MailOnline screenshot

Feminist T-shirts: garment workers’ rights should not be a political football

SEE BELOW FOR UPDATE

Because we sew, we know exactly how much work goes into a garment.

If I’m on a roll, it can take me a couple of evenings to make a skirt. Imagine doing that over and over, day after day… for just 62p an hour.

As a feminist and a seamstress, I was pretty disappointed to see the front page of today’s Mail on Sunday, which claimed workers in a factory in Mauritius were working on ELLE’s feminist T-shirts under pretty terrible conditions for a pittance. These T-shirts cost £45. If the conditions are as bad as described, then there’s absolutely no excuse.

The Fawcett Society does some excellent work, so, while this particular campaign wasn’t for me, I am disappointed for them. Their statement makes it clear they were concerned the T-shirts weren’t being manufactured in the UK. As far as I can see, they may have been quite badly let down by Whistles. I should state here, the Fawcett Society has asked for evidence to back up the Mail’s claims. Their statement adds:

If any concrete and verifiable evidence of mistreatment of the garment producers emerges, we will require Whistles to withdraw the range with immediate effect and donate part of the profits to an ethical trading campaigning body.

Whistles has said they’re investigating the allegations “as a matter of urgency”.

Let’s be clear: while this is an important story, the only reason it’s on the Mail on Sunday’s front page is because it’s an excellent chance for them to have a pop at Labour (and maybe feminism too while they’re at it). Nick Clegg wore the T-shirt as well, but he hasn’t been mentioned on the front page. One of the things I despise about politics is how people’s lives and working conditions become political footballs pre-election season. And it’s only going to get worse.

The exact same thing happens with coverage of the Welsh NHS. Normally, the national press doesn’t care too much about what happens in Wales. But because it’s run by Welsh Labour right now, the right-wing press sees it as far too good to not have a politically-slanted pop. I wouldn’t mind, except I know full well when May 2015 comes and goes, Welsh issues will return to the back of their minds, relegated to the back pages.

I digress.

Long-term readers of this blog will know I’m not someone who buys new clothes on a regular basis. That said, since my pledge ended and I’ve had less time to sew, I have inevitably been buying the occasional basic if I can’t find something decent second hand on eBay. Thanks to a hefty overdraft, I stick to the places I can get a T-shirt for cheap, feeling like a complete sellout.

It’s become increasingly difficult to find ethical and affordable clothing. As wages are squeezed and the cost of living gets higher, cheap clothes are so much more accessible. But we know cheap clothes come at a human cost. It’s been more than a year since the Rana Plaza disaster – and I’m not sure anything has changed. My colleague did a quick video around the time of the anniversary, asking some people if it had changed their shopping habits. Not that many people said yes. You can watch the video here.

People sign up to the Seamless Pledge for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they want to sew more or perhaps they want to cull their wardrobe to the basics. But the majority of them say they’re concerned about the way the items in their wardrobes are made. They want to take ownership of the ethics in their wardrobe the only way they know how. True, there’s still an issue with sourcing ethical fabric – but at least you know the conditions in which your clothing was made.

We absolutely should be talking about the rights of the people who make our clothes, but not just because some Labour MPs wore these shirts. We need to be talking about ethical manufacturing all the time and we need to demand better for the sake of the people who put the clothes on our backs.

As for me, I think it’s high time I renewed my pledge.

Also I have to emphasise again: the Fawcett Society does some amazing work, so do go check them out and perhaps donate if you’d like to.

On a completely separate note – YEP, I’m blogging again. More on that soon…

UPDATE Weds, November 5: The Fawcett Society has said the T-shirts were in fact made ethically. Full report here.

Found this quote pretty interesting:

Laura Harvey, lecturer in the sociology of media at the University of Surrey, criticised the newspaper’s report. “It was a cynical political move against an important feminist campaigning organisation. If the Daily Mail really cares about workers’ rights why aren’t they running stories about the garment industry more widely and the campaigns to improve worker’s rights?” she told the Guardian.

My point above still stands – ethical manufacturing is still a huge issue and I agree with Laura Harvey: we should be reporting on it as much as possible. If you’re interested, the Guardian did an interactive earlier this year about the human cost of the Bangladeshi garment industry.

Sew For Victory – Women at work

I’ve had a change of heart since I last wrote about Sew for Victory. Instead of a post-war Butterick 5281, I think I’d rather channel Rosie the Riveter on this one.

women of britain factories

Before war broke out, society had clear expectations of where a woman should be – at home. If she were to work, she shouldn’t earn more than her husband and marriage was meant to put a stop to any semblance of a career. But when World War II began, society had to buck up its ideas.

