Statement pieces: exploring the intersection of fashion and politics
Originally published on: theparachutemedia.com
When we think about the word “fashion,” some people still view it as something materialistic and unimportant in the grand scheme of our society, but others see it as something expressive, a medium used to convey messages.
When we think about the impact fashion can have and the statements that it can make, politics is often left out of that narrative. Politics have always gone hand-in-hand with fashion, but ever since the 2020 election, more people are using fashion to express their political opinions.
Whether you do it intentionally or not, the clothes you wear often display to the world an opinion you might have on politics, or where you fit in when it comes to a political movement or idea. Politics is embedded in everything you do but has a very close relationship with the articles of clothing we all choose to place on our bodies. Our fabrics can be filled with fervor and, historically, this has always been the case.
“The most obvious example is all the symbols that leaders like [kings], for instance, are wearing,” said Dr. Nicolas Estournel, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in the Department of French Literature, Thought and Culture at New York University. “You could spend an entire life just analyzing all the symbols that the kings are wearing on themselves.”
The use of fashion in political movements
Political symbolism through fashion has always been a part of politics and major political movements. In 1967, designer Yves Saint Laurent’s collection of women’s pantsuits offered a sense of freedom since societal ideals for women still tried to trap them in dresses or skirts.
The Black Panther Party, created in 1966, used fashion to their advantage in taking a stand and making a statement for the United States’ government to see. They often wore all black and were clothed in leather jackets, sunglasses and berets. Their outfits displayed power and a uniformity which presented them to the USAmerican people as a united front. Black activists in the Civil Rights Movement would also wear their “Sunday Best,” their nicest outfits that were usually reserved for church services, to marches. Creating this exhibition of nicely dressed and presenting Black USAmerican people was meant to show that they were deserving of respect and their feelings were worthy of attention.
“It’s true that fashion was considered a superficial thing until recently,” said Estournel. “But now, I think it’s really changing. There are a lot of books, serious academic books, about it. It’s been going on like that for a few decades. I think it should be taken seriously.”
Designers using their platforms to promote political movements
Designers are not simply there to create beautiful clothing items. They have voices and passions that can be tied to their work, and they can use this platform to communicate messages to those who wear their pieces.
Some designers have taken to social media and the runway to show support to movements that they are passionate about. At the beginning of the #StopAsianHate movement, many Asian fashion designers such as Phillip Lim and Anna Sui spoke up about the movement on social media, not only to spread awareness about hateful attacks on Asian Americans, but to discuss diversity within the fashion and modeling industry. Other designers use not only their voices, but their pieces to spark conversations revolving around politics.
In 2012, Vivienne Westwood initiated her Climate Revolution collection and campaign. At her Sept. 16 show of that year, Westwood walked down the catwalk at the end of the show wearing a T-shirt that read “Climate Revolution.”
In Walter Beirendonck’s Fall 2015 menswear collection, he spoke up against terrorism with a garment that read “STOP TERRORISING OUR WORLD.”
More recently, Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind Pyer Moss, used his Fall 2021 Couture collection to shed light on Black inventors and creators who have often been overshadowed because of racism. His garments paid tribute to people such as beauty entrepreneur C.J. Walker and Garrett Morgan, the inventors of the traffic light.
Jean-Raymond is the first Black fashion designer to present a collection within the couture schedule.
The downside to politically-charged fashions
While it seems fitting in today’s culture that designers share ideas of politics and diversity through their clothing, some designers may take advantage of these movements for personal gain. “I don’t know if it’s important [for designers to make political statements], but the danger is that they would use that as a marketing tool and that it’s not really what they mean,” said Estournel. “And that’s something we see a lot actually in fashion. Feminists’ statements that are sometimes used as marketing [tools], just because it’s cool.” Fashion consumer Carmen Landinger agrees with Estournel, saying that fashion often tries to capitalize on these political movements and use them to make profit.
Over the years, Brandy Melville received criticism about their lack of size, inclusivity and lack of representation of people of color. Landinger said that this idea doesn’t really resonate with her beliefs in fashion and that she prefers to associate herself with brands that are accepting of all people regardless of their size or skin color.
“I don’t want to be giving my money to them if they’re not even viewing me as a person,” she said.
