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Making For Change unit at HMP Downview, photographed by Christopher Woloshak

Work / International Women's Day

Head of London College of Fashion, Frances Corner OBE tells us why fashion can be political

Frances Corner has been Head of College at London College of Fashion since 2005, a role for which she earned an OBE for Services to Fashion in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours. In 2014 she penned “Why Fashion Matters”, a book of 101 essays around the impact of fashion on the world published by Thames & Hudson. Here, she writes for It’s Nice That on why, at a time of instability in the UK, US and around the world, we should be wearing our political opinions.

When Ruth Negga walked down the red carpet at the Oscar’s ceremony, it wasn’t her bold floor-length Valentino dress that caught my attention, rather a small blue ribbon which stood out against the red backdrop.

The ribbon represented the actress’ support of the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonpartisan, non-profit organisation, which has worked for nearly 100 years to defend and protect individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and law of the US.

And it is these rights, which through populism many women felt they had already secured – be it abortion rights or equality in the workplace, that now seem to be under threat.

Now is the time to become politically active. Whether that be through an ACLU ribbon or a pink pussyhat, either way, what is clear is that clothing can play a significant role in articulating your commitment.

The pink pussyhats were a great way of challenging perceived or real misogyny. The hats unified women, and men, who came together in anti-Trump marches across the world. The pussyhats, being pink, knitted or crocheted – traditional female crafts – and referencing a derogatory term for the female anatomy, are patently feminine.

They allowed many women, who couldn’t physically march, to still have their voice heard and became a symbol of solidarity, unifying them around a single political message.

It’s interesting to see how this idea has also been taken up by the fashion industry with Missoni sending models down the runway wearing similarly pink knitted hats at Milan Fashion Week. Angela Missoni wanted to use her position as creative director to make a statement about her support for the women’s march and the human rights they were attempting to protect.

Fashion, an industry with an unusually high percentage of women, gives many female figureheads the opportunity to have a voice on a global scale. Designers like Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood have often used their position, and shows, to confront the issues of contemporary society particularly focusing on the issues of climate change and the environment.

Although clothes, their adornment and presentation, are a powerful mechanism for expressing our female voice, it is not just about the wearing of clothes. What we recognise at London College of Fashion is that it’s not just about fashion as seen on the catwalk – however exciting and inspiring that might be.

We all wear clothes, they fulfil some of our most basic physiological needs, but they also go beyond that, in that they help form our identity, express ourselves as individuals and give employment to millions of workers. They are fundamental to who we are and because of this, clothes have great potential to change lives.

At LCF we are aware that the very act of making of clothes presents a number of opportunities for activism. We also know that their very manufacture can be highly contentious and political, especially in the light of the Modern Slavery Act.
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Making For Change unit at HMP Downview, photographed by Christopher Woloshak

We all know slavery is wrong, but we also quite like that £12 dress. We somehow manage to persuade ourselves that it is possible for a dress to be made, shipped and put on sale in the UK for a fractional price, without someone somewhere along the chain being over-exploited, paying the real price.

The most recent Home Office estimates suggest there are between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK, with 45 million estimated victims across the world.

And, in the UK a recent BBC Panorama investigation brought to light the fact that UK retailers – the likes of M&S and ASOS – were breaching the Modern Slavery Act through child exploitation. They discovered Syrian refugee children, as young as 15, working in Turkish factories.

Companies need to take responsibility for these breaches of Modern Slavery. It isn’t enough to claim ignorance. These companies have a responsibility to monitor who are making their clothes and under what conditions.

Garment manufacturing is one of the most female-dominated industries, with over three-quarters of garment workers in the world being women. The majority of these women are low-paid, informal workers concentrated in developing countries where gender discrimination runs deep

How can we ensure that these women have a decent wage, living and working conditions?

The campaign led by the activist group Fashion Revolution: Who Made Your Clothes is an indication of how consumers are becoming increasingly engaged with this issue and want to know that the people who made the clothes haven’t suffered to make them feel fashionable.

Fashion Revolution Day began with the idea of wearing your clothes inside out so that people could see the labels indicating where the clothes were made. The campaign, run by Orsola De Castro, has been taken up by people across the world using the hashtag #whomademyclothes.

At London College of Fashion, we have actually tried to use garment manufacturing as a way to create positive change.
Part of LCF’s Fashion Education in Prisons programme, Making for Change is a fashion training and manufacturing unit at HMP Downview which provides skills and meaningful employment for female offenders.

It is well known that prisoners face difficulty finding living wage jobs after incarceration. With a lack of basic job skills many female prisoners are unemployed a few months after release, and unsurprisingly 45% of women in the UK are re-convicted within a year of release.

Making For Change plays an unique role to play in helping the women to re-create who they are, who they want to become and, in so doing, build much needed self-confidence so they can see an alternative to crime.

In this sense, it is not only the wearing of clothes, but the manufacturing of them, which can also carry a political message in that it can help fight social injustice.

It seems that over 100 years after the suffragette movement, women are still having to find ways of having a voice. And clothes, whether making or wearing, remain a vital way of providing us with expression.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day are we challenging ourselves by asking ourselves what was our political act this morning when we put our clothes on? What sort of solidarity did we express with the women who made them, the environment that grew them or the values that we hold dear?

It’s as Jessa Crispin says in her new book Why I am not a feminist?, “We have to understand our power, that we are not at the mercy of this culture. We are participants of it. We can shape it. But that requires work, not simply commentary. Stop reacting to the moving parts. Lay your attack at the machinery itself”.

Where Jessa lays this challenge down for feminism, I also lay it down for fashion

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Making For Change unit at HMP Downview, photographed by Christopher Woloshak