Throughout history, women have played a pivotal role in fashion designing and manufacturing of garments. Like many aspects of society, fashion, or more specifically textile production, used to be gendered, with the majority of textile production falling to women. Historically, women have been relegated to this position, but in more recent times, women have dominated the textile industry.
During periods of antiquity such as the cottage industry in the 1800s, local economies were based upon bartering what couldn’t be consumed; textile production was small scale. Women would continually repurpose clothing into new items or make items from scratch.
In times of strife such as economic recession or during war, textiles become scarce leading to the creative upcycling of “alternative” fabrics. During the World Wars, clothing was rationed and textile production focused on military needs. To keep themselves and their families clothed, women used curtains, vegetable sacks, and other unconventional fabrics to make new clothing. Like the cottage industry, upcycling and manufacturing was out of pure necessity. While recycling has continued, practice and intention behind it has evolved.
Big name thrift stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army have existed for over a century, but modern social media platforms like Youtube have popularized the commercialization of secondhand apparel aka “thrifting”. Female creators make the majority of online thrifting content. Youtube channels such as WithWendy and BestDressed have millions of views on their “thrift flipping” videos in which thrifted clothing is resewn into a more “trendy” garment. WithWendy and BestDressed are excellent examples of modern women using creativity to empower themselves and others via fashion.
Beyond secondhand consumption, women in all facets of the industry are promoting sustainable change. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has emphasized sustainable change from the inside-out. By focusing on four key areas; craft and heritage, people power, materials & processing and reimagining waste, Westwood aims to change consumption from the roots. These areas involve local manufacturing, fair wages, meeting standards such as Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), Oeko-Tex 100 and FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council), and creating garments that blur gender lines.
Breaking down production a step further is Suzanne Lee, CEO of Biofabricate, a platform focused on synthesizing biomaterials in order to better integrate sustainability into fashion. The mechanical recycling of clothing is limited. Clothing can be sewn into new items only so many times. This is where Lee’s research begins. By changing the starting material of textiles altogether, chemical recycling can be used to recreate the virgin building blocks. A closed loop system is the only truly sustainable textile.
While only 12.5% of leadership positions in the fashion industry are occupied by women, Lee and others have created a space in which the future of the planet and of women is empowered. Visibility is a key component to the future of female leadership. Providing a platform to amplify the women already making waves in the fashion industry, and every industry shows young girls that success is possible. Just as we reimagine the building blocks of the textile industry, the building blocks of gender are being reshaped to be more equitable, sustainable, and empowering.