Capitalism Loves Women’s Oppression
The stereotype that feminists are ugly, undesirable and unwomanly has been around since the very beginning of the feminist movement. Back in the early 1900s, suffragettes used fashion to fight back against this idea. The Women’s Social and Political Union, which led the movement in Britain, encouraged their members to wear their best white dresses when attending public rallies. The organisers wanted to prove that classy, beautiful women were part of the movement too and dispel the notion that feminist was a fringe movement of sexually frustrated “spinsters.”
The problem was that in doing so, they fed into stereotypes about women: that their physical appearance was the most important thing about them, even when you are demanding your rights. That being unmarried or unattractive according to social beauty standards tarnishes your worth as a woman. That you can ask for gender equality, as long as you don’t stray from strict gender roles.
Despite the fact that dressing like a feminist could get you assaulted, ribbons, sashes and badges in green, violet and white, the colours associated with the movement, really took off. By 1908, you could find merchandise not just at special shops run by the Women’s Social and Political Union, but in department stores. Suffragette underwear could be picked up at Selfridges.
“The accessories made it exciting. They seemed like the latest thing. They made it fashionable to become a suffragette.”
— Rosie Broadley, the curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2018 Votes For Women display, told The Telegraph.
Today’s fashion of feminist T-Shirts, from catwalks to discount stores, comes as an echo of this era, and bring up the same ethical questions. Corporations using feminism as a buzzword to sell products, consumers using feminism as an on-trend accessory, is not liberating. Worse, it is genuinely harmful when a fundamentally patriarchal consumerist system coopts the feminist cause.