Suddenly, women weren’t just working in industries previously considered ill-suited for females, they were also actively encouraged to get stuck in as part of the war effort.

In the UK, unprecedented amounts of women joined the industrial workforce out of sheer necessity. Between 1940 and 1945, in engineering alone, the amount of skilled and semi-skilled female workers jumped from 75% to 85%. The picture was very similar over the pond, as thousands of American women helped make machines and airplanes in their hundreds.

It’s fascinating – while there are still problems with sexism in the modern workplace, we’ve come a long way from the idea of a female engineer being “radical” or just a plain necessity because of a shortage of men. For probably the first time since World War I, no one batted an eyelid at women carrying out so-called unfeminine work because they had more important things to worry about.

When the war ended, it was automatically assumed these women would leave their jobs as the men returned. In London, the monument to the Women of World War II depicts 17 sets of uniform and clothing which represents the hundreds of jobs women undertook and then left at the end of the war.

I think it’s safe to say, that while things didn’t change immediately, the work women did during the war began a shift in the perception of women’s role in society. The more I thought about this challenge, the more I wanted to pay tribute to that.

Practicality is key. The plan is to make something which isn’t restrictive and which could easily fit in to the wardrobe of a 40s working woman. And hey – while I usually sit in an office most of the day, every now and then I have to do something silly like tramp around mud looking for evidence of fly tipping (this resulted in some embarrassing photos), so it wouldn’t hurt to have a smart yet practical item for any journalistic eventuality.

Given my last-minute decision, I won’t be making trousers, because I’ve never made them before and I wouldn’t want to rush it! Instead, I’m going to take inspiration from Rosie and go for a classic shirt-dress. Comfy and non-restrictive, that’s the aim of the game!

How are your challenges going? It’s just as well Rochelle extended the deadline on this one, phew!

Creepy comments and favourites on Flickr photos

Sharing photos of our creations on our blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr accounts is almost second nature to most of us now.

From outfit posts to in-progress shots, our photographs add to the conversation and create inspiration for other members in the community. But the Internet’s not so clear-cut and, well, nice as that. Take the Reddit storm which erupted recently, regarding the unmasking of a user who championed the “creepshot” – posting compromising pictures of women taken unawares.

Obviously in our little community it’s a completely different kettle of fish. We willingly share images of ourselves and our projects. There’s nothing sexual about what we do, right? Well, as some of us taking part in Me Made May ’12 found, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

A couple of months ago, I logged onto my Flickr to find someone had added quite a few of my photographs to their favourites. For those not on Flickr, you’re able to add pics to your favourites or cultivate your own galleries dedicated to certain themes. In this case, my pictures showed up in a gallery cultivated by someone with a clear fetish for scarves.

Clicking through to their profile, I saw they had added any and all photos of me wearing a scarf to a favourites filled with clothed and half-naked women draped in the seemingly innocuous accessory.

I didn’t really know what to make of it. A huge part of me obviously felt creeped out. These pictures weren’t taken for that purpose, after all. Another part of me felt like I shouldn’t be judging someone else for whatever rocked their boat – but then, I didn’t particularly want to be involved in it. So, I blocked the user, which prevents my pictures from appearing in their feed.

Feeling “creeped out”

I’m not the only whose photos have ended up in unexpected Flickr galleries. Roisin of Dolly Clackett noticed it when she started submitting photos to the Wardrobe Remix Flickr pool.

She said: “I think the worst one was someone called TIGHTSFACE, whose profile had lots of photos of naked men with tights on their heads. None of the comments have been aggressive or anything but it does creep me out when someone comments to say ‘I’d like to smell your feet’!”

Then there were the knitwear fans. “I did get a number of knitwear fetishists favouriting my photos and adding me to their galleries – the strangest one being someone who favourited a load of totally innocent photos of me wearing cardigans and added them to a gallery that included drawings and photos of naked girls wearing cardigans, and people having sex in knitted gimp suits,” she said.

There’s a whole thread on the Me Made May ’12 group on this subject, started by Gillian, who wanted to know if this sort of thing was happening to other people too. As a teacher, Gillian is at pains not to post anything she wouldn’t be comfortable with her students seeing.

I contacted her for more information, specifically, how did these “off” comments make her feel?  “It’s very insulting, demeaning, and hurtful,” she said.

“The sewing community is generally so kind and positive that it’s a real shock to realise that lurkers and creeps are out there! Luckily, I feel relatively in control with Flickr – It’s easy to block someone, and I can delete comments as well.

