Yes, You Heard Correctly. Fashion IS Political.
Thoughts | Vanessa Nardin Kruczaj
In a democratic society like ours, the politics of our country promise to represent the interests of the people. As the foundation of Canadian law revolves around portraying its citizens’ fundamental values and beliefs, the sartorial choices we make can derive from our customs, religious guidance, and social and political influences. The politics of fashion are intuitively engraved into our being from the moment we are born. When we step out into the world, we are cloaked with an amour society has chosen, and given the opportunity to make it our own. As Henry Navarro Delgado puts it, “What one wears, how one wears it and when one wears it constitutes expressions of degrees of social freedoms and influences,” while simultaneously conforming us to the story we have indirectly been told to abide by. While fashion and style can reflect who we are, they also have the ability to determine the relationships we form, and represent a realm of interests from arts to technology and academic rhetoric. Fashion has played a key role in social movements, political and ideological theories, and providing massive economic wealth. Yet, when individuals, particularly women, express an interest in fashion, they are often denied participation in political conversation.
The popular perception that appreciating and enjoying fashion hinders the potential for one to engage in critical thinking and intelligent conversation perpetuates a ridiculous double standard that grows from the roots of historical sexism. Despite what some might think, you are allowed to obsess over your favourite pair of shoes, or the latest runway trend, while concurrently investing in the political climate and future of this country. While fashion does revolve around the materialistic privileges of society, it also deepens our understanding of a time period’s social and cultural standards through its practicality, wearability, material, and design. With this in mind, I argue it’s about time we are given a fresh outlook on fashion and its correlation with politics.
Designer Mara Hoffman, known for perceiving fashion through a feminist’s lens, believes that her existence as a woman is political: “Life is political.... Walking through this planet is political.” As we live in a society where victim-blaming and excessive social conventions are prevalent, the way in which a woman chooses to dress herself determines how she is perceived and treated, and the events of her life. When will wearing a miniskirt not constitute as “asking for it” or be an acceptable explanation for sexual harassment? When will men like Doug Ford and his appeasing social conservatives realize they have no right to require women to conform to sexist dress codes (as they try to roll back Bill 148 which brought worker protections into the 21st century)? As women continue to tear through gender roles and enter traditionally-male fields, the way in which one dresses has become a professional and political daily practice.
Numerous designers over the year, from Prabal Gurung to Diane von Furstenberg, have utilized their platform and collections to raise political awareness, and express their values and opinions. In fact, during February 2017 New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America partnered with Planned Parenthood to launch the “Fashion Stands with Planned Parenthood” campaign in support of the critical health care the organization provides to millions of Americans each year. As board member of CFDA, Tracy Reese says, the campaign strives to “create an organic social media movement promoting awareness and education.”
In more recent events, Nike’s 2018 “Equality” ad, which debuted at the 59th Anniversary Grammy Awards, reinvented the politics of sneakers and their affiliate brands. The advertisements starred athletes from LeBron James to Serena Williams, and Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who made the bold decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest the police brutality against black and African Americans. After years of building billion-dollar brands around celebrity athletes, inhering the entertainment industry, and imitating black culture, sports and footwear companies can no longer avoid the United States’ political flashpoints and polarization. Partnerships like Run-DMC’s endorsement deal with Adidas, and Nike’s "Air Jordan" campaigns featuring Michael Jordan and Spike Lee, have generated an even larger social obligation for sportswear brands now facing the increasingly prominent challenge of how to appeal to youth and minority communities, while simultaneously maintaining customers who identify as the country’s conservative, white majority.
A brand’s reputation, especially in retail, has always been about the relationship between customers and vendors, and now more than ever, the interactions amongst brands and minority communities. Beginning in the 1980s, brands like Nike, Reebok, and Adidas became essential to black fashion, with youth seeking to mirror those they followed and admired, particularly figures associated with the flourishing hip-hop culture. From here, the relationship grew with avid fans lining up outside stores to get the newest styles, wanting to obtain the symbolic status and street style that accompanied them.
Through the development of these relationships, the future of a company’s business is determined, and therefore, increasing the awareness within a brand of their social obligations, and providing incentives to meet those responsibilities. As campaigns featuring black athletes have become a popular marketing tactic leading to booming business, it’s important we compare how much these companies are profiting by exploiting African American and black cultural trends, to their actual investment and financial contributions to such communities. As stated in The Washington Post, Antonio S. Williams, who teaches sports marketing at Indiana University says, companies "have made millions off of following trends from the black community, and so they have to be cognizant of the feelings of that community. It only takes one or two incidents for shoes to be pushed aside and declared uncool and left behind, so they are very aware of the cultural exchanges and trends going on in their base communities.”
Moreover, as designers and brands continue to explicitly embrace their values and political opinions, they become targets of criticism for hopping on the activism bandwagon, and risk losing the influence of their platform. Whether this approach is used to guarantee relevance amongst fast-fashion brands or to truly express designers’ beliefs, the business strategy and production process of the brand must align. Wearing a t-shirt that reads “Feminism” or “The Future is Female” isn’t empowering anyone when it was produced in a sweatshop by a company that lacks a female executive on its board. As to the $800 Dior “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirt which initiated numerous fast-fashion copies, Katharine Hamnett, the original t-shirt activist and designer of an organic and sustainable t-shirt collection, makes a striking argument as stated in The Telegraph: “A 450 quid t-shirt, [could] keep two cotton farming families going for a year,” and “the thing about t-shirts is, they don’t actually achieve anything unless you follow them up with pressure on your elected representative.” While it is crucial that designers and corporations follow environmental policies, and abide by moral safety standards, the roles of customers should not be forgotten. Consumers should investigate the foundation of companies, and make conscious contributions to brands whose business and production practices align with their preaching.
Thus, I conclude, as dress has become a self-proclaimed identity, it has the potential to make political noise. Just take a look at the 2018 red carpets where actors were draped in black garments in a show of solidarity for the Time's Up and #MeToo movements. The term politics not only indicates the actions of government, but also encompasses cultural change, sexual codes, and social progress. Throughout history, fashion has been used as a median for conveying political attitudes and social values. Fashion has addressed significant events and cultural movements, as well as essential issues such as nationalism, feminism, and ethnic identity. As consumers and individuals of society, we must become aware of our place in politics and our flirting with activism. We must consider the investment we are making into the exploitation of factory workers and cultural trends, and the executive seats of companies we are filling when purchasing a t-shirt from the local fast-fashion brand. So, yes, you heard right. It’s time we acknowledge and appreciate that fashion is, in fact, political.