Although Landinger believes that designers sometimes use political movements as a means to make money, she says she still thinks fashion is something important to politics. She represents her own political opinions when wearing secondhand clothing that she has purchased from thrift shops.
“I used to be a big person who would like to spend so much money on clothes,” she said. “Like, this is not what I [needed] to be doing. It makes you think of how much money that place is making, and they’re reproducing clothes [to the point] where [the] quality [is] not even worth the money that you’re paying for it.”
As the fight to stop climate change becomes increasingly difficult, many youths are turning to thrifting and secondhand shopping as a way to do their part in helping the environment.
Not buying into fast fashion means the buyer is not indulging in mass production, a practice that is very harmful to our environment because of excessive water use, excess clothing in landfills and synthetic materials that take much longer to break down. Therefore, purchasing fashion items secondhand has become an important part of the political movement to slow down climate change.
“I just found secondhand [to be] so much more helpful and so much more sustainable,” said Landinger. “I feel like there’s so much more freedom in it and it’s a lot more fun. You find pieces that are so unique, and it’s like a little adventure every single time you go. I try only to [buy] stuff that is sustainable or secondhand because it makes me feel good, and I know that it’s helping out as well.”
Gen-Z’s involvement in tightening the connection between politics and fashion
Landinger said she believes that while politics and fashion have always been related, the younger generations are bringing fashion even more into the political narrative.
“I feel like now with the internet and with social media, it’s just more awareness on it,” said Landinger. “It’s just becoming so much more viral and so much more seen, but I think it’s always definitely been prominent.”
She said that Gen Z is much more conscious when it comes to fashion. They tend to do more research on companies and stray from supporting businesses that don’t align with their values.
Politicians using fashion to express their stance on politics
Politicians are following suit and making political statements not with speeches and campaigns, but with the clothes they wear in front of the people they govern.
Vice President Kamala Harris wore Black designer Christopher John Rogers to her inauguration as a way to promote young Black designers and show her support and dedication to making Black artistry more seen and heard.
On the other hand, in 2018, Former First Lady of the United States, Melania Trump, wore a Zara jacket that read “I really don’t care. Do U?” as she traveled to a detention center for migrant children in Texas. This was while her husband was experiencing heavy criticism about immigration policies and treatment of children in these facilities.
Trump changed her intended meaning of the jacket’s slogan a couple different times. Whether she said the jacket means anything or not, it was interpreted in connection to politics making it clear that politicians must be careful with the clothing they wear because fashion can always be connected to politics.
“I think it’s inherently political because a lot of political issues are rooted in the fashion industry to begin with,” fashion editor of Our Era Magazine Sasha Wayman said. “Like overconsumption, which leads into climate crises and human rights violations because of the mass production of fashion, and even diversity issues within the fashion industry.”
Wayman said that nowadays, fashion can’t exist without politics because the fashion industry responds to trends.
“Our generation, Gen Z, is so political, [the fashion industry has] no choice but to make politics trendy at the same time,” Wayman said. “We don’t really care so much about the latest boot as much as we care about crises around the world. So I think that the fashion industry responds to us, too.”
Celebrities using fashion to spread messages to their followers
Because politics has become even more ingrained in fashion, many of our favorite celebrities and influencers are wearing clothing that speaks to their political beliefs.
In 2014, several basketball players wore shirts that read “I can’t breathe” to honor Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man who died from a forceful police chokehold. At the 2018 Golden Globes, many actresses showed up wearing all black in support of the Time’s Up movement.
“I do think it’s important,” Wayman said.
She pointed out Lena Waithe’s statement jacket at the 2019 Met Gala that read “BLACK DRAG QUEENS INVENTED CAMP,” along with Virgil Abloh’s shirt that read “Model Voter” to encourage young people to vote in the 2020 elections.
“I also get excited when I see my favorite celebrity supporting a cause that I’m passionate about whether that’s through clothes or something else,” Mayman said. “I think it’s important that celebrities do that because they have a voice.”
Politics is truly a part of everything we do and because we choose to wear clothing everyday, fashion is, too. Not only do we have our voices to make a change, but we also have our clothes, and what we wear has a large impact on how we discuss movements we are passionate about.