Fashion speaks. Sometimes it does so in whispers – the shapes, colours, historical echoes and cultural references woven into our clothes dropping hints about our characters and values to anyone who cares to listen closely.
But if there’s an aesthetic embodiment of a shout, it’s surely the slogan T-shirt. And right now, fashion is going through a very shouty phase.
From the catwalk to the high street, celebrities to politicians, teenagers to trendsetters, slogan tees are everywhere. Personally, I bristle at being lectured by a stranger’s laundry. But I have to admit, this does, ostensibly, appear to be a good thing. Because these shirts are all screaming about feminism.
Earlier this summer, Harry Styles was photographed leaving an airport with the words “women are smarter” emblazoned across his handsome (and suddenly a thousand times more enlightened) chest. Five days later, Sienna Miller posted her first picture to Instagram: a selfie sporting Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” tee (and, slightly more confusingly, a Star Trek salute, raising the riveting possibility that she’s been appointed the intergalactic ambassador to our cause.)
Of course, activist fashion has heritage. Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood were pushing progressive politics through bold graphic tees 40-odd years ago. Plus ça change.
Except that one major thing has changed since the 70s: the way our clothes are made.
Remember in 2014, when it was claimed that those “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts – the ones Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband had raced to snap selfies in – were actually produced in a Mauritian sweatshop, by women earning less that 62p an hour?
The allegation was denied, but suddenly the possibility was posed that all this fashion purporting to shout about women’s empowerment could, more quietly, be disempowering the women who make it. It turns out, shopping as a feminist involves more than simply slipping on a slogan.
Of the 75,000,000 people who make the clothes on our high streets and in our wardrobes, 80 per cent are women between the ages of 18 and 24. It takes these garment workers in the developing world 18 months to make what a fashion CEO makes in their lunch break.
“Look at your labels. Those three words – ‘Made in Cambodia’ – there’s a story behind them. And it’s almost always the story of a woman,” says Eleanor Amari, one of the women behind an extraordinary American campaign called Remake.
It turns out, shopping as a feminist involves more than simply slipping on a slogan T-shirt
“We think that if we connect women who buy fashion with the women who make fashion, real changes can happen,” says Eleanor. By that, she means changes more profound than a flurry of Instagram likes for a celeb’s slogan tee.
To that end, they’ve made a series of short films and stories called Meet The Makers, profiling the real women, from Pakistan to Haiti, who make clothes for our most famous and familiar brands.
Lubna, for example, is a single mother working in a clothes factory in Karachi, Pakistan. “Day after day, it is tiring,” she says, “but I think of my daughter at home. I’m trying to provide for us with the money I make. A few of the women at the factory are friends... We can share our stories, our sorrow, and have this graveyard in our hearts where we keep each other’s secrets buried. These women get me through my day.” They get 500 rupees a day for their eight hours at the machines. That’s just over £6.
“I have stopped really having dreams of my own,” says Lubna. “Now I just dream that my daughter will be OK in her life.”
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, we meet Char Wong. She works in a dingy subcontracted factory, where conditions are among the worst, in order to support her two children, husband and sick mother. “I get paid per 12 pieces,” she says, “but if there’s even one single error in the batch, I don’t get paid at all.”
“Fast fashion is a major feminist issue,” says Eleanor, “but it’s about more than a slogan. It’s about ethical production.”
One of the challenges, she says, is that champions of ethical fashion often focus on its environmental, rather than human, impact. Then, there’s its image: the indelible association of ethical fashion with the crusty, Cornish-pasty shoe. And if you can find fashionable, ethically produced clothes, they’re usually eye-wateringly expensive.
But the tide could be turning, says Eleanor. “We’re no longer just talking about a choice between a hemp sack or a $700 T-shirt. The middle ground has grown significantly over the last few years. We’re seeing ethical fashion, produced in ways that really support women, at high-street prices. And you guys are lucky – London is a true pioneer in this field.”
She’s right. Across the UK, a growing clutch of small, independent brands and even some bigger chains are now producing lust-worthy clothes that actively support the women in their production chains. In fact, two gorgeous, ethical and affordable collections are currently launching near-simultaneously (all information below).
Fashion, it seems, might finally be ready to support women in a fundamentally new way. Now that’s really something to shout about.
HERE ARE THE BEST BUYS BY BRANDS SUPPORTING WOMEN
People Tree is the original pioneer of ethical, sustainable and stylish fashion. Their new debut collaboration with the V&A is all the evidence you need that ethical fashion has moved far beyond frumpy and crusty. Each of the eight pieces are made by Creative Handicrafts, an Indian social enterprise that helps low income women in the slums of Mumbai achieve economic independence by training and creating jobs.
