International Women’s Day (IWD) is an event synonymous with inspiration. A celebration of women’s achievements, it also exists to promote dialogue over feminism, gender and women’s rights. I was recently asked whether I thought IWD represented a token gesture to women’s issues, and whether it was right to be exploited by retailers. It’s not an easy question to give a quick answer to, and while clothing brands in particular do run special IWD products, they often attract as much ridicule as respect.
There is no need to ‘merchandise’ IWD. The need for tolerance, diversity and fairness that the event highlights must come from governance, law and society, not jewellery or pencil cases. However, retail has always been a space for social expression, and has such holds power and sway in facilitating and supporting the need for that change. A more productive way of recognising that may be for brands to partner with charities and organisations seeking to address the issues highlighted by IWD.
Clothing is clearly one of the most gendered spaces in society. What we wear and how we dress is often prescribed by society, as well as the conscious and subconscious mores we all carry around. However, I don’t believe that clothes and other retail products will solve the issues around feminism, diversity and gender that still blights society on a global scale. That’s not to say they don’t have a role to play, and if retail is able to play a part in broadening the debate around feminism and gender issues and bring in new players and sponsors to build a better society, then the ‘token’ tag would not apply.
What we wear and how we dress is often prescribed by society, as well as the conscious and subconscious mores we all carry around.
Equally, and certainly in the last century, clothing has also become a means of self-expression, and a way of highlighting individuality. This was, and still is, a reaction to a prohibitive society – but it is also a recognition that the constructs in which we define gender are, by their very nature, fluid. While no one can deny gender has a physical circumstance, the acknowledgement that its social existence is a construct allows us the latitude to discuss, celebrate and create around what that means.
Fashion has always been one of the most fertile places for this kind of dialogue – and, by extension, so has retail. So while retail actually rejects much of the binary, old fashioned views on gender, gender is prevalent within it. This matters to events such as IWD because retail can be an extremely potent forum for gender dialogues, feminism and expression. But of course, it is not definitive.
Nevertheless, brands have every right to address it. I would only say that they should bear in mind that just as gender can be individualistic, so can events marking the issues around them. If you are a woman in Russia you might be expecting to be brought flowers on Sunday; if you are a woman in Mexico you might be preparing to attend a protest against the tragic rise of murders of women by men. Selling a t-shirt with a slogan celebrating strong women may speak to both events. It may, of course, speak to neither.