Both fashion and politics have been inextricably linked since biblical times, when prophets laid out dress codes separating saints from sinners. However, let’s not go that far back in time. In the 1960’s political developments affected fashion in various ways; black civil rights, women’s liberation, gay rights, and freedom of speech to name a few. The debates surrounding the relationship between fashion and politics have brought rich perspectives on the topic. To an extent it would be naive to think that fashion and politics don’t go hand in hand, so in my opinion politics influences fashion and fashion can influence politics, so here’s how fashioning politics is inherently possible…
Consider this, the civil rights movements in the 1960’s embraced fashion that fostered a distinctly African-American stylistic identity. The Black Muslim community, whose ethic of self-worth and separation was expressed in formal dress, especially bow ties and dark suits worn by men in the Nation of Islam then. The influence of that style is still being adapted and recreated with artist such as Jidenna, setting a trend that might not have started with him.
Within this context, both the political and social significance of Black style are important. Finally even Marvel recognised the need to represent the legacy of African style, what a popular culture milestone! The costume style of characters in the Black Panther were heavily linked to identity, race and culture. It challenges our uncomplicated Western understandings of Africa, notice in the film how even when the Black Panther is not on superhero duty, he wears dapper suits or Kafans outfits – representing different strands of Black style.
Especially for the African Diasporas, dress has always had political connotations, and fashion is a reaction and reflection of current events, therefore naturally fashion goes hand in hand with today’s politics. If we go beneath the surface of clothing, the relationship between fashion and politics in our society is something we cannot deny. Clothes have come to reflect the disintegration of traditional social boundaries and a fashion culture defined by the youth. Nevertheless, some don’t understand how clothes can be used to persuade people and convey certain thoughts and ideas, some believe fashion has no place in politics.
In our current climate, political debates are inescapable; from Trump to Brexit, it seems like we are stuck in a void of continual political conversation and controversy. We have seen how fashion has been used time and time again as a branding tool for political agendas or social change. Fashion is not purely a matter of aesthetics, but something much more significant, it affects politics in many ways that should not be discredited or ignored. So maybe we can actually judge a book by it’s cover, a politician by his words [yes we all would love to believe the words of our leaders], an artist by their lyrics, a movie from it’s poster and our personality from our style. The clothes we wear may not always be who we are, sometimes they are who we aspire to be or admire, other times how we want to be perceived, how we feel or relate to a political issue.
We have been experiencing one of the most politically and culturally turbulent years: the continued conversation around cultural appropriation, Black Lives Matter, and the US elections all make headlines daily. Interestingly, during the time leading up to the US presidential election there were sudden increases on the emphasis and focus on the fashion choices of politicians. Turns out what Hillary Clinton wears matters, throughout her campaign she also detoured into conversations about fashion, which I believe helped her seem more rounded. This makes me question her authenticity…while fashion is probably the least of Clinton’s concern (I hope), it has been proven several times that it is was used as a weapon at her advantage. While it is clear that Clinton may not share an overt love of clothes, she certainly recognises their value. Since the elections, her attitude towards fashion changed. Even appearing in a publication she previously would avoid, Vogue! Suddenly jewellery, leather and the colour of pants began to matter too.
We think we just listen to the issues politicians stand for, when in fact we judge them based on their looks as well. The way a politician chooses to dress automatically conjures an image and conveys a message about that person. For years people have used fashion to identify with social status and groups, from the Roma times to the last presidential elections, fashion is still being used to carry ones self-image as well as political stature. Fashion has the power to sculpt an image and transmit a message, which is ultimately what politicians seek to achieve.
Clothes are so much more than something we simply wear, and everywhere in the world there is a close connection between the clothes we wear and our political expression. I think where it starts to become an issue is when people start making political decisions because it’s the “trendy choice” that should make us all uncomfortable.
So you see there is no denying that fashion can be used as a tool to a politician’s advantage and fashion can and has been used to suppress other groups of people. An example so close to my heart, Laurence Rossignol, the French Minister for women’s rights, fired shots at what became the fashion lightning rod: the Burkini.
Ms. Rossignol alongside many critiques in 2016 scolded designers from Marks & Spencer to Dolce & Gabbana for catering to the Muslim market by offering full-body swimsuits and high-fashion Hijabs, accusing them of “promoting women’s bodies being locked up.” I mean a particular item of dress had become a symbol of the debate over the balance between enlightenment values and civil society, and whether freedom includes the freedom to wear whatever you want.
Whether we like it or not a person can determine a lot from your wardrobe, however should we even be thinking this way? Is it fair to other groups who have negative stereotypes attached to them, or could fashion show people that these stereotypes are wrong. We should all reject the misconception that fashion is just about clothes, especially when every single person makes a choice of what to wear, and those decisions are informed by the politics, economics, emotion, and culture.
No matter how much people like to deny it, everyone cares about their self-image and wants to express a statement. Whether that wardrobe says, “This pussy grabs back” to the establishment or the ever so popular “I can’t be bothered about fashion” look, it’s still an expression, therefore fashion can act as a vessel of information and a cover to our own individual book.
While we are often warned about making snap judgments, to not judge a book by its cover, there are pieces of information to be gained from our perception of someone’s outward appearance. A book’s cover is designed to sell the product with the use of colours and graphics, to identify the product with its content, attracting it to its demographic, no difference from what clothes do.
These are times of heightened political conversations and fashion is a language like any other, complicated, limitless, full of inherent contradictions and messy power relations, oppressive yet liberating. The conversations may be chaotic, but they are still worth having. If after all this you still think fashion and politics have no link to each other, I think you underestimated the power of what you can create or might be a part of creating. So try this experiment next time you go for a conference, don’t go in a suit, don’t throw on a blazer or look smart, by all means please go in track suit or night wear and tell me how it went! You might be surprised.
Written By Aisha Shushi Sambo