Exploring the Overly-Gendered Nature of the Fashion Design and Labor

Fashion has become associated with flightiness and materialism, both inherently tied to collective perceptions of the definition of being a woman. Yet this was not always so, as evidenced by an earlier post about pre-50’s notions about pink equating masculinity. Clearly, colors, and fashion in general, are subject to intense socialization to become so strongly gendered. How was it, then, that such gendered notions came to be?

The answer to this question lies with the larger dynamic established during the Industrial Revolution of work done in the home versus that accomplished in the public sphere. Textiles have very often resided under the woman’s domain while taking place within the home, but once textile creation left the private sphere, with reference to the industrialization of textiles, it became men’s work (Gulvin, 1973: 59; Morgan, 2001: 19; Marks, 1951: 7; Kellogg, 2005: 69; Schevill et. al, 1991: 23-24).  In Ireland during the famine, for example, crocheting became one of the main sources of a family’s income. Even men took on the craft during that time, feeling too weak to do manual labor, although they immediately dropped it once alternate options appeared (Boyle, 1971). Men did not seek to claim that space, as they did when textiles became factory work, because crocheting cannot be industrialized and thus the work always remained in the home – a woman’s sphere. Evidence that androcentric lenses determined who should work textiles in which area, and not that textiles were inherently gendered, lies with the use of female labor in textile factories during this period.  In Northeast Lancashire, England, women and children comprised half the cotton handloom weaver labor force, due to high unemployment rates among men. Furthermore, the passage of the Ten Hours Bill in 1847 England as part of the larger Factory Acts resulted from a direct tension between male and female/child laborers, mainly that women provided competition by completing the same work for lower pay. The Ten Hours Bill sought to limit the hours women and children could work, giving women more ‘opportunity’ to stay home (Morgan, 2001: 19). In 18th century Scotland, cloths dyed by male factory workers took away from the autonomy of home weavers and spinners, mainly women (Gulvin, 1973: 59). The latter examples clearly evidence the utilization of textiles for power gain, rather than mere practical purposes. Men accomplished this power dialectic by viewing textiles differently in the home (female labor) and in the public sphere (as male labor). Furthermore, they benefitted from both unpaid female labor and receiving pay, always higher than any paid woman in factory work. All this was of course justified by biological essentialist explanations that “due to the strength required to operate the new machines” men should do so, etc. (Morgan, 2001: 21; Bem, 1993: 133-175). Never, however, were women incapable of carrying out the textile work, whether at home or in the factory, evidenced by their widespread employment for the same work as men accomplished. When textile work was forced to remain in the domestic sphere, as in the case of crocheting in Ireland, it proved liberatory for women by providing them with steady income, and a very high income at that, which allowed them freedom to make their own decisions, such as immigrating to the United States (Boyle, 1971). Clearly, categorizing textile work as feminine or masculine changed with the location of the work, revealing both that textile production in itself is not a gendered activity and that gendering the work has very real consequences, such as a pay decrease for women, in societal perception of textiles, consequences which have created a gendered legacy for modern textile work.

Today, the fashion design industry still reflects this. Though many women are interested in design, very often men are the ones who ascend to be famous, haute couture designers. Louis Vitton, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger – the list can go on and on. Yet how many female designers come as easily to mind? The ‘Glass Escalator’ effect that is so often prevalent in predominantly-female fields only further serves to reinforce the sexism and devaluation of feminine work in our society. It’s almost forbidden for men to be interested in fashion or create textiles – until they become designers, in which case it’s very much respected.

What does the Glass Escalator effect mean for the future of fashion and for the up-and-coming fashion designers we discussed in class? What are other ways the fashion industry is gendered?

Sources:

  1. Bem, Sandra L. The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993. Print.
  2. Boyle, Elizabeth. (1971). The irish flowerers. Holywood: Ulster Folk Museum.
  3. Gulvin, C. (1973). The tweedmakers. Great Britain: W J Holman Limited Dawlish.
  4. Kellogg, S. (2005). Weaving the past: a history of latin america’s indigenous women from the prehispanic period to the present. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Marks, P.M. (1951). Hands to the spindle. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.
  6. Morgan, C.E. (2001). Women workers and gender identities, 1835-1913. London: Routledge.
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