[UPDATE] March 8, 2018 6.45 a.m. EST: This article has been updated to include details of a new plan to fight sexist imagery in ads, as announced by a group of France's advertisers and the country's broadcast watchdog.
Read our updated story below.
It’s not exactly breaking news that streetwear is a boys' club. The entire scene is overwhelmingly run by men who cater to a male audience. Even at its most basic level, most companies only produce clothes in men’s sizes. But this is Highsnobiety, I don’t have to tell you that streetwear is more than clothes, it’s a culture — and it’s one that is shutting out women.
If we look at streetwear in purely functional terms, it could be argued that the style is actually less sexist than traditional women’s fashion. While rigid beauty standards pervade pretty much every aspect of our lives, streetwear focuses on loose, comfortable fits, which are a relief from restrictive clothing. That's why a lot of women are drawn to the scene in the first place — not everyone wants to wear heels or form-fitting outfits.
Clearly the problem doesn’t lie with streetwear itself. It's the boys' club attitude that permeates so much of the culture, as well as the sheer lack of prominent women at all levels of the industry.
Of course there are women who are killing it in streetwear — people like Vashtie, Christina Paik, Erin Magee, Aleali May, Leah McSweeney and Emily Oberg, who are enriching the culture to a huge extent — but just because a few women have found success, it doesn’t take away the scene’s wider problems.
Similarly to other male-dominated fields like gaming or tech, there is a dearth of female representation — and what is there, is in many cases incredibly problematic.
The image of a girl wearing nothing but a T-shirt is so common now that it’s become a streetwear lookbook cliché. But it’s not just something to roll your eyes at while scrolling through your feed — it’s insidious.
There’s a phrase coined by American activist Marian Wright Edelman that’s often used when discussing lack of representation, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” In most streetwear imagery, women are either used as props, or they’re non-existent. Seeing imagery like this time and time again, women are reminded that the scene is not for us, and that frankly, we’re not very welcome in it. If women aren’t being shown positive images of themselves in the industry, why would they want to be involved in streetwear at all?
For younger women trying to find themselves in the scene, the problem is even more compounded. There’s no doubt that streetwear would be presented differently if there were more prominent women in the scene — women tend to portray themselves as more than sex objects — but this sexism is alienating women and preventing many from fully embracing streetwear.
This sort of blatant misogyny affects how we take in a brand’s image in their future endeavors, whether that’s an Instagram pic or a collaboration with a lad's mag. Collaborating with Playboy or Penthouse doesn’t need to be sexist — nudity isn’t the problem here — but when there’s little or no women on your creative team, or the images reduce women to a mere collection of body parts, these collaborations leave a bad taste in your mouth.
What it basically comes down to is the double standard that we treat male and female bodies and the male gaze present in so many images. No one bats an eyelid when Supreme features a naked woman on a T-shirt — but could you imagine the headlines if they dropped a cap with a dick pic on it?
The images themselves aren’t just objectifying, their very existence shows how little streetwear companies value our business. Women are clearly into streetwear — there’s not some special ingredient in testosterone that makes men obsessed with copping a box logo — but brands just aren’t paying attention to us.
It’s not like these labels don’t know that women wear their clothes, it's that they just don’t care.
Of course, this isn’t all streetwear by any means. Brands like MadeMe and MISBHV are producing authentic work made for-and-by women, but a brand doesn’t need to be marketed exclusively towards women to not alienate them.
Across streetwear, labels such as Stray Rats, Only NY and Ader Error talk to both sectors of the market by portraying men and women in the same way — without being condescending or objectifying. Not every brand needs to empower women, but if you’re shelling out your hard-earned cash, it’s nice to give it to someone that sees you as human.
It’s gotten better too. If we had Instagram 10 years ago, virtually every major brand would have been posting problematic images, but the fact that it’s happening in 2017 at all still means we have to talk about it.
What makes things even more frustrating is that streetwear is non-conformist at its core. It might not seem that way now now, but streetwear came from a place that was against the system. So why does it still reaffirm archaic sexist values?
It’s especially strange that streetwear has been this slow to evolve at a time when, for better or worse, promoting activism has become a legit business model for brands.
As another Highsnobiety contributor argued, all advertising is inherently disingenuous, designed to fool us into thinking the advertiser is on our side. While that’s certainly true, it’s also true that representation is vitally important. Personally, I would take better and more representations of women over none — even if they’re just trying to sell me stuff.
In France, advertisers and the country’s broadcast watchdog just unveiled a plan to fight sexist advertising. Under the new scheme, broadcasters and advertisers will be sanctioned for “excessive” ads that feature sexist stereotypes or gratuitously use sex to sell products.
Stephane Martin, the head of the country's advertising regulator, said that “Nudity can be acceptable” in ads, but only when it has a purpose and “not to sell a car" — or in this case, a new T-shirt. While there's very little chance of France's plan going international, it shows that there's a real need to change the type of imagery we're exposed to.
When it comes down to it, we need to hold streetwear to a higher standard. Things may be getting better, but that’s not good enough. If a brand posts a trash image, say it. Social media means that companies get real-time responses to their work so if they get dragged for thoughtlessly posting a sexist picture, maybe they’ll think twice next time.
The same goes for anything sus a brand posts. It’s on you to make sure who you wear also aligns with what you think, because by wearing a label’s logo, you’re automatically repping them. And why would you represent a brand that doesn’t represent you?
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.