For Chanel’s S/S 2015 ready to wear show, Karl Lagerfeld ended the runway with a staged feminist protest. In my opinion it felt a little bit gimmicy and not very genuine (especially as in April he was quoted saying ‘all their accusations of harassment, they have become quite toxic’ in regards to the #MeToo movement). Nonetheless it solidified that politics is very much ‘on trend’ in the fashion world right now. I’ve never been that great at politics, whilst I try and keep up, in all honesty most of it goes over my head. In my ongoing mission to educate myself on the history of fashion I decided it was time to look in depth at the relationship between fashion and politics, both past and present, on the runway and off, to see if politics is a timeless element of fashion or if it’s merely another trend to profit from.
Politics on the Runway
One of the most political runway shows, in my mind, is Alexander McQueen’s controversial Autumn/Winter show in 1995, titled ‘Highland Rape’. With bruised and disoriented models stumbling down the runway, and clothes that consisted of lots of ripped lace and tartan, it definitely caused quite the stir in the fashion world. McQueen defended his controversial decision, saying the collection is “the way society sees women, not how I see them.” Some also saw the distressed models as a metaphor for what England did to Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries, in terms of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that took place at the hands of the British forces, something that the patriotic McQueen would definitely want to bring to light.
A more recent example of a politically fuelled runway was Walter Van Beirendonck’s Autumn/Winter 2015 show, that took place at Paris Fashion Week. Following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Beirendonck put bold statements such as ‘Stop Terrorising Our World’ on some of his designs, showing his horror at what took place in Paris that year.
Following the election of Trump and the vote on Brexit, in 2017 fashion got more involved in politics than ever. The pink hats worn at the 2017 women’s march featured on Missoni’s runway. Designs that mirrored Black Panther uniforms were shown by Dior. Slogans also became increasingly popular, with designers like Ashish Gupta, Christian Siriano and LRS featuring them in their collections.
In a less obvious political statement 2017 also saw the rise of representation on the runway. Designers like Michael Kors put plus-size models in their show. Concept Korea and other brands had models such as Maye Musk representing women over the age of 50. Christian Siriano even had non-binary models walk in his show. In my opinion this is a change that will become increasingly common and rightly so, considering clothes are for everyone, not just young skinny white women.
There was even more political action that took place in a more subtle way at runway shows. At some shows during NYFW the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) handed out “Fashion Stands With Planned Parenthood” badges for showgoers to wear. Business of Fashion started the ‘Tied Together’ initiative that encouraged designers to send models down the runway sporting white bandanas to symbolize inclusivity, diversity and unity. Designer Ashish Gupta wore a t-shirt that said ‘Immigrant’ at his London Fashion Week show in response to Brexit.
Politics in Fashion off the Runway
Politics has always influenced fashion, even if you didn’t realise. For example the Suffragettes in the late 19th and early 20th century used fashion to make a statement. They made sure to wear clothes that were considered ultra feminine to show that they were women, and that they could change the world whilst wearing a dress and heels. After the first World War Coco Chanel was one of the first to attempt to liberate women, and introduced clothes for them that didn’t just consist of restrictive clothing. In the 60’s girls in mini skirts protested against Christian Dior and his long skirt designs, as they felt times had changed enough that they should be allowed to dress as promiscuous as they like. One of my favourite examples of politics and fashion in years past, is when in 1984, designer Katharine Hamnett (who produced lots of political slogan clothing) wore a dress that bore the words ‘58% Don’t want Pershing’ when meeting Margaret Thatcher, an amazing way of combining fashion and politics that’s a bit more powerful than the slogan t-shirts you see today. In 2005 Vivienne Westwood created t-shirts that said ‘I am not a terrorist’ in order to confront the government’s proposed anti-terror legislation, and all the proceeds went to charity.
A more current example of fashion and politics off the runway is what has recently taken place on the red carpet. Actors and actresses wore all-black and Time’s Up pins at the Golden Globes. Attendees of the Grammys carried white roses to show solidarity with victims of sexual assault and harassment. This show of so many different people coming together for a cause is extremely powerful, and shows how change is still needed, and can be highlighted through clothing.
The media is also a great vocal point when it comes to inclusivity in fashion. In 1998 Alexander McQueen guest edited an issue of Daze called Fashion-able, with the issue featuring models with a range of physical disabilities. It was an magazine issue that was quoted as being so progressive that it ‘proved that beauty can be found in difference’. In 2014 Gareth Pugh, Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben created the ‘Proud to Protest’ series, which was a series of short SHOWstudio films in response to the awful treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community in Russia. The release of the series coincided with the opening of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, and each film began with a person in a balaclava, as a nod to the Pussy Riot protest group. Once the balaclava was removed it showed icons such as Kate Moss and Henry Holland. This series emphasised the need to challenge Russia’s human right’s violations, especially towards gay people, which Knight solidified when he said ‘Has humanity learnt nothing? This situation in Russia is an unbelievable step backwards for an enlightened world.’ In 2017 GQ especially set the bar high when it came to having people of colour as cover stars, something other magazine aren’t progressive enough to do (which in 2018 is so crazy to me).
My only issue with fashion and politics colliding is when the industry profits off it. This seems so counter productive to me, when the groups they are supposedly trying to stick up for need the support, instead of corporations in the fashion world. When fashion is incorporating politics to genuinely create awareness and make a positive change I’m all for it. We have to think though, with fashion often the clothes have been made in horrendous working conditions – something I’ve talked about in a few of my other blog posts. This makes you wonder how far politics can stretch, and how hypocritical we can get. Overall though if you’re supporting a brand that’s trying to advocate for change for at least one of the tragedies that’s going on in the world, then you’re doing much better than brands that are doing nothing.
No matter what we wear nowadays I think it’s impossible to escape politics. From what’s going on in the world, inclusivity, diversity, human and animal rights, everything links back to politics. I think what’s important is to think about who you’re buying from and what they’re doing to make a genuine change, whether it’s big or small. As Glamour’s Executive Editor Wendy Naugle pointed out in an interview, ‘Maybe a decade ago you’d think, ‘Oh, I’m going to read my politics and then my fashion news and then my health news […] now, people see how those all go hand-in-hand.’ Politics in fashion is here to stay, and as long as it’s progressive and not just a publicity stunt like Chanel S/S 2015, I’m 100% here for it.
Until next time,
Images sourced from Pinterest, Dazed Digital, PopSugar, Refinery29, Mashable, Elle, NY Times, Glamour, Women’s Weekly, Teen Vogue, The Cut, Business of Fashion, The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, IndyStar and ShowStudio