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Can I Be a Feminist and a Fashion-Lover?

07/12/2014 20:42 GMT | Updated 06/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Being a 21st Century feminist can come with many contradictions. I'm a feminist, but I love Gossip Girl, the main storyline of which is an essentially abusive relationship (Chuck and Blair). I'm a feminist, but I listen to Childish Gambino. I'm a feminist, but if I choose to get married, I want my father to walk me down the aisle. One of my biggest inner battles is that I'm a feminist, but I love fashion; an industry which is notoriously oppressive of women.

It could be said that feminism is currently enjoying some influence in the fashion industry. A petition to rid a Victoria's Secret advertising campaign of its 'Perfect Body' slogan gained over 30,000 signatures, and resulted in the lingerie giant changing the tagline. ELLE magazine's recent collaboration with Whistles, a reproduction of the iconic "This is what a feminist looks like" t-shirt, raised thousands for women's charity the Fawcett Society and garnered support from high-profile politicians (not that this makes said politicians feminists, any more than wearing a festive jumper makes me Father Christmas). This week, feminist du jour Emma Watson won the British Style Award at the BFAs, showing that interests in equality and fashion are not mutually exclusive.

However, beyond the surface, fashion still has some deep-rooted issues when it comes to feminism. Take the Victoria's Secret example; the campaign might no longer be called 'Perfect Body', but it does still use the same thin, able-bodied, mostly white models. Many women and girls are still going to look at those adverts and feel ashamed that they don't fit that largely unattainable beauty standard, regardless of what the tagline reads. This is not a case of me 'skinny-shaming'; obviously there is a proportion of the population (albeit a very small one) who can look like the Victoria's Secret models naturally and healthily. However, a genuine positive change for the lingerie line would be celebrating diverse women's bodies in their adverts, of all sizes and ethnicities - particularly considering their new slogan: 'A Body for Every Body'.

Another example of shallow feminism can be found in the recent Chanel show, orchestrated by Karl Lagerfeld, which took on the form of a feminist protest. Models walked the runway holding signs emblazoned with slogans including 'Women's Rights are More than Alright' and 'History is Her Story'. This bandwagon feminism was nothing more than a publicity stunt for Lagerfeld. Men shouldn't be heading up feminist protests at the best of times (for reasons too lengthy to address here), let alone a man who has labelled those concerned by size-zero models as "fat mommies with bags of crisps" and claimed that "Coco Chanel was never ugly enough to be a feminist". Some would probably say I shouldn't be taking this fashion show so seriously, but here's the thing - feminism should be taken seriously, and it's not something that should be reduced to a publicity stunt. Feminism is for life, not just for fashion week.

Another problematic issue surrounding the fashion industry is manufacturing methods. Although the recent attack on the production of the aforementioned "This is what a feminist looks like" t-shirts turned out to be false, it did highlight an important question: do we really know where our clothes have come from? Can we honestly say that our latest purchase was oppression-free? For most of us, the answer is probably no. This can be a question of money for the general public - a dress from People Tree can be 10 times the price of a dress from Primark - but that doesn't take away from the fact that many big clothing brands are making a profit out of exploiting those in poverty, who are likely to be women. Marks & Spencer, Gap and Next have all been embroiled in sweatshop scandals in the past, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

At its core, it could be said that fashion is an industry based around consumerism and a level of insecurity; it can make people feel inadequate, that their life would be better, and they would be more accepted if only they had this dress or that handbag. To an extent this is obviously true, as was painfully evident on 'Black Friday'. But for me, I can rationalise my love of fashion through my opinion of it as an art form. I view an Alexander McQueen or Elie Saab collection in the same way I appreciate artworks in a gallery. I admire the skill, the creativity, the innovation, and the sheer hard work that has gone into developing one single garment. Fashion is also a way for me to express myself. I can't paint, I can't dance, but I can have fun with the clothes I put on.

Honestly, I'll probably never stop being interested in fashion. But I recognise that it's a highly problematic industry, and I'd feel a lot less guilty about pouring over fashion magazines and blogs if designers and brands promoted diversity and made genuine commitments to ethical manufacturing. The fashion industry needs to be as innovative and forward-thinking in a social context as it is in design and creativity. It's time for the fashion industry to step up and take responsibility for the cultural impact that it has on everyone, of all genders, and start making the positive differences to the world that it has the genuine ability to achieve.