The occurrence of wrong-doings and harassments happening in the global garment and fashion industry is not unknown. With the pandemic hitting the industry very hard, moments of naked truth – from no-pay wages to assaults stealthily happening behind the curtains are now out in the open.
The biggest start of last week has been the blast of the sexual assault cases happening in the global fashion garment industry. Amid the pandemic, fashion’s dirty secrets were coming out of the box. The glittery shield seemed to be wearing off. From brand fall-outs to lawsuits, the industry’s laydown and truth lied naked to all of us. It seems it required a pandemic to yield the dirty secrets. Well, what if these viruses never lurked around, would we still bat a closed eye to this world? Had there been no such offences before the pandemic?
The fashion industry had become a floodgate of young girls and boys who lost their power to big industrialists and bullies during the course of ‘making it big’. Under the #MeToo movement, models were also finally flipping the power dynamics – Victoria’s Secret came under the media glare when over 100 models signed an open letter asking that the company do more to protect its models from sexual harassment. The recent callout has come at a time after allegations came up against several of their photographers abusing their models, sexual assault, rape and sex trafficking. Although Victoria’s Secret fashion has been on the fallout for not adhering to the changes and sticking to their unrealistic beauty norms, for models – the angel wings is the ultimatum to fly up the career ladder. So, what happens when a fashion industry giant goes through an entire structure fallout?
It’s not uncommon for photographers and clients to exploit models by asking them to pose nude or touching them inappropriately on set, according to industry insiders. For instance, when Mario Testino was accused of sexual misconduct towards male models and former assistants. The industry is now grappling with the urgent need to do more to protect the often young, vulnerable new entrants. The U.S has set up a ‘Model Alliance’ a support platform to create structural changes in the fashion industry, models’ unemployment insurance, address racial discrimination, assault issues. Overall, an enforceable Code of Conduct for the fashion industry, with ‘mandatory consequences for brands, modelling agencies, photographers, and other’ who violate the terms of the code. The alliance marks a significant presence, however, to only the U.S at the moment.
Behind the Glamour:
Well, assault cases tend to always be hidden from the general public, especially when it comes to fashion and its powers related. In an old interview with Harpers Bazaar, veteran casting director James Scully reveals, “In fashion, you could be in a room with six abusers at once. They’re all covering each other’s backs.” There have been cases around for many years, only to be now unveiled by the pandemic.
According to the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) report, garment workers in India, Brazil, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Turkey, China, Bangladesh and Vietnam have also reported being assaulted, stalked, groped, harassed and raped in factories making clothing for international brands. Fashion’s dirty secrets include an unemployed crowd subjected to repeated harassment and sexual assault to secure a daily wage, to keep on living. Along with, ‘Who made our clothes’, ‘how are our clothes even made’ is a very important question too. However, some cases do come out in light only to be left again in just inspections only. An ActionAid report in 2019 estimated that 80% of all Bangladeshi garment workers had faced sexual violence in the workplace. The garment industry has been out exposed and all bared amid the pandemic. Along with the ‘forced’ closure in accepting finished clothing by many brands, with cancelled payments and closed shutters, the sexual abuse of women garment workers who desperately need jobs is on the rise as well. Bobbie Sta Maria, a senior researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre tells to The Guardian, “It is overwhelmingly women who do the badly paid, low-skilled manual labour, and almost universally men who are in positions of power over them. The brands benefit from this model and its lower production costs because they know that women will accept poorly paid work to support their families.”
In another fashion drama, Fashion executive Peter Nygard, whose companies, in the past, were worth hundreds of millions of dollars has been accused of raping or sexually assaulting 57 women in a lawsuit filed earlier this year in New York. However, in a new lawsuit, two of Peter Nygard’s son has accused that they were raped 14 years apart by the same woman that their father had set.
In a survey conducted by ‘The Independent’ late last year, “55 per cent of men believed that the more revealing the clothes a woman wears, the more likely it is that she will be harassed or assaulted”. The idea that clothing has anything to do with assault is global and persistent. And even till now, we have to do conversations that assault has nothing to do with clothing. In a recent fashion show held in Poland, the first of its kind (before the pandemic), saw rape survivors taking to the catwalk in the clothes they were wearing when they were assaulted. The event was intended as a response to claims that the way women dress can provoke sexual violence, and to the idea that victims are ‘supposed to stay quiet, hide and disappear’.
Aruna Kashyap, a campaigner and legal advocate for Human Rights Watch tells to The Guardian, “Sexual harassment is the fashion industry’s dirty secret.” The global industry has, somewhat, sold the idea that ‘in order to ladder up your career, assaults are part of the process’. Also, brands fail to address or be held accountable for what goes behind the process in factories with women making our clothing. Even with a human resource department, hardly there has been constructive actions taken against the offender, rather most of the times, the employee gets fired. Most of the agencies push models to stay quiet about inappropriate experiences for the sake of ‘getting big projects and contracts’. In a report exposed by the WRC, Joseph Tlali, a supervisor in a garment factory states – “Even the junior managers were abusing women during their lunchtime. The factory manager would actually be watching them having sex on CCTV, but would not do anything to stop it. It was more like watching porn, you know?”
With some of the scars and dark secrets spilt, it’s no doubt that the global fashion industry needs a cleansing button – pause, rethink and reset. From humanitarian causes to brand values and ethics, it needs a whole revision of its systems. But, for how long have we been stuck in these age-old same cases? Does the glamour of the fashion industry only come with degrading moral values?