Politics and fashion may at first glance not be a likely mix, yet, they’re inextricably intertwined. For what is politics if not the distribution of and struggle for power? Fashion dictates what is widely seen as beautiful and popular, two qualities that can give anyone or anything a lot of power: just think about the invigorating feeling of walking into a room knowing that you are recognized as attractive and popular, and the confidence it gives you.
There are countless examples of fashion used as a means of expressing political views. No one will forget the all-black red carpets seen during the 2018 awards season: not only did it propel the ‘Times-up’ movement further into the spotlight, but it was also a display of solidarity – a visual representation of “We believe you,” and “We will fight for you.”
Then Angela Missoni’s Fall 2017 show comes to mind, where she sent models down the Milan Fashion Week runway in Pussyhats, the hot pink symbols of protest and female solidarity against sexual assault.
Politicized fashion shows reach far beyond the main circuit of Paris, London, New York and Milan: For Spring/Summer 2019, MUF10’s Reza Etamadi sent models down the Copenhagen Fashion Week runway clad in Burqas, while others were dressed as police officers, the two groups eventually exchanging flowers and hugs. Etamadi was protesting Denmark’s then recently enforced Burka ban, which prohibited women from wearing face-covering veils. Following his powerful show, Etamadi shared his motivating principle: “No man should decide what women should wear.” Protest-dressing and fashion is nothing new – after all, the very essence of fashion is self-expression.
But fashion is also internally fraught with politics, i.e. the inner workings of the industry are political. Who is the woman dominating the runway? Who do you see on the pages of a magazine? Once upon a time, we could point at a specific type of woman and identify her as the best way to be beautiful. Today, we celebrate diversity and inclusivity, we agree that the further the arms of representation reach, the better off the world is. We see sincere discussions about diversity and sustainability at the heart of discussions about fashion. We no longer have a singular vision of beauty, and that’s a standard we hold ourselves to. That is fiercely political, and it’s nothing short of a seismic shift in the balance of power – more women have a stake now; more women have a voice. Transgender women, hijabi women, disabled women, women bigger than a size 12, women who were snubbed from being ‘conventionally beautiful’ or ‘mainstream’ for too long are all stepping into the limelight, unafraid, startlingly beautiful, and immensely powerful.
The industry-wide change is tangible and palpable; diversity is no longer just a fancy buzzword. Prada’s black-face controversy was followed by their launch of the Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council, chaired by Ava DuVernay and Theaster Gates. There’s hardly a better way to say, “We’re seriously listening, and we want to make this better”, than consciously hand-picking a diverse team who can provide a wider range of perspectives and sensibilities, after all, the politics are changing. Brands no longer make things for a single group of people, so their decisions shouldn’t be informed by a single sensibility. Measurable change like this sets a standard not only for the fashion industry but for corporations as a whole – it’s time to stop viewing public backlash to insensitive marketing as ‘racism scandals’ instead of what they really are, a reminder of the progress that is yet to be made, and an opportunity to make it.
To say fashion is unpolitical would be ignoring how the industry mirrors and furthers universal progress that permeates every aspect of our lives. As more brands and designers express consciousness about social issues through their collections and casting, social movements gain traction and enter the spheres of awareness of a larger group of people. There is a conversation to be had about co-opting political movements, of course, but for today, let’s take a breath and celebrate. Passivity is no longer in fashion.
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