Sunday 17 November 2019

Empowerment of women is now going cheap

We are living in the midst of a corporate feminist tsunami - and a €72 pair of leggings proves it, writes Ciara O'Connor

LEGGINGS ARE NOT EMPOWERING: Amanda Byram
LEGGINGS ARE NOT EMPOWERING: Amanda Byram

Ciara O'Connor

TV presenter, personal trainer and owner of abs Amanda Byram has revealed details of her first activewear collection.

Apparently, the range is designed to make women feel "strong, beautiful and empowered" - and it starts at around €72 for a pair of leggings.

Leggings are surely the most unempowering article of clothing ever; they are the very yardstick by which we may measure inequality in Ireland. Surely there is no other garment that runs the gamut so comprehensively from trashy to chic - when both ends of the spectrum look pretty much identical.

There are some women who could never be empowered by a bit of spandex: the kind of portly, flat-arsed girl with the wrong hair, the wrong runners. Maybe a pram. The kind of girl that people tend to sneakily take photos of when walking behind her to send to their friends, 'OMG lol'. Leggings have to be on the right body, on the right kind of person, with the right outfit to be acceptable, never mind empowering. And, of course, with the right price tag.

Empowering garments may include a good anorak, shoes with plenty of space for all your toes, jumpsuits that look like dresses until you go to bust a move on the dance floor and swimming goggles. Leggings are not empowering.

But it's not Amanda's fault. You see, she's launching her business at a time when it seems to be morally reprehensible for brands not to empower women. Dove were the evil geniuses behind it, launching their Real Beauty campaign 10 years ago. Since then, they've pretended that they're selling self-love when really they are selling moisturiser. Because you're strong and perfect just the way you are: nearly. If you give us your money.

Empowerment is now a catch-all phrase to imply that a brand is doing something more. Clothes can no longer be a thing you put on your body to be warm or look nice: they must have ambition.

At least back when advertisers were pushing sex, they were being honest. When they used say 'Buy this dress and you'll bag a husband', it was stupid but sincere. This new corporate feminism-lite is kind of creeping and more subtle.

Feminism and fashion may seem like strange bedfellows, but the last few years have seen a surge in activism-inspired apparel from Dior to Missguided.

Feminism was invented in 2014, when Chanel staged a 'protest' on the catwalk with the likes of Gisele Bundchen and Cara Delevingne armed with sumptuous leather loudspeakers and placards reading 'Women's rights are alright'. The response was mixed, with many pointing out the obvious hypocrisies inherent in the world's highest paid models playing at activism. Karl Lagerfield, who masterminded the stunt, is known for espousing such empowering sentiments as 'no one wants to see curvy women'. Little did we know, it was the beginning of something that would become far more pervasive and insidious. Earlier this year, Vogue writer Eviana Hartman asked its readers: "Should you dress for resistance at New York fashion week?" Contributing editor Lynn Yaeger apparently deadpanned: "I would love an 18-karat gold and rose cut diamond brooch that reads 'nevertheless she persisted'."

Resistance, indeed.

Crushing the patriarchy via slogan T-shirts has become quite the thing. Christian Dior's newly appointed creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, debuted her Spring 2017 including a $700 We Should All Be Feminists T-shirt, which became the most Instagrammed look of Paris Fashion Week and was seen on Rihanna. Now, such slogan T-shirts are 10 a penny: you can pick one up saying Girl Power, Blue is for Girls, The Female Revolution, Full Time Feminist for a few euros at Penneys or H&M.

Ariana Grande, the patron saint of pop and fashion icon to legions of young fans, set Instagram alight with her pairing of an oversized Malala Yousafzai Fight Like a Girl jumper with thigh-high denim boots. Curiouser and curiouser.

I'm torn. As a card-carrying member of The Feminists, I suppose I should think all publicity is good publicity. But I've been burnt before: when Birkenstocks became fashionable a couple of years ago, I was thrilled. I'd been living in them for 10 years: validation at last! But, of course, what goes up must come down and Birkenstocks became not just unfashionable, but passé. I fear the same trajectory for feminism. What happens when fashion decides it's over?

Needless to say, a lot of this 'empowering' feminist apparel is made by desperately poor women in sweatshops across the other side of the world. Which isn't really very feminist at all. Empowerment has become another thing that we think we can sell. It's the emperor's new clothes of 2017. Brands seem to think that if they tell us something is empowering, we'll believe it and therefore become empowered. Which means… what? It's not clear. The Twitter bio for BodyByByram was put together by a random-proto-feminist-marketing-speak-generator: "What we wear is an extension of who we are so how better to identify yourself as a strong woman than wearing kickass athleisure wear" (sic).

Amanda's leggings and tops look lovely, high quality and well made. That's not enough. It's a shame that we think clothes have to identify us as 'strong', 'empowered', 'feminist'. And it seems like a bit of an own-goal, because if we were any of those things, we probably wouldn't want €72 leggings.

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