She Shirts: Ethical, Feminist Fashion by and for Women
By Sally Patterson, Co-founder of She Shirts
In 1908, feminists were encouraged to wear the Suffragette colours: purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope. Created by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, co-editor of Votes for Women magazine, the Suffragette flag aimed to foster comradeship and belonging within the group.
In the 1960's, women burned their bras (and high heels, lipstick and mops) to symbolise freedom from these ‘instruments of torture’. At the same time, black women used their natural hair as a means of protest, sporting afros to rebel against white beauty standards. With the 90's came tattoos, crop tops and ‘slut’ scrawled on bare stomachs in bright red lipstick. The Riot Grrrl movement was angry and unapologetic, using shock protest to drive their political message.
In 2020, it’s harder to pick a feminist out in a crowd. We’ve (largely) abandoned the Suffragette stripes, spent hours finding the perfect-fitting bra (‘am I a 34B, 32BB or 30C???’), and recognise that empowerment feels comfiest in hot pants for some, and a hijab for others.
Whilst we still express ourselves through what we wear, today we are also challenged by the source and integrity of our wardrobe. When we’re out shopping, or more accurately now, shopping from home, the choice of ‘feminist’ products is overwhelming. Bags, t-shirts, pillows and pencil-cases are littered with catchy feminist slogans: ‘girl power’, ‘nasty woman’ and ‘the future is female’. It’s never been easier to spell out, quite literally, that we’re feminists.
Are we truly driving the feminist agenda?
In some ways, it’s a huge achievement for women’s equality to be so normalised, so celebrated and easy to buy into. Less than a century ago, being called a feminist was a derogatory slur, and now two-year-old girls skip along the street wearing (adorable) ‘feminist in training’ jumpers. But I question whether by wearing a feminist slogan, we are automatically driving the feminist agenda.
Dig just a bit deeper and these slogan tees begin to look a lot less empowering. The reality is that most fast-fashion products are made by low-paid women in substandard working conditions thousands of miles from the rails where we find them so neatly showcased.
Campaigning group War On Want estimates that of the three million garment workers in Bangladesh, 85% are women.
80% of workers work for over 12 hours a day, earning as little as £25 a month.
According to Care International’s study, nearly one in three female garment factory workers have reported experiencing sexually harassing behaviours in the workplace over the last 12 months.
In 2013, the world watched in horror as the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed, killing at least 1,132 garment workers and injuring more than 2,500. A year later a shopper said she found a ‘cry for help’ note in her Primark jeans from a Chinese prisoner working 15-hour days.
Fashion Revolution, an organisation campaigning for a safe, fair and accountable fashion industry, sums up this disconnect perfectly: "Fashion brands exploit women in one part of the world to empower them in another. A t-shirt meant to empower female customers is made by women for whom gender inequality is still the day-to-day reality.”
Where our feminist T-shirts come from is a feminist issue, but who our T-shirts actually benefit also matters. According to PwC, just 12.5% of America’s largest retail apparel companies are led by women. Sir Philip Green, owner of Arcadia (Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins) was accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, reportedly slapping female staff members’ bottoms, touching their legs and grabbing their breasts.
The tireless campaigning of advocacy organisations who refuse to rest until the fashion industry supports all women is starting to bite. A Hubbub poll showed 66% of the public think the government should invest in research and development to create more sustainable fabrics with lower environmental and social impact. Commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, the report brought these issues to the attention of policy makers at the heart of government.
The inequalities are not lost on manufacturers either; Chloé Girls Forward tee (£280) donates 100% of proceeds to UNICEF, and Pretty Little Thing’s International Women’s Day range donated to The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts.
When Ceini Bowen and I set out to launch a truly feminist brand, our products needed to be ethically made, support aspiring artists and benefit women with every purchase. Working with supplier Teemill, we were able to run She Shirts knowing that our products weren’t exploiting the women creating them. Teemill are accredited by the SA8000 Standard, a program dedicated to the fair treatment of workers whereby employers must provide safe workplaces and healthy working conditions, pay a living wage and their factories are also powered by renewable energy.
We weren’t keen to contribute to Sir Phillip’s estimated $2.3 billion bank account. Instead, all She Shirts profits go directly to charities supporting women: Women’s Aid, who support survivors of domestic violence; Smart Works, who help homeless women find jobs; and Bloody Good Period, who provide sanitary products for vulnerable women and asylum seekers.
In 2020 it’s hard to look like a feminist, and impossible to emancipate all women all the time. Instead, small changes like swapping a high-street tee for an ethically-made one, feels good and does good. Bra-burning, optional.
For more info on She Shirts or to shop their ethical, feminist tees, visit: https://sheshirts.teemill.com/
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