The clothing we wear allows us to visually represent different aspects of ourselves, be it our mood, interests, or beliefs. Our society is defined by visual dialogue--it is often the first line of communication between strangers. It is thus possible to take a more macro approach to expression in fashion: clothing is not just about the self. Fashion has become a shared language and thus a shared experience. Individual clothing choices aggregate to define the culture, beliefs, and opinions of entire societies.
Opening Ceremony’s Autumn/Winter 2016 collection show notes expressed this sentiment perfectly: “When we get dressed, we make decisions about which aspects of ourselves to present to the world. When we asked our friends about the issues that matter to them… immigration, economic inequality, police brutality and gender discrimination, among others - we were struck by how many of them hinged on the ability to express one’s identity freely.”
The desire to take a stance on issues and facilitate a dialogue isn’t limited to the day-to-day world; designers frequently use the catwalk as a platform for political discussion. This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, as fashion has always been political. Runways have been stages for implicit statements. For example, Coco Chanel challenged gender norms with androgynous cuts. In 2000, Hussein Chalayan discussed the issue of forced migration and immigrant displacement by making his models strip the covers off furniture and wear them as dresses. The past century has also seen the popularization of slogans. From Vivienne Westwood’s anti-Thatcher slogans to Katherine Hamnett’s iconic “58% are opposed to perishing” T-shirt, referencing a shared opposition to nuclear missiles, expressionism on the catwalk suggests that our internal world, be it in turmoil or celebration, ought not be silenced to appease onlookers.
The politicization of fashion gained a significant momentum in the past few years. 2016 had a lot of game-changing events that are bound to redefine world order in the upcoming years. Britain voted to leave the European Union. The far-reaching economic, political, and cultural implications of the Brexit led to debate all over world, and of course, in Britain. British designers used the London Fashion Week to declare their stances. Most notably, before his show, Daniel W. Fletcher staged a sit-in outside of his show site and had his models wear “stay” hoodies and T-shirts. At the end of their show, The Sibling designers Sid Bryan and Cozette McCreery wore “stay” slogan tees while taking their bows.
There were more interdisciplinary controversies that involved fashion, politics, and religion. In April, the French minister for women’s rights scolded designers like Marks & Spencer and Dolce & Gabbana for offering full-body swimwear and high fashion hijabs, accusing them of “promoting women’s bodies being locked up.” Many designers stepped up to defend Muslim women, and more broadly, those who choose to express their religion through clothing. Anniesa Hasibuan took a revolutionary step in New York Fashion Week: she was the first designer to pair a hijab with every look in her show. Another intersection was finance: Pyer Moss’s collection involved tees with Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff’s face printed on them, and various items with “greed” spelled out.
specially in 2015. Walter van Beirendonck, a famously vocal designer, took advantage of the fact that his show in Paris fell in the aftermath of the tragic Charlie Hebdo shooting. His show included a recurring eagle motif to symbolize resilience and a tank top with “stop terrorizing our world” spelled out in bright orange. And, lest we forget, the U.S. Presidential election. During New York Fashion Week, Anna Wintour, the editor of American Vogue, hosted a fashion show to benefit Hillary Clinton. Wintour wore a Jason Wu dress that featured a mosaic of the different states in shades of blue. Opening Ceremony’s presentation featured Natasha Lyonne and Whoopi Goldberg discussing electoral issues and promoting the efforts of Rock the Vote, an organization with the goal of increasing political participation.
The popularization of overt political messages in fashion can be attributed to a few factors. One is the sheer magnitude of the effects of some current events: the American presidential election, for example, always becomes a hotly discussed topic around the world since American foreign and domestic policy affects a lot of people beyond America’s borders. Another factor is increasing the prominence of the media. Beyond television coverage, there has been a rise of voices online, such as multiple videos of the Young Turks--a leftist talk show--and Tomi Lahren--a voice for the right--going viral. People feel more and more encouraged to share their opinions, and fashion is one of the many avenues that they choose. In addition, there has been a change in the norms surrounding fashion.
An increasing number of designers are using their platform to inform the public about current events and demonstrate their own stances on political issues. Vivienne Westwood once proudly exclaimed, “I just use fashion as an excuse to talk about politics. Because I’m a fashion designer, it gives me a voice, which is really good.” The intersection of fashion and politics is valuable: it reinforces the important roles creativity and expression play in a society and spreads information in unconventional, eye-catching ways. Fashion is not just about the self--it is about you, me, us, and them. None of those groups exist in a vacuum.