All around legend and iconic superstar Vivienne Westwood once said “I just use fashion as an excuse to talk about politics”. Spectating recent fashion week seasons, this quote couldn’t be more relevant to the times. Fashion is not merely about aesthetics anymore. Designers are becoming more and more willing to express their political views, trying to make a difference – either in obvious or more discreet ways. I can already hear the anti-fashion crowd arguing that fashion does not have anything to do with politics. “It’s just clothes”. That is true. But fashion also has the power to express a lot about you and your voice. It is a creative way to reach out to a vast audience. It is an art form, and art will forever be influenced by socio-political factors. You cannot separate the two, so you might as well use it to push for some real change.
An increasing number of the major fashion houses, that historically haven’t been big on stating their political views, are jumping on the “trend”, making conversations that are about more than just garments. Chanel staged a feminist protest march for their SS15 show, while Dior’s SS17 runway show saw one of their models strutting down the runway in a printed tee that read “We should all be feminists”. Some might argue that this is merely a marketing strategy – a way to attract attention, but one way or another it is making the audience more aware that it is an issue of interest. The line between fashion and politics is starting to get blurred, evident with some of the newer brands that have implemented this way of expressing political attitudes through fashion since their label’s inception.
Pyer Moss is amongst the newer fashion names that have made an impression both with their uniquely raw garments and the corresponding bold statements being made on the runway. For the SS17 show at New York Fashion Week the designer, Kerby-Jean Raymond, shone a light on the corporate and greedy side of important movements like Black Lives Matter, and brought up the issue of economic inequality.
His thought provoking SS16 show brought to attention the many police shootings of black, unarmed men/teens. Before a single item of clothing came down the runway, a 10-minute video was played, showing the killing of Walter Scott – an unarmed black man shot by police officers in South Carolina, followed by footage of the black teens who were brutalised by police at a local pool in Texas and, ending with the final words of Eric Garner: “I can’t breathe.”
The garments that then were showcased down the runway were covered with symbolism, blood-stains, what was supposed to indicate gunshot wounds, and the words “I can’t breathe” painted all over them. It was a moment that had the crowd discussing the show beyond simply fashion. A venue and a designer pulled out from the show, but that didn’t stop the Haitian-American designer, showing that this was about more than just capitalising off black death.
Another brand that really stood out with their edgy SS17 collection was Namilia, with one of their models sporting a dress with the words “Take down Trump” sewn on it as well as several patches with Trump’s face photoshopped onto NSFW photos. In an interview with Bullett Magazine they stated that “Trump was the last icon to come into the collection [because] we think it’s simply something you cannot ignore, and as designers we have a platform, but also a responsibility to address issues [that] concern us. The phenomenon Trump truly shows you the maximum level of power, combining patriarchy, religion, politics and celebrity culture, which is super scary”,
For the show they produced a runway manifesto sharing their biggest points of concerns, including, but not limited to: reversing the patriarchy’s concept of female sexualisation and objectification; using fetishwear, provocative slogans and visuals to create the true fashion activist; celebrating the deviant and freakish; and promoting the movement to ‘Take down Trump. The points distinctly illustrate the show’s focus on female objectification and sexualisation and the brand’s support for empowering women and celebrating femininity. Namilia, who now have established themselves as the epitome of girl power, are just one of many modern designers who have used the runway as a visual platform for their ideas and beliefs – as a way to express their concerns and fantasies, and, in Namilia’s own words “make a small impact on the world we live in and to be able to shape the future.”
Daniel W. Fletcher
Another young designer who has made a clear point out of his political views is London based Daniel W. Fletcher. His previously made collections have commented on issues like gentrification, have been in support of the underfunded and struggling National Health Service, and his most recent line expressed his views on Brexit. His setup for the SS17 show was as provocative as it was aesthetically pleasing. By staging a peaceful protest composed of a group of models holding banners and EU flags, dressed in clothes and accessories emblazoned the word “stay”, he was voicing his support for staying in the EU. As the designer has mentioned in several previous interviews, he believes that “[…] if you have a platform to express yourself and if people are paying attention to that then you should use that to spread a positive message”, political or not. Even if others don’t have the same views, it is important to start a discussion – there is no rule saying that only politicians can talk politics. And who better to reach out to our generation than one of us, spreading a message in an original and creative way.
But even though a lot of fashion brands are becoming increasingly active when it comes to political issues, it is important to be critical as to why they are voicing their opinions or how they conduct their practices. Many brands, especially within fast-fashion, are quick to jump on this easily-capitalising-trend, advocating for positive political change, via fundraising and campaigns for a range of causes. H&M recently did an ad that according to multiple media sources was an ‘awesome and empowering’ feminist ad campaign. It was awesome and empowering, and it did subvert the viewers’ idea of what a woman in an ad should look like. But as of today H&M still lack ethical factory sourcing and basic labor rights for their workers (who are predominantly women). This goes against what basic feminism stands for, showing obvious double standards and revealing that this ad is merely a tool for H&M to positively boost their reputation.
For a while there seemed to be a great divide between fashion and politics. But the truth is that it’s impossible to ignore the way one can reach people through this platform in the ultra-connected, digital world like ours – and this is something most designers are starting to realise. Not only can it draw attention to a cause but on a deeper level it also gives a sense of collectiveness and unity within those wishing to challenge the society’s dominant ideas. In a way, wearing one’s politics, makes you feel like you are a part of a movement. Even though you’re not marching the streets or joining a strike, you are still making a statement. It might not be the most conventional, run-of-the-mill way of driving change, but you cannot deny its influence on momentum and awareness for political causes. And while we shouldn’t rely on fashion to make the world a better place, it is definitely one step in the right direction.
Written by Nilo Danai.