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Third World Feminism & Fashion

By Jessie Sutton

Third World Feminism is a paradigm which challenges the monolith of Western feminism, recognizing the diversity of women’s cultural experiences and oppression, and thus the diversity of solutions and perspectives needed to achieve gender equality within global order. Third World Feminism represents a sort of global intersectionality. Kimberle Crenshaw said of intersectional feminism, “the space has to be open and there has to be a sense of receptivity among the sisterhood, but I really don’t want other women to feel that it’s their responsibility to theorize what’s happening to us. It’s up to us to consistently tell those stories, articulate what difference the difference makes, so it’s incorporated within feminism” (Adewunmi). Although Crenshaw is referring to the representation of women of color in American feminist spaces, to me this quotation encapsulates so much of the role Third World Feminism plays globally. It quiets Western feminism’s misguided theorizations of what every woman needs and shows that what different women need is vastly varied and complex. I believe cultural variances and cross-cultural misunderstandings around fashion can be used as a microcosm to study the global necessity of Third World Feminism.

Throughout my life in America, I have seen and experienced many different pursuits of the empowerment which the fashion industry supposedly offers women. There are so many interpretations of what this empowerment looks like, especially between subcultures. I grew up strictly and devoutly Mormon, and the Church taught my female peers and me that our modesty in clothing was of the utmost importance. I would never describe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a feminist organization. However, many of my leaders and peers there truly felt like our conservative dress code empowered women and allowed them to be appreciated and noticed for their thoughts and actions instead of their bodies, somehow shielding them from the male gaze and objectification while still implicitly catering to the desires of a patriarchal organization and accepting that one of our biggest jobs was to wear the right clothes. Still, at the time, I found this very comfortable. The fact that people never even saw so much as a glimpse of leg above my kneecaps, or even a bare shoulder, made me feel special, secure, and completely powerful.  My friends from school thought my modesty was bizarre. On long hot summer days during band camp, they’d see me wearing pants or capris and sleeved shirts, sweating, and make some pitied, loaded comment about how sad it was that I really thought I needed to dress that way. It made me so mad; I felt like they didn’t respect or even try to understand my faith. On dance nights, I’d see them shivering and pulling short, sleeveless dresses up or down too often to get into any song for the entire length of it. I would have some pitied, loaded thought about how sad it was they felt they needed to dress like that. I’m sure it would have made them mad. I didn’t respect, or even try to understand, their choices. We were judging each other based on standards that made no sense in the other person’s world.

This is, in some ways, analogous to the ways Western feminists project their values and ideals onto cultures they know nothing about, such as the Western feminist’s impulse to “save” the Muslim woman from her burqa (Abu-Lughod). I want to be clear that I am not, here, comparing my lived experience and critiques of Mormonism to Islam. I do not know enough about the religion or the culture to do so, and even if I did, it wouldn’t be my place. However, I do think it’s worth pointing out that when non-Islamic women try to apply their ideals to a Muslim woman, they risk hurting her by taking away something that is safe, important, and liberating to her (Abu-Lughod). This Western judgment is made even more problematic when we realize that we see Muslim women as being monolithically oppressed and without agency; we get so angry because we do not even see people who are different than us as being capable of choice. A Muslim woman feeling as though she cannot wear a hijab is just as, if not more, oppressive than an expectation that she will. In instances like these, Third World Feminism rightfully makes us stop and question ourselves before our intentions to help end up harming.

As it turns out, going from a good Mormon girl, to someone who wants to be as visibly butch and queer as possible, to someone who just wants to blend in took me through a lot of clothes.  At different parts of my life, being able to adorn myself in all these wildly different personal expressions was amazing, and helped me to feel safe and comfortable in the face of the varied challenges I faced. However, I never even stopped to think about the effect the discarded tools of my personal change – all my old clothes—would  have on other people.

In the short documentary Unravel, director Meghna Gupta takes to a garment recycling plant in Panipat, India, where we meet the women who process American’s cast-off clothing. Here, we see another example of people assuming the status of women in another culture based on clothing. While modern, sex-positive American feminists often think of lingerie as empowering, the Indian women express horror at the obvious discomfort. One worker explains, “we find these really strange things, knickers. They come with pearls and fake stones stitched on them. Some poor helpless thing must be forced to wear them abroad.” On a more substantive level though, most of these women also recognize the extreme privilege the previous owners of this clothing enjoy. This quote really stuck out to me: “Western women are so respected. God’s given them a very good life. I often wonder what it would be like to have a life like that. But I work with clothes all day, so I’m always looking at them.” Although buying, wearing, and throwing out clothes seem inconsequential outside of a personal scale, they are not. These actions have global effects. For most of my life, I have participated in the fashion industry looking at what gives me power without considering the structural costs of my choices. This is the necessity of Third World Feminism, to study the vastly varied cultural and structural fabrics of all women’s lives, recognizing that individualistic Western ideas of empowerment do not translate to universal progress. 


Adewunmi, Bim. “Kimberle Crenshaw on Intersectionality: ‘I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use.’” Newstatesman.com. 2 April 2014.

Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” In American Anthropologist. 104(3):783-790. September 2002.

Unravel. Directed by Meghna Gupta. Produced by Meghna Gupta & Gigi Berardi. Aeon Video, 2016. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOOI5LbQ9B8 

Disclaimer: The opinion expressed in each article is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the PUGS editors, Gender Studies program, or UNC. Therefore, PUGS e-zine carries no responsibility for the opinion expressed thereon.