is an option to do this. Its antithetical name is self-explanatory: to change patterns of consumption in order to consume less and more mindfully. In the grand scheme of things, a collective shift to slow fashion would require a larger paradigm shift, as most Western societies are built and modelled for the purpose of high consumerism.


To consume mindfully also encompasses a focus on the environment. I would be remiss to condemn people who don't consume only organic cotton items that are certified B. We must acknowledge that these products are often costlier and thus inaccessible for a lot of people. As a collective, we must not also turn sustainability into an elitist practice. What we can do is attempt to do our part in the formation of a circular economy: one with minimal waste (meaning less disposal of clothing items and textiles) which also powerfully confronts the capitalist assumption that growth is imperative. This means to shop less, wear what you have, and when you don't anymore you may choose to sell it or donate it. There are also a myriad of initiatives looking to give a second life to textile scraps which are often considered un-reusable.


The most powerful tool however is probably to buy within reason, within bracket. We have all seen the surge in the trendiness of thrifting and thrift flipping. Still, thrifting is a real necessity for people, not a trend for the higher end of society. I get it, I've done it- I mean who doesn't love a bargain- isn't that what got us into this mess in the first place?


Still, as privileged individuals, we must ask ourselves: is it absolutely imperative that we consume? And whatever the answer, we should remain on the side of conservative consumption.


"I just look around and I feel empowered again" satiree

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