European Commons Assembly. Madrid. MedialabPrado 2017

In the twenty-first century, the line between fashion and activism blurs faster than we can follow. Slogans that ignited feminist movements can often find themselves sewn onto t-shirts or swinging from gold-chains. Rihanna and Demi Lovato are known for wearing the “We Should All Be Feminists” Dior t-shirt. “Females are the Future” is emblazoned on crewnecks from Penneys. But what do the brand owners and CEOs do with feminism when there’s no chance of a profit being made?

Recently, fashion retailer Topshop came under fire for disassembling a display of books and products supporting the UN charity Girl Up. Topshop partnered up with publisher Penguin to endorse a collection of feminist writing and to promote the release of the book Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and other lies) by author Scarlett Curtis. But within 20 minutes, the stall was dismantled at the demand of store owner, Sir Philip Green.  

In fitting with the times, Topshop expressed their apology in tweet-form. The store expressed that the event “does not reflect its stance on feminism” and offered a donation of £25,000 to Girl Up and a continued support for Scarlett Curtis. As for Green, he apologised for the “misunderstanding” but made no effort to explain what the misunderstanding was.

The commodification of feminism is a topic clouded in controversy. Some say that selling activism on clothing can de-stigmatise terms like “feminism” and “equality”. However, many believe that packaging and selling political movements removes their meaning and does nothing to promote equality in a greater sense.  Rather than all-male corporate boards promoting gender equality by selling products for profit, they should be creating space at the top for capable women.

Topshop is no exception to this narrative. The retailer has come under scrutiny in the past for labour abuses and poor working conditions in their factories. Most notably it was claimed that Topshop x Beyoncé’s Ivy Park collection, a range which supposedly promotes female empowerment was made by female garment workers labouring under unfair conditions.

Fashion and equality are not mutually exclusive; it has been used as a tool through history empowering groups like the suffragettes wearing trousers as a statement. Now more than ever, people wear their politics on their sleeve. In response to the events surrounding her book, Scarlett Curtis tweeted that “the patriarchy is still alive and kicking.” Perhaps selling feminism as a commodity is not the way to go in changing this, but there is still some work to do in finding a way to balance activism and fashion. The word ‘feminist’ in the fashion world has yet to become accessible to everybody.