Not Everyone Is A Fashion Activist: The Need To Understand Intersectionality In Fashion Activism Practices.

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The complex intersection between fashion and activism is an ever-pressing entanglement that designers, activists, environmentalists, and fashion scholars in today’s society need to understand. Fashion, like most industries, is rooted in systemic and structural issues surrounding the subjects of race, gender, class, and ability. Thus, as a result of this ever-changing reality, many individuals have begun engaging in the practice of “Fashion Activism.” Scholars such as Anja-Lisa Hirscher positions the meaning of “Fashion Activism” as being the: 

[C]oherent with political activism and the participatory approach to empower the consumer with the tools, information, and knowledge to become an active and independent individual. Fashion activism has the goal to criticise and work towards improving the current fast-fashion system (von Busch, 2008)… Fashion activism is a multifaceted practice. It is an umbrella term for various political, social or environmentally-driven activities related to the fashion industry, fashion consumption and fashion design (Fuad-Luke, 2009).

Fashion activism helps individuals understand that they have the agency or the capacity to act or make a change in the world/systems around us as individuals. When put into practice, fashion activism seeks to redefine fashion as an industry and profession and unearth the possibilities of creating a sustainable fashion system based on democratizing knowledge.

Yet, in the pursuit to achieve a fashion activism praxis within the industry, two issues cannot be ignored. First, sustainability is inaccessible for marginalized communities, and second the need for intersectionality to be centered in fashion activism. As a Black, nonbinary, queer, critical, rural raised, fashion-centered person, my experience has positioned me to see how systems, even those rooted in good intentions, have hidden, problematic, often not spoke about parts to them. Fashion Activism is one of those spaces. Nonetheless, if the fashion activist practitioners do the work to unpack and address the two issues described above in practice, fashion activism can become a vibrant tool for change. 

Fashion Activism as a social change practice does not address how sustainability, often referred to as slow fashion, is inaccessible to many consumers. Sadly, like most systems positioned to better the livelihoods of individuals, a perceived “to have and not to have” duality has been created in sustainable fashion practices. This leads the system to be centered on privileged access points to be able to enter the space. It is fantastic that slow fashion spaces seek to pay workers better and use durable and recyclable materials of high quality. Yet, it must be understood that a large portion of society’s consumer base cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars on dresses, pants, shoes, or accessories. Therefore, while many want to be Fashion Activists, they do not have the space, means, or financial resources to do so. 

Often when this reality is unmasked, it is met with “well, what about thrift stores—they are cheap.” While thrift stores are excellent and necessary, many individuals overlook the lack of high-quality items in spaces like rural and socioeconomically deprived areas. Further, there is not an extensive array of items to choose from. Moreover, there is a barrier to entry due to distance and transportation means. Being from a rural area, I have experienced firsthand how limited and often ill-equipped rural areas are.  Therefore, it must be understood that external factors impact how individuals can interact with the environment, and the new trendiness of thrift has led to increased prices and to be less affordable. 

Furthermore, individuals also do not have the means, technological and financial resources to use platforms like Thredup, Depop, or Poshmark (all spaces that pride themselves on sustainability) due to their online nature and often higher prices. It cannot be overlooked that size diversity is also not considered for sustainable/slow fashion. Thus, plus-size patrons are unable to participate as easily and cheaply as others. Fashion Activism will never be a tool that everyone can utilize until we understand that inequities currently exist in Fashion Activism/sustainability practices due to sustainability/slow fashion not being areas that everyone can participate in on equal footing. 

Furthermore, Fashion Activism, to combat issues like those mentioned above, needs to become more intersectional. Intersectionality, as positioned by, is a critical social theory. Intersectionality is positioned by scholars like Collins to mean: “a particular way of understanding social location in terms of crisscross systems of oppression. Specifically, intersectionality is an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructing features of social organization, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black women” (Collins, 2000, p. 299). While intersectionality, first and foremost, is a tool to explain the intersecting oppressions that Black women face, it is necessary to understand the utility of intersectionality to be able to open the aperture of other techniques like Fashion Activism. 

Fashion Activism is meant to help criticize and change the fast-fashion model within the fashion industry and address the various political, social and environmentally-driven activities related to the fashion industry, fashion consumption, and fashion design. However, this aim cannot be accomplished if the concept does not consider the intersecting realities of those who want to put the technique into practice related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, geographical positioning, age, etc. Unfortunately, Fashion Activism currently does not consider the positionality of those it is trying to help. Therefore, intersectionality as a concept could be a critical and novel way to address some of the short fallings and inaccessible aspects of Fashion Activism. 

Many individuals want to participate as Fashion Activists yet are on unequal footing as their peers, and their experiences and resource gaps are erased for the dialogue. Intersectionality’s ability to help individuals and institutions (like fashion) center on the systemic oppression those who want to participate in the conversation face along various lines can reshape Fashion Activism to be more inclusive and actualized. Sustainability and slow fashion are critical to better our environment and have material/human consequences; nevertheless, tools amassed to help those issues often lack nuance and do not consider marginalized realities many of us face. 

Fashion Activism is a critical practice that many people need to participate in and understand. Yet, until the issues of 1.) acknowledging the financial inaccessibility of sustainability/slow fashion are legitimized and taken seriously in Fashion Activist discourse and 2.) Fashion Activism becomes more intersectional; Fashion Activism will continue to limitedly address, explore, and unpack how to improve the fashion industry. However, activism is a continuous, active pursuit of change. If we are not critical of the tools used to help us prosper, we will continue to have soiled conversations regarding making change effectively. 

 

Sources:

Hirscher, A. (2013). Fashion activism evaluation and application of fashion activism strategies to ease transition towards sustainable consumption behaviour.Research Journal of Textile and Apparel, 17(1), 23-38. http://dx.doi.org.mutex.gmu.edu/10.1108/RJTA-17-01-2013-B003

Is Sustainable Fashion Becoming A Privilege?

 Collins, P. (2005). Patricia hill collins: Intersecting oppressions. Sage Journals.

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