What Does It Mean To Be Political With Fashion In 2019?

Designed by Meg O'Donnell
"Access to the press, governmental bodies or educational institutions is variable, but everyone has access to their own bodies," observes Dr Jonathan Michael Square, a writer and historian currently teaching at Harvard University. "Fashion is, thus, one of the most readily available political tools." Fashion, believes Square, is never apolitical. As he tells Refinery29: "Even the decision not to care about fashion is a political statement."
Fashion and politics have been bedfellows for as long as people have been getting dressed. As Square describes, the semiotic nature of the relationship means it’s impossible to separate the two. Perhaps one of the most explicit examples, on account of what the job entails and who it serves, is the sartorial examination of politicians: cast your eye over Jeremy Corbyn’s tracksuits, Theresa May’s leopard print kitten heels, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s white cape-blazer – and the headlines generated by each.
As a concept, the notion of politicised fashion is naturally very broad, so great is the spectrum of variables. Miranda Priestly’s famous "cerulean blue" monologue in The Devil Wears Prada unpacks just one layer of fashion’s universal impact. Beyond the trickle-down effect she notes, the wider cultural context – the who, why, where, when and how – of a garment is paramount in how our clothes (and by extension, we) are read by others. Moreover, fashion doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and with the advent of social media and call-out culture, the demand for accountability has only soared.
Co-opted by political movements, a number of brands are all too aware of the significance clothing carries. Just as in the 1980s, when the aesthetics of skinhead culture – Fred Perry polos and lace-up Dr. Martens – were adopted by the far right, contemporary groups have similarly courted this kind of brand ownership. Since its inception in 2016, the neo-fascist organisation Proud Boys has adopted Fred Perry’s black and yellow polo as a type of uniform. The brand’s CEO, John Flynn subsequently denounced the association, telling CBC Radio in 2017: "No, we don’t support the ideals or the group... It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with."
Elsewhere in the US, New Balance and Nike have both experienced damning attacks from either side of the political fence. In 2016, New Balance products were labelled the "official shoes of white people" by Andrew Anglin, publisher of neo-Nazi site, The Daily Stormer, after the brand’s VP of Public Affairs Matt LeBretton tweeted his support for Donald Trump’s stance on trade deals. In 2018, Nike worked with Colin Kaepernick, the American quarterback who initiated the 'take a knee' protest, on a 'Just Do It' campaign, upsetting right-wing consumers in the process. In both cases, the political association led to those with opposing values burning their wares.
In London, young fashion labels have often used the medium to highlight issues close to them – Brexit, for example, has been a ubiquitous presence for several seasons now – with varying instances of controversy. Most recently for Nigerian designer Mowalola Ogunlesi, what might have otherwise been a career-defining moment saw her pushed to defend her work. After Naomi Campbell wore a dress of her design – white leather with a red faux bullet wound – during London Fashion Week, the Fashion East-championed designer clarified the genesis of the dress, writing on Instagram: "I make clothes to challenge people’s minds. This gown is from my collection ‘Coming For Blood’ – a delving into the horrific feeling of falling in love. This dress is extremely emotional for me – it screams my lived experience as a black person. It shows no matter how well dressed you are or well behaved, we are time after time seen as a walking target. I’m in a privileged position to be able to speak on issues that others would be silenced on. Inequality is still rife and newspapers clawing at my work is testament to that."
At his history-making Glastonbury performance in June, Stormzy employed a similar sentiment, drawing attention to gun crime and the vulnerability of black bodies by wearing a stab-proof vest bearing a black and white Union Jack. Later credited to Banksy, the vest was described at the time by Guardian journalist Jonathan Jones as "the banner of a divided and frightened nation". Earlier this month the vest went on display in Croydon at a pop-up exhibition of Banksy’s work, alongside a note describing it as a "version of the ‘John Bull’ English gents waistcoat updated for modern times".
