The Rise of T-Shirt Feminism

Sasha Ellis

Wandering around H&M looking for Wednesday night fancy dress ideas, I noticed a plethora of ladies’ t-shirts emblazoned with bold female boss and girl power slogans. Upon further extensive analysis of online shopping sites (purely for research purposes, of course) I realised that this was not a trend unique to H&M. Mainstream clothing designers have identified a demand in modern women to not only voice their fourth wave feminist beliefs, but to literally wear them on their sleeves, or across their chests. It is hardly surprising that the modern woman feels the need to more visibly express herself – the political climate is one which is consistently denying women a voice, or a right to do as they please with their bodies; these t-shirts allow them to take ownership of both. It is a reclaiming of their chests, typically a site of objectification in the mainstream media, from the male gaze.

What’s more, these t-shirts are easily accessible. H&M, ASOS, boohoo and the like are affordable brands with online stores. This is everyday feminism with next day delivery. Feminism has often suffered an image problem – having been historically reserved predominantly for white, middle class women. Indeed, some of the first feminist tops to make a splash in the fashion world were those of Dior, whose We should all be feminists top was first seen modelled by a white woman, and cost $550. This recent mainstream reimagining of feminist sentiments in fashion then, offers the opportunity for ordinary women of all backgrounds to voice their support, without having to belong to an exclusive club where $550 is apparently an acceptable amount to pay for a t-shirt. Surely this can only be a good thing.

However, whilst these mainstream t-shirts are indeed cheap, this comes at a human and ethical cost. To keep prices low less expensive brands often use cheap foreign labourers who are, more often than not, women. There is a hypocrisy at the heart of these t-shirts, which proclaim female solidarity but at the price of women working long hours in squalid conditions, on bare pay, to produce said t-shirts. There is also the important issue surrounding the ethics of the fashion industry itself, which does not have a glowing reputation for respecting women and their bodies. Whilst it is changing, the field of fashion itself objectifies women, forcing them to conform to a certain image of ‘beauty’. Thus, it sits uncomfortably with many that the same designers reinforcing female beauty standards, are now promoting “girl power”. There are also those of the opinion that these types of tops trivialise the importance of feminism, and therefore women’s rights, as a fashion trend.

These issues are undoubtedly important, and we should not shy from addressing them. However, with the ‘leader of the free world’ having claimed to “grab her by the pussy”, now is not the time to criticise mainstream manifestations of feminism with highly strung academic arguments.  Women need each other’s support now more than ever. In theory, we are as powerful as we’ve ever been, and yet are still being denied a voice. If an H&M slogan provides a woman with that voice, we should not dismiss it.

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