For 48 hours, I did a deep-dive into the fascinating world of gender and fashion. We co-hosted a conference called Modern Bodies: Dress, Nation, Empire, and Gender in the Modern Middle East. This event was organized with LAU’s School of Architecture and Design and the London College of Fashion, bringing together some fabulously-dressed experts clad in a range of black fabrics.
The event combined cultural, social, economic, and political analyses with the role of art, photography, fashion to reveal new interpretations of women’s history as well as a history of gender and sexualities in the region. This was a fantastic fit for IWSAW – capturing our work on academia and activism – and aligned with our values of women’s empowerment and gender equality.
Fashion plays a greater role than we realize. We discussed how fashion can be an agent for innovation and change – promoting sustainability. Or – how it might reinforce stereotypes and further exploit women – both the wearers and the makers.
This was nicely timed for IWSAW. Obviously March is International Women’s Month (well, that’s EVERY month for us!) but we also launched the event on 14 March – #MyFreedomDay – where students and activists worldwide stood up and spoke out against modern slavery. There’s an obvious link to fashion here. And the region is certainly not immune to such forms of abuse and exploitation.
The talk by Professor Frances Corner, head of the London College of Fashion, brought many examples of fashion as a vehicle to tackle the world’s pressing social, environmental, economic, and ethical challenges. Prof Corner highlighted our own agency, reminding us that individuals can make a difference by making conscious choices – and taking responsibility for the choices we make. Everyone has a role in making these choices – because fashion impacts us all – and by taking a stand, we can all be leaders.
[One cool example: a student who designed a clothing label in braille, enabling those who could not previously read labels to take control of their clothing choices.]
She explained that clothes give us a voice – even a lack of interest in clothes still “speaks” to those who view us. For women in particular, clothes can be a safe platform for expression – assuming we have the freedom to choose, which as we know is not always the case.
[And all our Feminist-slogan t-shirts, of which I have a bazillion, could also be ironic tools of exploitation – making feminist claims while also exploiting women in sweatshops, barely earning minimum wage and suffering poor work conditions with zero protection. (Eeek! Lina frantically checks her labels!)]
We might think that our ability to select our own clothes is not consequential, but the average woman will spend a total of 287 days of her life deciding what to wear. And – while some might dismiss the fashion industry – its combined value would make it the world’s 7th largest economy. A power not to be underestimated.
The theme of agency ran strongly through this event. Prof Corner told a room full of Fashion students that “many voices, many small actions, can – and will – secure big change”. This is a particularly powerful message for Lebanon – where definitions of beauty and femininity are narrow and confining for women, and stereotypes suffocate self-expression. And, not unlike other countries, there’s a facile link between being sexy and being exposed. While these choices are fine (assuming they are conscious choices and not driven by social expectation or imagined male desire) they are extremely narrow, cliche, and restricting. This fails to celebrate the full range of what is sexy, or beautiful, or feminine, or even what might be labeled “modern”.
In short, women are the heart of the fashion industry, and so women also have the power to change it.