Where fashion and feminism converge

Freedom by Fashion raised awareness about human trafficking.

Fashion and freedom have little in common besides alliteration and a couple of letters. Fashion and feminism have had a long-standing feud regarding terminology -- boyfriend jeans, babydoll tops. There are also issues regarding lack of fabric, low-cut tops and micro-mini skirts. But sisters Anna and Elizabeth D’Agostino were looking to break those barriers and redefine the term “slaves of fashion” with their Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition runway event, “Freedom by Fashion,” on Sunday at Parkade Plaza.

“The idea is to show people that fashion is one of the industries that has a lot of slavery in it,” Event Coordinator Anna D’Agostino said. “Fashion in two ways — one in the sense that people are trafficked through the production side of it, and then also, you have the other side where people are trafficked through the sort of vanity side of it, just the sex side of it.”

Anna D’Agostino said she wanted to reconcile the negative and positive aspects of the fashion industry.

“We wanted to show that you can do fashion, and you can do runways, and do high class and everything, and it doesn’t have to be in that trashy way,” Anna D’Agostino said.

The benefit event, complete with a guest speaker, runway show of local designs, silent auction (including live art pieces), live music, DJs and an interactive human trafficking simulation, packed the corridors of the plaza with folks interested in the art and in the cause.

“I’m very excited about the turnout,” Coalition Co-Chair Elizabeth D’Agostino said. “I’m very excited about the response of the community, for the donations that made this event possible, and then to have so many people come and experience it. Somebody told me, ‘Oh, you deserve flowers for all the work that you’ve done.’ But to me, every person in that audience was flowers. I’m so excited that 300 people tonight learned about trafficking enough to where they could actually talk about it.”

One of the central messages of the event was not only the concrete reality of human trafficking, but also the proximity of the issue.

“I don’t think anybody understood that when we were raising money for the Central Missouri Coalition because we need the money here in central Missouri because that’s where a lot of the victims are, and I think that blew a lot of people’s minds,” Anna D’Agostino said.

CMSHTC brought in human trafficking survivor Margaret Howard to speak before the runway show. Howard brought members of the audience to tears when she spoke about an incident that happened to her almost 40 years ago. When Howard was 13 years old, a car full of men picked her up while she was hitchhiking. The men took her to a house and handed her over to a pimp. Then she was drugged and raped by men who were buying her.

Howard estimated it lasted a span of around five days before the men let her go. She still doesn't know why they released her. After a long road of recovery, Howard is speaking out for the cause. She's also living proof that the issue of human trafficking exists, and it exists locally.

Howard said she was attracted to speaking at this event because of CMSHTC’s work, and she thought they pulled the fashion show off well.

“I know that some people had questions about sort of the intersection of a human trafficking event and a fashion show, because there are probably people who feel that fashion shows in general are anti-feminist or exploitative,” Howard said. “But I think that it’s sort of like when we took back the word ‘bitch.’ I think we can take back the fashion show, too."

Howard hopes everyday citizens — particularly men — will take action to stop human trafficking.

“Buy fair trade, don’t go to strip clubs, don’t go to prostitutes, don’t watch pornography,” Howard said. “All of these things are modes of sexual exploitation that are not only used for trafficking people, but are a form of the erotic nation of power over women. And we need to change that, so I’m asking men to ask themselves what they really need and what they can let go of -- how they can be respectful to women and be good citizens.”

Howard also had a message for parents.

“When your daughter speaks, believe what they tell you,” Howard said. “That’s coming from not being believed when I spoke as a child.”

“Fashion by Freedom,” brought together by a market of talents, achieved its goal of reconciling feminism and its longtime enemy: fashion.

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