“Once it’s dealt with, I forget all about it. It doesn’t affect what pictures I post.”

It seems almost harmless, really. Especially when you think that some people are posting demeaning upskirt pictures of women taken when they weren’t looking or  wishing death on each other via anonymous comments. Except I can’t help but think sexual comments and Internet catcalling is the next step – in fact, I’ve seen a comment here and there which definitely weren’t about how well the drape of the fabric works.

I think there’s a mentality on the Internet that if you post pictures of yourself dressed to the nines and in some nice make up, as many of us did during any of the numerous sewing challenges, then you “deserve” this kind of unwanted attention. But people say the same thing when I dress up in real life and get catcalls and unwanted comments. Not to mention, the reality is, the most successful blogs have this personable element to them which is difficult to achieve if you’re hiding behind your mannequin.

Gillian agrees with on this one. She said: “Sure, I could make all of my pictures “private”, but that defeats the point of social blogging. I could change what pictures I put up (no head, for example, or low res crappy pics), but again, why should I have to?

“Unfortunately, there is no clear solution to harassment and sexism in either the real world or the blogosphere… so until then, I appreciate the support and commiseration of the sewing community!”

I expect to be able to walk down the street in garments I’ve made without being called sugartits – so why is the Internet any different? It all comes back to this notion of the online world being beyond any sort of social conventions we expect in day-to-day life.

Also, as Roisin points out, there is a worry that by taking offence to our pictures being added to fetish-themed gallery, we’re being judgemental of someone else’s sexual preferences. She said: “I’m trying not to be too judgemental about the creepy things people comment about. I choose to share the photos in a public space and I don’t want to be judgy about people’s sexual practices, but it definitely does make me feel uncomfortable to know that there are people out there getting kicks out of a picture of me in a cardigan.”

I’m sure there are a few people out there who sew and maybe even read some of our blogs on a regular basis but don’t want to put themselves out there for fear of this kind of reaction. As much as I love the diversity of Flickr’s community, this mixture of the innocent and the more suggestive can be hard to deal with when the two collide.

Two sides

One of my Cardiff Twitter contacts Martyn Kelly, who’d also experienced some of this on his own Flickr page, probably put it best. He said: “Flickr is one of the few communities where it embraces the dualist nature of the web in terms of filth/underbelly and friendly/safe/social, and does so with grading/rating photo streams, mature audience flags, logged in only content, etc. and advice on how to manage that.

“But things break when: 1) Someone comments something a bit creepy… or 2) The Flickr-specific problem – if a creeper favourites a photo. Because a user’s favourites are public, you find your image has been curated by a man in a mac, erection wavering outside your digital window. It all gets a bit weird.”

I emailed Flickr months ago to ask what they’d advise users do if they’re uncomfortable with a comment, but they haven’t answered. But here’s what it says in their community guidelines:

Don’t be creepy.
You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.

Your thoughts, as always, are much appreciated.

Caitlin Moran on clothes

Has anyone here read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman?

caitlin moran how to be a woman

I’ve been re-reading it for the second time, and came across this on page 212:

“Before the high street, women would make their own clothes, or see a dressmaker, so that everything we wore was an honest expression of who we were, and what we were comfortable with – within the constraints of fashion at the time, anyway.

With the advent of mass fashion, however, not a single item of clothing sold is ‘for’ the woman who buys it. Everything we see in Topshop and Zara and Mango and Urban Outfitters and Next and Peacocks and New Look is made for a wholly imaginary woman  – an idea in the designer’s head – and we buy it if we like it, say 70 per cent. That’s about as good as it gets. We rarely, if ever, find something that is 100 per cent ‘us’, and that we truly desire – although we never admit this to ourselves. Most women are walking around in things they’re imagining to be that little bit better. An inch longer here. Without that braiding. In a slightly darker blue. It’s the first thing we say to each other: “I wish they’d had it without the collar!”

Because if you know I don’t like the collar, then you’ll know who I’m really trying to be.”

I’ve lost count of the amount of garments I’ve bought which don’t quite fit the bill. The beauty of sewing and refashioning your own means you’re completely in control of this process. Making something from scratch means absolutely every detail is up to you.

In this respect, it’d be interesting to take a look at sewing from a feminist perspective. After all, sewing for yourself isn’t sewing for some “imaginary woman”. You’re in control of every detail, and you don’t have to ‘make do’ with a garment which doesn’t quite fit you.

It’s food for thought at any rate. Moran and I may not agree on high heels, but I think she’s spot on with the clothing industry here. What do you think?