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Fashion Meets Politics: 5 Classic Cases of Rabble-rousing

By Jackie Mallon

Nov 29, 2016


When Sophie Theallet refused to dress Melania Trump last week, because “The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by” it caused a media storm. Tommy Hilfiger then countered with “any designer should be proud to dress her” vapidly focusing on Melania Trump’s beauty to defend his statement. In an industry often considered frothy, where beauty “trumps” all else, we can get the impression that it is never the time or place for political engagement. Veteran designer, Caroline Herrera, even seems resigned to it: "I think that in two or three months they'll reach out, because it's fashion. You'll see everyone dressing Melania.”

Fashion as Switzerland

But with political discourse now pervasive to our daily lives (how much more conflict-ridden was this family Thanksgiving compared to other years?) and menacing figures and their previously marginalized parties rising in prominence both at home and abroad, has the time come for a fashion politics tussle? How can this massively influential industry turn a blind eye to the tide of global turbulence? How can it continue to focus on a pretty face, a pair of long legs, a sample size body in the face of increased hatred, racism, climate change denial?

No More Fashion Victim

Historically fashion has bravely climbed into the fray to take a stand on important issues, its featherweight reputation a handy camouflage when closing in on the adversary. On occasion it has even delivered the knock-out punch.

So after sifting through supermodels for PETA, an anti-fracking dame driving a military tank into Downing Street, Alexander McQueen’s Fall 1995 Highland Rape, Gaultier’s men in skirts from 1984, a balaclava-clad Kate Moss supporting Pussy Riot...here are the top five collisions of fashion and politics:

5. In 1984, British designer Katherine Hamnett made quite the statement when meeting then U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Just as she approached her, she removed her jacket, revealing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “58 percent DON’T WANT PERSHING” in reference to the British people’s rejection of Thatcher’s controversial plan to station nuclear missiles in the U.K. The PM apparently was heard to make a stunned noise in the back of her throat at the bold affront, and it is said that Hamnett’s business subsequently underwent a crippling audit as punishment for her insubordination. But her place in fashion history was sealed and a long career in fashion activism inaugurated.

4. In 1964, U.S based designer Rudi Gernreich created the monokini, which was basically a high-waisted bikini bottom with shoe-string shoulder straps, thus arguably becoming the designer who laid the groundwork for the #FreeTheNipple movement that erupted on Instagram over half a century later. It launched during the early years of women’s liberation, only a handful of years after women squeezed their breasts into undergarments that resembled pointy missiles, arguably presenting themselves as either sexual plaything or baby-making machine. The monokini promoted a new self-awareness and emancipation that threatened institutions from the Vatican to the Republican Party, and led to bans in France, and arrests in the U.S. for anyone who wore one in public.

3. While on the topic of pointy breasts, let’s revisit Christian Dior’s “The New Look” of 1947 which will be forever known as a celebration of the end of wartime’s gloomy rationing, ushering in a new era of abundance as epitomized by the yards of fabric used to make the skirt. It also announced Paris’s return to the forefront of fashion having been isolated from the rest of the world and particularly the U.S. throughout much of the conflict. It also conveys a third, more subliminal, message: it encourages women to go back to being their beautiful feminine selves by refocusing emphasis on the nipped waist and exaggerated breast. Gone are the multi-pocketed, sturdy, denim overalls of Rosie The Riveter. The new look, ladies, communicated a return to the kitchen was in order, so leave the factory labor to the menfolk and slip back into your stiletto pumps.

2. Perhaps the most eerie political statement made by a fashion designer might be the Fall 2001 collection presented during New York Fashion Week by the young prodigy/provocateur Miguel Adrovar who sent westernized hijabs, burqas, caftans and turbans down the runway. A goat was also scheduled but refused to walk. It’s tempting to imagine he was some sort of seer, the collection a harbinger of what was to come. Fashion designers actively seek to capture the zeitgeist in their work and provoke social commentary. By entitling his collection “Utopia”, one could argue he sought to unite the East and West, to bring the hijab into a metropolitan setting and therefore make it less threatening by divesting it of its embedded politics so abhorrent to many in the West... Two days after the show, the Twin Towers were attacked and Adrovar underwent investigation by the CIA.

1. For Spring 2009 Paris designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, on a runway painted with blue sky and fluffy white clouds, showed a dress emblazoned with a grinning image of the newly elected President of the United States, Barack Obama, against a sunny yellow background. On the back of the dress, the historic words of Martin Luther King: I have a dream today. That’s a twofer, a double whammy of a political statement, and therefore a fitting head of the list. As we prepare to bid goodbye to this truly historic First Couple, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we fall, we can all agree their style credentials will unequivocally prove hard to beat.

Photos from KatherineHamnett.com, Dior.com, Facebook pages of John-Charles de Castelbajac and Michelle Obama