For decades, fashion journalists have been chronicling the outfits of First Ladies, Prime Minister’s wives and the royals. They track their sartorial strategies on the global stage of international politics and diplomacy. On their visits to foreign lands, do they respect the host country’s dress customs and norms? Do they choose to wear a designer from that country? Or do they stand patriotic and wear a home-grown brand? And what does it even matter?
Fashion is an extremely powerful means of non-verbal communication. World Leaders and associates can use clothing as much as speech and action to shape the public’s perception of their values, their belief system and their policies. Attire that references and celebrates in someway our identities in particular, influences our judgment of that political figure, sending us cues that subconsciously inform our opinion of what they stand for.
When Melania Trump recently wore a black, lace, knee-length dress on an overseas trip to the Vatican, she showed recognition and respect for the Pope and Catholic tradition. Before the Trump election, throughout the Clinton Campaign, Hillary allegedly consulted American Vogue Editor, Anna Wintour, on dress by American designers. Clinton was frequently photographed sporting jumpsuits and blazers by Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren. The message was loud and clear. It was a recurring display of appreciation for and pride in national talent.
When we identify with a dignitary’s values, either because they relate to our own culture or embrace it where different, that makes us feel good and though we may fail to recognise it or be too ashamed to admit it, we become more forgiving of their perceived shortcomings, poor economic and social decision-making.
But what if we no longer want to just receive a message, but to have our own say?
The rise of populism gives the ordinary person a voice, or in this case, a wardrobe. More than ever, the people are looking to fashion to make their own political statements and fashion houses are starting to accommodate politically-angled self-expression through design and PR power that supports protest, activism, social inclusion and environmental protection.
The Pussyhat Project was the brainchild of LA-based, Krista Suh, Jayna Zweiman, and Kat Coyle of the Little Knittery. They created a simple pattern which enabled interested parties to knit a hat with two cat ears. This soon became the emblem of the International Women’s March. Millions of civilians wore one while demonstrating for women’s rights on Trump’s first day in office. It was a fashion response by the people to his derogatory and demeaning remarks about women. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything…Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything”.
Similarly, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Creative Designer of global, fashion brand Dior, made an impassioned plea for gender equality. She sent a model down the runway with a t-shirt that prominently featured the slogan, “We should all be feminists”. The design was based on a TED Talk by author, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, that had gone viral.
Speaking of, what continues to prevail in the media are headlines with nasty comments on the Islamic religion. Really the dialogue should focus on extremism. The two are not synonymous and do not hold the same meaning, but their conflation has resulted in xenophobia towards those that believe in the Muslim faith. Despite this, brands such as Dolce & Gabanna, Nike and Marks & Spencer are standing strong in defying that.
Last year, D&G produced its debut hijab and abaya collection with loose-fitting, full-length, flowy garments and headscarves for the Muslim woman. Nike released its ‘pro hijab’ sportswear line, and Marks & Spencer, the burkini, enabling Muslim women to retain their modesty while in a swimsuit.
But it’s not just human rights at the forefront of fashion. Having vowed to never use animal produce in her clothing, to this day, Stella McCartney remains loyal to her commitment against fur and leather. Rearing animals for food and fashion guzzles a huge amount of the earth’s resources, land, energy and water and causes suffering to nature’s creatures and the environment.
So, maybe fashion has always been political. What’s different now I’d suggest is the heightened awareness not just by political figures and their advisors but by consumers of the choices that they can make to stand for a cause through their clothing, and of fashion designers that now support this means of expression on a mass scale.