Fashion and Feminism – what’s next for the industry in the era of #MeToo?

By Alys Hewitt

The fashion industry has always been largely at odds with the feminist agenda. After all, what do you expect from an industry founded upon encouraging women to pursue unrealistic ideals of beauty and effectively telling them how to dress and express themselves? As well as this, like most industries, it is one where the agenda is often set by men – the face of fashion may be female, as is the vast majority of its audience, but the photographers, publishers and designers behind the scenes are often disproportionately male, or, at least, have been historically. But is this changing in a cultural landscape that is becoming increasingly aware and conscious of gender inequality?

By now, you will almost definitely have heard extensively about the #MeToo movement, now a year old, which was spawned out of multiple allegations of abuses of power by prominent figures in the film industry. These revelations have caused a storm in popular culture, making the issue of harassment and the voices of alleged victims largely unignorable, and subsequent campaigns have focused on women and men reclaiming their power and the courage to speak out about their experiences.

Its prominence has led to many people wondering whether fashion will have its own #MeToo movement. In the wake of allegations against men in the film industry, models did come forward with accounts of sexual harassment from photographers and figures of power within fashion, such as Terry Richardson, Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, though these were noticeably less widespread than allegations from those working in the film industry, and comparatively the movement has seemed far slower to get off the ground.

There have been recent examples of politics on the catwalk in the wake of #MeToo – at London Fashion Week last month, designer Nicholas Kirkwood chose to send Rose McGowan, one of the movement’s most vocal advocates, down the catwalk to open his show, who removed her shoes and stood in a defiant, powerful stance. Designer Roland Mouret’s London show also embraced the theme of female empowerment, aiming to redefine traditional notions of female sexuality and collaborating with feminist artists on brooches and badges emblazoned with the slogan “Woman Up”. During February’s New York Fashion Week, Prabal Gurung invited activist Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, to sit front row at his show, in a possible attempt to merge fashion and feminist activism.

Declarations of solidarity such as these are promising, and signify the fact that fashion is becoming more self-aware of inequality, but they amount to nothing if tangible change is not enacted within the industry. It is evident that backwards attitudes still remain. This could not have been exemplified more than with Karl Lagerfeld, one of fashion’s most prominent and iconic figures, declaring back in April his exasperation towards the #MeToo movement, urging models to “join a nunnery” if they don’t want to be sexually harassed. No wonder not many models have spoken openly about harassment.

Comments such as this indicate that the industry still has a long way to go, beyond simply displaying support for the #MeToo cause or selling clothing emblazoned with feminist-friendly slogans. As with other industries, structural change is needed, and it will take a long time to dismantle the deep-rooted values upheld by the fashion industry. Whether this means elevating the platforms of female designers, doing more to protect models against harassment in the workplace, or championing diversity on runways around the world, we need an upheaval of the fashion industry.

Fashion has great potential to be a tool of liberation and expression for women, rather than something which is bound up in uniformity and restrictive ideals of beauty. Declarations of equality don’t have to be overtly and directly political – hopefully we will see (and have to some extent already seen) more designers who use fashion to innovate and challenge established standards of femininity, a somewhat radical act in itself.

#MeToo has set in motion a series of events which will hopefully contribute to greater change within fashion, opening up discussions surrounding the issues of sexual harassment, equality and diversity. Let’s hope that the momentum continues, and that we can work towards a more open and inclusive industry, one that no longer perpetuates toxic ideals and values.