Sometime in the modish noughties, between the denouement of Britpop and the advent of skinny jeans, the concept of ironic clothing was born. If you’re wondering what that means, simply flick through a copy of a fashion magazine and you’ll notice phrases like “geek chic” being used to describe the garments of attractive celebrities, who aren’t actually geeks at all. It’s ironic, see?
Topman, the trendsetter for men on the high street, has embraced the concept of ironic fashion with gusto. Earlier this year, I wrote about their range of T-shirts mocking the student protests with the slogan, “the students are revolting”; startlingly brazen given Topshop was a target during last year’s student protests. Sadly, Topman’s brazenness hasn’t stopped there. Its latest range of T-shirts (now hastily withdrawn) come with an unwelcome edge of misogyny. One apparently compares women to dogs, reading “nice new girlfriend, what breed is she?”, while the other features a set of reasons for the wearer’s bad behaviour, similar to the excuses given by perpetrators of domestic violence. “You provoked me,” reads one.
Topman was keen to reassure its customers of the irony of its T-shirts, stressing that they were meant to be “light-hearted and carried no serious meaning”. That may be so, but when a mainstream outlet has a funny take on a serious subject, it suggests that the subject no longer needs to be taken seriously. Misogyny is so archaic, Topman seems to be saying, that we can now print jokes about it on T-shirts sold on every high street in the country.
Unfortunately for Topman, and the women of Britain, that is not the society we’re living in. The normalisation of misogyny is so commonplace, it’s almost mundane: from Danny Dyer advising a Zoo reader to cut his ex-girlfriend’s face, to adverts for hair salons featuring battered women. The objectification and dehumanisation of women is such an inescapable part of popular culture that it necessarily plays a part in the daily interactions of men and women. Indeed, a 2009 study by Princeton University found that male brains respond to women in bikinis as though they are objects, not people. Chief researcher Susan Fiske noted that men who scored as “hostile sexists” didn’t show brain activity that indicated they saw the women in bikinis as “humans with thoughts and intentions”.
It’s not clear whether Fiske’s findings were a result of popular culture or simple anatomy, but by printing T-shirts comparing women to canines, Topman is mainstreaming the objectification her study exposes. The T-shirts encourage us to see women not as human beings, but as objects to be paraded and preened like prize-winning show dogs. It’s arrogant of Topman to think its clothing exists in a vacuum where these issues don’t exist. It’s irresponsible to produce sloganeering T-shirts without any consideration of how those slogans might be interpreted.
Then again, when I think of Topman’s recent history, I’m not surprised by its arrogance. Our society has repeatedly given the Arcadia group, which owns Topman, the impression that it can do whatever it wants, without fear of consequence. Perhaps there is a sort of meta-irony to the fact that chief executive Philip Green, salesman of ironic clothing, is guilty of the biggest irony of all. Green’s alleged tax avoidance of £285m went totally unchallenged by our apparently hard-up government, who then made him an adviser on its spending cuts programme. There is surely a bitter irony to that which would outflank any T-shirt designs Topman might peddle.
Perhaps, then, there is a lesson to be learned about how we treat the companies that trade in our society. If we don’t hold them accountable, they will behave irresponsibly; if we don’t hold them to the standards we hold to others, they will believe themselves to exist in a vacuum. The fact that Topman unthinkingly manufactured these T-shirts is evidence that it does not see casual misogyny as something it has to worry about. If only the women of Britain had the same luxury.