The concepts of fashion and politics can often be considered seemly juxtaposed. Whilst fashion is associated with fantasy and the beautiful, politics appears to deal with harsh reality, the ugly. Yet, the social world is irrevocably constructed and infused with visual language—constantly contested, translated, and redefined. It is the seminal role of fashion in cultivating and challenging these images, symbols and aesthetics and the messages and values embedded in them, that gives fashion power.
What’s more, in the current tense and divisive political climate, the way in which this power is used is more important than ever. Nowhere has this issue been more evident than the refusal or acceptance of designers to dress Melania Trump. A growing number of designers have rejected requests and offers to dress the first lady, most notably French designer Sophie Theallet, who in November 2016 published an open letter to the fashion world explaining her decision to reject Melania and encouraged others to do the same. She said, “I am well aware it is not wise to get involved in politics. That said, as a family-owned company, our bottom line is not just about money. We value our artistic freedom and always humbly seek to contribute to a more humane, conscious and ethical way to create in this world.”
Conversely, the issue sparked controversy again in June 2017 when Dolce and Gabbana dressed and promoted Melania Trump on Instagram, to the condemnation of other members of the industry and even a short-lived #BoycottDolceGabbana campaign. What was particularly interesting about this specific episode, however, was the justification Dolce and Gabbana gave for their decision. Although the brand have previously been criticized for their conservative views on issues such as same-sex families, their justification took a explicitly apolitical and even anti-political stance. In response to criticism from Miley Cyrus, they commented that, “We don’t care about politics and mostly neither about the American one! We make dresses” [sic].
Similarly, yet more explicitly, Thom Browne recently claimed, “There’s nothing political behind it at all. I think it’s unfortunate, the response that the current first lady [Melania Trump] got from designers in regards to dressing her. We all should respect the office, and it shouldn’t become a political thing.”
These statements both locate fashion and design as autonomous from the realm of politics. Yet the denial of the political nature of fashion is in itself a political act. Obscuring the political element of fashion enables individuals to act politically whilst evading criticism and obscuring the immense responsibility fashion designers have due to the power and agency of their industry. Furthermore, the denial of the political serves to demean and delegitimize those who actively engage with and proclaim their political beliefs. In other words, designers who openly acknowledge the political nature of fashion and engage with it explicitly and creatively are no more or less ‘political’ than those who condemn it.
Consequently, designers have risen to the challenge of embracing the political forthrightly since the 1980s. Katharine Hamnett pioneered the political slogan t-shirt in 1984, inspired to use fashion as a vessel to promote sexual health practices during the AIDS epidemic and in to signal solidarity with the nuclear non-proliferation movement. This explicit politicisation of fashion is very much well and alive. This season, Mara Hoffman invited the co-chairs of the Women’s March to open her show, whilst Dai-Yo Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School re-appropriated Trump’s notorious ‘Make America Great Again’ caps under the logo ‘Make America New York’; a claim for a national embrace of multiculturalism of the cosmopolitan city.
Of course, a degree of wariness is certainly necessary, particularly considering that fashion is an industry as well as a creative artistic endeavor and social institution. There are certainly consequences of political movements becoming ‘fashionable’. For example, as feminist discourse and activism has re-entered mainstream culture and reinvigorated awareness of women’s rights and issues, many brands have capitalized on its new found cultural capital. Enter almost any high street shop and you will most likely find a ‘FEMINIST’ or ‘GIRL POWER’ t-shirt, yet many of these same brands exploit female labor in economically developing countries. This sad irony emphasizes the danger that unethical fashion brands can profiteer off the enormous hard work of political activists and movements whilst ultimately reinforcing systems that activists fight to dismantle. This is not only a fast-fashion issue; several ‘high-fashion’ brands’ such as Prada, Burberry and D&G have been accused of using unethical labor and many designers often collaborate with notoriously un-ethical high-street brands.
Whether designers acknowledge or like it at all, fashion is intrinsically political. As much as it’s a cliche, the statement remains truer today than ever; ‘the personal is political’. Explicitly or implicitly, our values and beliefs are projected onto our bodies. Fashion; as an industry, as a mode of visual communication, as a creative process, is fundamental to this projection. Therefore, designers, publishers, influencers and brands hold an immense leverage to be forces of conservatism or progress. It should not be assumed that creatives are always liberal, or that they have an obligation to publicly express their political beliefs, but their political power, influence and agency must never be obscured but recognized and engaged with.