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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

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 un em­pow­er­ing 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 self­love 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-in- spired 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.

LEG­GINGS ARE NOT EM­POW­ER­ING: Amanda Byram

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