Building the campaign

Francesca C Mallen Let Clothes Be Clothe

After almost a decade of campaigning, Lead Campaigner Francesca Cambridge Mallen talks to The Feminist Shop's Director, Virginia Mendez, about what inspired the founding of Let Clothes Be Clothes, and why feminism matters.

Copyright: Celie Nigoumi, 2016

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Sewing Circus Space Pinafore 


Commander Chris Hadfield with a Sewing Circus customer


Fran (left) with sister and Mum in 1994. Full grunge.

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Mum & Aunt Sylv on their way to the Liverpool March for Jobs 82

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Hero: Nawal El Saadawi


Yes, she's a Princess. Nausicaa, Valley of the Wind (Ghibli) 


"I suspect like a lot of people, I just didn't think about it, but it's one of those things that when you see it, you can't un-see it, and the problem wasn't linked to just pink or blue, dolls or cars, but a whole litany of designs and motifs that had very clear messages attached."

Tell us, in your own words, who is Francesca C. Mallen

Yo! I am Fran Mallen. I founded Let Clothes Be Clothes in 2014, and I lead the campaign from on top of a hill in the middle of Shropshire. I am particularly proud of the polarity of views LCBC has fostered, from "inspirational" (Caroline Lucas MP) to "bonkers" (Piers Morgan), and on a more personal level, the glorious moniker of "lunatic" (New York Post.) I spent my 20's carving out a career as a Museum Curator, but after 2010 and bullshit "austerity", I was shipped off to a job centre where, after a 2 hour interview going over my numerous accolades, was told I should apply for a job at Mothercare, because you know, I'm a Mum (I'm a Mum btw). I applied for a job with another high street giant, but the first thing they wanted to know was my Mum status, since "Mums are not reliable." During this period, I thought sod it and started working for myself, since I was the only person who seemed to think being a Mum had no bearing on my employability.

How did you became determined to change the gender stereotypes in children's clothes?

Around the same time I gave up on job hunting and started my own business, I wanted to do something about gender stereotyping in childrenswear. My daughter had just turned four and I'd never given much thought to gender marketing, happily choosing the pink option - because that's for girls, right? I suspect like a lot of people, I just didn't think about it, but it's one of those things that when you see it, you can't un-see it, and the problem wasn't linked to just pink or blue, dolls or cars, but a whole litany of designs and motifs that had very clear messages attached. What really opened my eyes was my daughter saying "Mum, I can't like Science, that's for boys" and yes, that was a WTF moment. I walked into a sewing machine shop, said "sell me a machine any fool can wield" and 6 months later had established a "trailblazing" childrenswear business selling Space Dresses and Dinosaur Skirts to kids around the world. Within 12 months Sewing Circus was featured in The Guardian's Top Space purchases for kids and I was pulling in the highest salary of my working life. My daughter loved her Space dress, which was absolutely for her, because she was wearing it.

What is the goal of LCBC, what is the impact?

LCBC is all about challenging retailers to design and market childrenswear responsibly, and raising awareness about gender marketing. The long term goal is to bring about a cultural shift, because that is the sort of change that is lasting and will have the most meaningful impact. Don't know where to shop? LCBC helps with that too via an Approved Badge scheme, handed out to brands and shops who are willing to treat girls and boys equally. After all, children are child shaped until puberty, and all the major retailers use the same measurements for girls and boys, so why have separate sections at all? (the answer is so retailers can sell more...)

What is next for LCBC, If you can dream huge what else it would be doing to change the way things are now in such an important topic?

The next big thing is research and parliamentary support. Ultimately, we don't want childrenswear businesses (who currently rely on lazy gender marketing) to lose money and it's really tough for high street retailers at the moment - even before the pandemic. The closure of shops means more people unemployed, and that's obviously not a satisfactory situation for anyone. Designing childrenswear for girls and boys, without being held strictly to a specific gender formula, can open up new and exciting designs and marketing strategies - and we would encourage retailers to be more forward thinking. It can work (check out the amazing brands we support), and hell, I even sold my unisex childrenswear business in 2018 for a figure 1600% more than my Women's Organisation start-up grant.


What is Feminism for you?

Feminism is both a daily fight, and an urgent call to support other women.

Which “everyday sexism” really bothers you?

This is incredibly hard to narrow down, but the worst thing is how women are not heard. In society, our voices STILL carry less weight than a man's voice

If we have an opinion, we are nagging
If we are assertive and take charge, we are bossy
If we are passionate, we are angry
If we have an experience to share, we are not believed
If we're actually angry, and want to express our RAGE - we're mad, we're witches, burn her.

Do you remember when you start identifying as a Feminist and why?

I've always been a feminist, but I've rediscovered the word many times throughout my life. As a teenager I didn't want to be a woman, I strongly identified as male, cut my hair off, wore my dads clothes - felt absolute horror at my breasts and whatever that was between my legs. The 80's were a pretty bad time for anyone with breasts in general, what with Page 3 and constant BBC comedies beaming tit jokes. It was excruciating. One of my first female role models was Courtney Love because she clearly didn't give a fuck about any of that shit. When I was 14 I saw Hole play at the Wolverhampton Civic, and I loved her raw power on stage, she was absolutely electrifying.


Who is your biggest feminist role model?

It's absolutely me Ma. Though I was a mum myself before I really appreciated how strong she is. Last week Mum was waiting outside the optician when a lad in his 20's came up to her with a leering smile as he shoved his hand down his pants and started to play with his tiny change. No matter how much I want to protect my mum now that she is closing in on 70 and has a plethora of health issues, when she said "I told him to FUCK (pause) OFF (pause) and he fucked off" I realise - she's got this.


What is your favourite Feminist quote?

I famously can't quote a bean, so I'm going to go with something my pal Katy Penman said to me a while back when I was having a hard time. "I've got your back"


What is your proud feminist victory?

Telling the misogynist bully from school that he was a dick, and savouring how this seemed to be news to him, was delicious, but my most proud feminist victory has to be a talk I gave for International Women's Day at The Women's Organisation in Liverpool. It was a panel event and a packed room, and I felt a little out of place on stage, but I just started talking and suddenly all the women in front of me were clapping and yelling their support! It was such a hell yeah! moment. Those women gave me chills.


What is your feminist recommendation?

- Book: This year I'm only reading books written by women, because only women can write adequately about women. My absolute top 3 recommendations are:

1. A Daughter of Isis, by Nawal El Saadawi (seriously, anything by this marvellous woman)
2. The Color Purple, Alice Walker(I watched the film as the kid, but it's nothing like the film. The film is shit. The book is one of the best books I've ever read)
3. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexivich, heavy going, but wow - eye opener. Another great example of how women are damned if they do, and damned if they don't

- tv show: I don't watch a lot of TV, but I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990's and although my enthusiasm for Joss Whedon has waned, I loved all the female characters.

- Film: I'm a film fanatic, but one of my all time favourite films stars - yes, it's almost unbelievable - a Princess. Nausicaa by Studio Ghibli is a must see - I absolutely love the lead character, she is courageous, smart and compassionate, without any of the usual love interest guff storytellers go in for. I hate all that heteronormative crap.

What is your feminist call of action to whoever is reading?

How can we expect a more equal society, a society without sexist stereotyping, when we tell children - right from the get go - that girls are pretty in pink, and boys are troublesome in blue. Choice in childrenswear isn't just about challenging gender marketing, it's about taking those early year messages and making them positive, not regressive. Retailers can do better, and we should demand better for our kids.

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