Launched on 29 June, the small second collection from Birdsong is a joy. You’ll find everything, from bold graphic tees to more formal florals. Put them on and you’ll feel good in all sorts of ways.
The small but mighty fashion brand pairs independent women’s groups – from migrant seamstresses to knitting grannies – with cutting-edge designers. Sewn products are made by Heba Women's Project on Brick Lane, a charity and support network for migrant women. Collaborating with Birdsong’s designers builds their confidence and brings in a decent income – they pay £15 per hour.
T-shirts, meanwhile, are hand-painted by Roksana, Lima and Shereena – dinner ladies from Poplar, who paint in between cooking and picking up their kids. Birdsong trains them in everything, from trend research and design to digital skills and managing orders.
The brand new and brilliantly cool Shakti + Mary is a treasure trove of Ikat prints and bold colours. Their Cashmere Collection of beautiful, hand-woven shawls and scarves is made by women from the Women's Skills Development Organization in India. This brilliant, fair-trade organisation provides free personal and professional training to disabled, widowed, divorced, single or outcast women, empowering them to build better lives for themselves.
Lightweight and lovely, they’ll keep you cosy on cool summer evenings.
(Oh, and watch out for a forthcoming collection of dresses made in collaboration with Sewing New Futures, an NGO that lifts women out of prostitution by teaching them to sew.)
ASOS’ Made In Kenya range is produced by SOKO Kenya, a manufacturing unit in the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary, where rates of prostitution and HIV/AIDS are high and unemployment is at Kenya’s worst. Through training and employment, SOKO helps women regain control of their own lives, earn a decent income, send their children to school, provide healthy meals and lift entire families out of poverty. Their eco-factory includes a pre-school for employees’ children, free medical care and a kitchen and dining room serving daily hot meals.
Three cheers for Just Trade – a London-based brand dedicated to creating “collaboratively designed, ethically made” jewellery. It’s also all utterly gorgeous. Their Alexandra bangle is made with Hope Jewellery in Lima, Peru, a fair-trade project that gives women from shanty towns fairly paid, skilled employment they can do from home. That means they can raise their families out of poverty without leaving them behind to seek work in the city.
Two Neighbors is not just a fashion brand – it’s a peace project. In the South Hebron Hills in Palestine, a group of women get to work using a traditional embroidery technique called tatreez. Their work is then transported to Tel Aviv in Israel, where another group of women sew it into dresses, jackets and more. Everyone is paid a fair wage and all profits are ploughed back into their cooperatives. The two groups are divided by checkpoints, warfare and global politics. But they are defying oppression and hate to work together, and raise each other out of poverty.
“In Ambur, India, women homeworkers are paid less than 10p a pair for stitching the uppers of shoes sold in the UK for prices between £40 and £100.”
“The maximum Jyoti can stitch in one day is 16 pairs, earning her under £1.60. Although cost of living differs, this is simply not enough to cover her basic needs. A kilo of rice alone costs her 43p.”
Veja does things differently. Because of their fair-trade philosophy, their shoes cost about six times more to manufacture than high-street shoes manufactured in Asia. They keep their retail prices down by cutting advertising instead of wages. Their rubber is produced by 60 families who live in the Amazonian rainforest. Veja buys it for four times the typical price, giving them a vital income and an incentive to carry on tapping rubber sustainably, instead of turning to cattle farming or wood extraction, industries that contribute to the destruction of their environment. Their cotton comes from Ceará, Northeast Brazil, a state that suffers from vast wealth inequalities. Here, Veja works directly with 320 families with tiny farms.
The classic Esplar trainers were named after the Brazilian NGO that gives these families support and advice to improve their farming practices, incomes and, ultimately, futures.
Want to go further than fashion? Launched this month, new company OneSqin is on a mission to turn our essential purchases into vital education for girls.
One hundred per cent of the profits from their organic cotton tampons and natural skincare products are ploughed into charities that empower girls in the developing world, like the SEGA Girls School in Tanzania, for girls whose extreme poverty would otherwise prove a barrier to education. Some have lost their parents to malaria, AIDS or other diseases. Some can’t afford uniforms, books or transport to traditional schools. Some work to support themselves and their families.
OneSqin’s cream costs £22 with free worldwide shipping. Their applicator tampons cost £70 for a one-year subscription including free shipping to the UK. The company is brand new, so they will be taking pre-sales soon.