Filtered down to the high street and translated to womenswear, the vest as a fashion item has been reproduced via the utility trend, a prominent element of modern streetwear. While in Britain it has its origins in the war effort of the 1940s, the current vogue for utility, visually at least, appears to speak more to a Kardashian-imposed aesthetic. Keenly observed by sites like Missguided and ASOS – where a search for the term 'utility' brings up 249 and 620 results respectively – the look is heavy in pockets, worked into camouflage trousers, beige waistcoats and body bags styled in front rather than across the torso. Less combat in its intention, and more invested in complementing the Fila Disruptor, the vibe, for the most part at least, is centred on style.
"Throughout history, dress has been a signal of power. It has been used to suggest authority, moral value, wealth and status," Donna Loveday, co-curator of the Design Museum’s 2014 exhibition, Women Fashion Power tells me. "For centuries women emulated men’s wardrobes to dress for power," she continues, illustrating how women have previously mirrored masculine style tropes to facilitate confidence, "from the battle dress of Joan of Arc to the extreme shoulder padding of the 1980s, through to the trouser suits that mimicked men’s suits to assert authority."
Trend forecaster WGSN has identified a rise in politically motivated dressing – less cargo pants, more ethical expression – that echoes today’s heightened collective conscience. "The rise in politicised fashion is aligned with the rise in outward expressions of political opinion," says Francesca Muston, WGSN Director of Fashion. "Social media has certainly facilitated this but it is undeniable that, across the world, people are more politically polarised, rallying around people who share their opinions and are more likely to share their views publicly." Women in particular, she notes, are foremost adopters of this approach.
Like most cultural moments, this idea of rallying together has been played out in front of us by Hollywood, both on screen and by the performers whose own narratives share storylines with a wider section of society. Looking to the 2018 Golden Globes wardrobe blackout, in observance of #MeToo, Loveday addresses the power of appearance: "Women adopted the black dress as a means of proclaiming solidarity and conveying an important political message. At one of the most politically charged awards ceremonies in memory, clothes mattered more than ever. The action reminded people that fashion isn’t just glamour but can be about many things, including solidarity and protest. I think this idea has never been as important as it is now."
Beyond big events and ceremonial moments, no item has served politics, performative or otherwise, better than the slogan top. From Katharine Hamnett meeting Margaret Thatcher in 1984 to the 'Repeal' shirt that highlighted last year’s Irish referendum on the 8th Amendment, Don Cheadle supporting trans youth on SNL to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s feminist debut at Dior, wearing your affiliation on your chest has long been the most accessible way to vocalise your stance on big issues.
"On a functional level, T-shirts are the perfect canvas for the brave among us to signpost our thoughts, feelings or stance on any given topic or trend we feel strongly about," says Michael Wilkin, Head of Marketing at Everpress, a "global marketplace for independent creativity". As well as helping individuals get their designs on T-shirts – by offering the tools to sell, manufacture and distribute – the company recently put out its third 50/50 campaign, an initiative that teams up with creatives for a charity T-shirt series, this year to support Justice4Grenfell. "By putting on a T-shirt, you are making a deliberate choice to align yourself with something. I think people enjoy that curation, not just on an aesthetic level, but on an emotional level." Alluding to 50/50, Wilkin continues: "Hopefully that tee starts a conversation somewhere, regardless of the buyer’s original intention."
Whether we like it or not, the way we dress, the brands we choose to wear – indeed, the very existence of this choice – and the messages we champion on our chests all contribute to how we’re understood in the world. As a gesture of empowerment, a signal to the communities we feel a close bond with – or a warning to those we don’t – the use of fashion as a vehicle for political expression is nothing new, but in turbulent times, its immediacy can be potent.
Similarly, the opportunity it presents – to reclaim space and question narratives – can be particularly heightened for groups whose race, gender, sexuality or class might be othered in the mainstream, used as a way to articulate a point without taking direct action. As Square asks: "Is there any greater satisfaction than having your outer self match your political ideals?" Furthermore, through whose gaze these pronouncements are interpreted, and the subsequent policing (or not), only determines their validity.
"Fashion can maintain and deepen inequality, but it also has the potential to challenge structures of power," suggests Square. "I'm a believer in the transformational power of fashion to change how we see ourselves and our place in the world — whether it addresses racial inequality, promotes body positivity, questions gender binaries, or calls for more sustainable industry standards."

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