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Now in Dissent: “Work It! The New Face of Labor in Fashion”

By Annemarie Strassel

Read the full article in Dissent Magazine, Spring 2014. Image

The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh evoked iconic moments in labor history when primarily young, female participants in the garment industry suffered and organized for their lives. Today, the chain of young, female, often migrant labor stretches from the ruined factories of Bangledesh to global style centers like New York and London, where legions of underpaid or unpaid interns, models, and other workers form a creative underclass. In the United States, many have few or no protections under the National Labor Relations Act. And unlike factory workers, the creative side of the industry is just beginning to organize. Both sides are working to close the geographic and conceptual space dividing fashion and labor.

In September 2013 Nautica’s Spring 2014 runway show was interrupted by an unusual coalition of models and Bangladeshi garment workers, protesting the company’s failure to sign a factory safety accord backed by Calvin Klein, Zara, and other major labels. Spearheading the effort was Kalpona Akter, a former child factory worker turned executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and Sara Ziff, the head of Model Alliance, an advocacy organization for models.

“At first glance the runways of New York and the factories of Bangladesh couldn’t look farther apart, and yet we are all working in the same industry—the fashion industry—which is a $1.5 trillion business, where the work is overwhelmingly performed by young women and girls,” says Ziff. “We all work under different socioeconomic conditions. We work in the same industry. We’re all trying to assert our rights in a hostile labor environment, and we all want to have a voice in our work.”

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Read the full article at Dissent.

Mode of Production: Reclaiming the Revolutionary Potential of the Uniform

Soviet playsuits by Varvara Stepanova, 1920.
Soviet playsuits by Varvara Stepanova, 1920.

By Annemarie Strassel, PhD

The following essay was written to frame an exhibition of new experimental work by Chicago-based fashion designer Jamie Hayes in an effort she dubs “The Uniform Project.”  For this show Hayes collaborated with 28 different participants to design a uniform or uniform-inspired piece. Check out the full essay here.

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In the past, the future was imagined as a world in uniform. The pages of comic books and the world of sci-fi have long been littered with sleek unitards and metallic jumpsuits. Sometimes boxy, sometimes skintight, the unisex bodysuit once established itself as the seemingly inevitable uniform of the future. Consider the crew aboard Starship Enterprise. Captain America. The villains of A Clockwork Orange. Even the Little Prince. The fashion of the future, these visions portend, will be summed up in a single garment, worn daily and universally to equip bodies for radically new ways of moving and being.

In its brightest moments, the uniform signaled the triumph of reason over fashion in a world where functionality and unfettered movement trump vanity or other base human desires. In more dystopic visions of the future like THX-1138 or Fahrenheit 451, bodysuit uniforms symbolize the darker side of modernity’s demand for technical rationality, where free will and individuality are subjugated to the broader determination of the fascist state.

The future, otherwise known as the present, has turned out quite different. Today, style is more fragmented than ever. While runways and top fashion designers compete to define the season’s latest trends, the streets teem with a dizzying kaleidoscope of styles that live contemporaneously. Fast fashion retail giants like H&M pump out 24 separate clothing seasons a year. In the Cold War of fashion, the communists lost.

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Check out Hayes’ site to read the full essay.

WSQ: “Designing Women: Feminist Methodologies in American Fashion”

Here’s an excerpt from my latest article, “Designing Women: Feminist Methodologies in American Fashion,” as published in the latest issue of WSQ: Fashion.

Visit Project MUSE to read the full article from Women’s Studies Quarterly, Volume 41, Numbers 1-2, Spring/Summer 2013.

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In 1940, Elizabeth Hawes, a leading voice in American fashion and owner of one of the most exclusive couture businesses in New York, abandoned her career in fashion to take on the “war against fascism.” After working for several months as a critic for the leftist tabloid PM, she took a job as a machine operator at Wright Aeronautical, a New Jersey wartime plant, and published a memoir about her experiences entitled Why Women Cry, or Wenches with Wrenches (1943). At the heart of the book is a quest to explain “why women cry,” a problem she attributes to the crisis in domestic labor created by women’s entrance into wage work. She writes, “The world has been told, to the vomiting point, that a revolution is now in progress. Men: this revolution is likely to be brewing right in your own kitchen. For we . . . have all been notified that the day of the Common Man is coming up. Don’t think the Common Woman is just sitting around preparing to spend the whole of that day in the kitchen” (xi).

If the war had created certain economic opportunities for women, it had also sharpened gender inequities, Hawes argued, as the dual responsibilities of productive labor and social reproduction fell onto women’s laps amid the wartime crisis. She writes, “I am terrified we may not start soon enough to avert the Hitlerian routine of Children-Kitchen-Church for the new generation of the Common American Woman and do away with economic slavery to their husbands”(xi-xii). In response, Hawes proposes a revolutionary vision for the feminist reorganization of society, envisioning a world with employer-provided child care, self-cleaning homes, affordable public housing and health care, community restaurants, programs to promote women’s reproductive health, nondiscrimination in the workplace, dress reform, socialized beauty parlors and exercise facilities (so that everyone might have access to the “body beautiful”), and initiatives to encourage women to vote (Hawes 1943). Hawes imagined the achievement of this radical utopia through a cross-class alliance of “professionals in health and education and religious and welfare and housing; of Club-women and les Riches-Bitches and She-Wolves and thousands and thousands of just plain mothers, Womenworkers and Forgotten Females; we [would] all go ahead together to see that no child lacked what he needed” (xii).

Just how did Elizabeth Hawes, a household name in American fashion, go from couturier to trade unionist and radical feminist in a few short years? Some crucial answers lie in the social consciousness and feminist methodologies shared by a new generation of American designers like Hawes, who emerged in the turbulent political and economic climate of the Great Depression. Hawes was among a growing movement of women in fashion—designers, retail executives, fashion critics, and industry personalities—who collectively defined new approaches to fashion, rooted in women’s physicality and the promise of mass production. Under the framework of “Americanizing fashion,” these women challenged traditional business models in fashion and the mystique of Parisian haute couture. More than a patriotic appeal, the idea of American style provided an intellectual framework for women to engage critically with the fashion industry and the construction of femininity through mass culture. This essay reconstructs the political underpinnings of American fashion, pointing to 1) a new emphasis on sculptural design methodologies; 2) Hawes’s landmark critique, Fashion Is Spinach (1938), which attacked both French exclusivity and the empty rhetoric of material democracy by the American apparel industry; and 3) the conceptual ties between interwar American fashions and a longer tradition of “material feminism,” specifically dress reform (Hayden 1982).

Visit Project MUSE to read the full article from Women’s Studies Quarterly, Volume 41, Numbers 1-2, Spring/Summer 2013.