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When capitalism meets activism

Jul. 20, 2018
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It started with the punks and Vivienne Westwood in the 1970s. Taking pride as a member of the subculture, Westwood used fabrics and fashion as her canvas for political messages and things outside the realm of fashion. Being punk wasn’t just ripped clothings and heavy, dark eye makeup, but an attitude, one’s willingness to step out and make a change. That is what defined her slogan t-shirts and activism on fashion catwalks.

In 1980s, Katharine Hamnett, a British designer known for her political t-shirts, popularized the slogans further and showed the population what wearing them actually meant. Her simple white t-shirts featured bold political and social statements, often short and to the point. At a time when consumerism was at its peak and big anti-war social movements had only just ended, Hamnett was one of the artists taking a political stance through their art. 

An ordinary garment, a white t-shirt, became a mean of communication. Fashion, often perceived as something rather materialistic and purposeless, was part of a breeding ground for social movements. In Westwood’s Man Spring Summer 2016 collection, the designer initiated a protest right on her catwalk with models holding signs reading “Austerity is a crime,” “Climate Revolution,” “Fracking is a crime,” and “Politicians are Criminals.” Her show didn’t just have a touch of rebellion—it was a rebellion. The slogan tees were merely canvases for bold statements needed to be told. Without needing to say a word, her t-shirts spoke.

The majority of us tend to be quite lazy. It’s easier to say something or do something through someone than to do it ourselves. We’re establishing our political stance and social opinions via graphic tees. We’re joining the conversation via the convenience of like and share buttons. Yes, we’re doing something, but are we really contributing, or is our desire to get involved just a side effect of society’s obvious herd behavior?

The support we’re showing is great, but wearing a few slogan ringer tees or tattooing some bold phrases isn’t enough if we’re actually trying to make change. This activism trend has directly resulted in the capitalization of activism apparels. 

By trying to look like you’re supporting one good cause, you risk contributing to other problems like consumerism, sweatshop labor, and a worsening environmental footprint. Fast fashion chains like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 need to appeal to young, impressionable audiences, those who would most likely want to be a part of the movement and feel that they’re making a difference. These companies are responsible for low workers’ payment; their fast and cheap production of clothes also causes tons of products to end up in landfills. We have more articles on the negative impacts of fast fashion on Adolescent. 

Aside from the risk of contributing to fast fashion and consumerism, the commercialization of activist apparel can reduce the cause’s original impact and instead exploit it. I saw Milk, a documentary on Harvey Milk, California’s first gay supervisor who battled and fought for the freedom and power of his people, last year when I first moved to San Francisco. When he was campaigning he often wore a Harvey Milk Supervisor t-shirt, one which I also saw in the GLBT History Museum in the Castro District in San Francisco. Ever since I recognized where the original shirt came from, I started seeing the same sort of shirts in stores. 

In 2016, Refinery29 posted an article titled “Why this denim brand is an important leader in LGBTQ rights.” Levi’s had partnered up with the Harvey Milk Foundation to create a collection “to help spread this message of equal rights that touches all communities, regardless of sexual orientation, race, religion, or gender.” I was happy thinking that this was at least a partnership with the Harvey Milk Foundation. But after seeing the clothes, I was surprised. One of the items was a white tank top with a graphic of a milk bottle reading “Levi’s Harvey Milk.” My first impression was that the shirt was cute, and that made me quite mad. I was trying to pull pieces from the documentary, the emotions I felt, the obstacles Milk faced, and his shocking death—looking at the apparel made me upset.

The company made a few statements on the article, one of which read, "When the Levi’s brand first set out with the idea to design a Pride collection, the team believed that maybe the true meaning of Pride had been forgotten. It wasn't that we didn’t want youth of today to celebrate, but we wanted them to know the history of how we got to where we are now.” Simply putting out a t-shirt with “Harvey Milk” written on it wouldn’t help young people know the history of how we got to where we are now. Was Levi’s being naive or ignorant?

Brands are taking advantage of us. We want to make changes, but sometimes we don’t want to put in the effort. The most dangerous side effect of companies capitalizing on activism is making people think that they’re an activist because they adorn activist apparel. Don’t get me wrong, wearing these t-shirts is a great way to spread the message and continue the conversation. But we shouldn’t think that this is enough. The convenience and simplicity of activist apparel can make us forget about doing more. 

The meaning of activism is changing, and that can be problematic. Nowadays, a lot of activism is shown through simplistic pins and social media captions. We’re getting a large population of supporters and barely anyone with actions to support their claims. Start off by buying a feminist t-shirt, then stand up to men who aren’t acting right, and then make true change.