Cool to Be Controversial: Politics as Fashion
In today’s social-digital ecosystem, it’s easier than ever to know the news. However, for today’s connected consumer, simply keeping up is no longer enough: according to Forbes, Millennials not only value what’s going on, but also desire to take a stance on public issues. This desire has manifested itself in society’s most visible medium of expression: fashion.
Nowhere was this more evident than this September’s New York Fashion Week (NYFW). According to The New York Times, Politics seemed to be the unofficial theme of this year’s event. The week opened with a fundraiser for the Hillary Clinton campaign. Anna Wintour, as co-host, presented the audience with a collection of the many Hillary-inspired tees that have appeared in the fashion industry this year, featuring work from designers such as Marc Jacobs, Diane Von Furstenberg, Marcus Wainwright, and more.
While the event was successful, in hindsight it seems like quite a risk for the first event of NYFW to be one that could very well spark controversy instead of sales. Instead, risky brand decisions like these are treated with respect by a new, politically-motivated audience. In today’s world, empowered designers and shoppers are unafraid to embrace politics as fashion, amplifying their voice in a whole new way.
This “political fashion cycle” phenomenon extend far beyond the election: after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond designed a T-shirt featuring the names of police brutality victims opposite the phrase “They have names.”
Speaking to the The New York Times, Jean-Raymond commented on his design: “I’m surprised I had the nerve to go through with it. Friends told me not to, because we knew there would be people who would attack me as making money at other people’s expense. But then, I thought: ‘The option is to do this or do nothing. And doing nothing is worse.’ So we decided to do it as a way to raise money and awareness.”
In fact, the idea of politics of fashion isn't even limited to the United States: an ocean away, Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri’s stole the show at this fall’s Paris Fashion week by walking a model with a “We should all be feminists” graphic tee. Chiuri earned a standing ovation from a star-studded crowd including industry heavyweights like Rihanna and Kate Moss.
Chirui’s statement signifies a wider shift within the industry towards clothing as the embodiment of a designer’s total perspective, politics include. Speaking to The New York Times this September, Maxwell Osborne commented on the motivations behind his then-brand new “Make Herstory” tee design: “as designers, our voices are only as loud as what we can do, and what we can do is design clothes.” Designers have embraced their power to project views to the public through their fashion labels, recognizing that fashion is an important medium for political change.
Politically-charged fashion show like Dior’s are only the starting point of today’s political fashion cycle. High-fashion designers influence public figures like Rihanna and Kate Moss, who inspire street style fashion labels, who, finally, inspire the general public. Although social movements inspired by fashion is by no means a new idea, the trend cycle described above once took years to trickle all the way down. Now, thanks to the Internet and visually-driven social media like Instagram, the cycle has both accelerated and become more effective, reaching more consumers and brands alike. T-shirts like Urban Outfitters’ “IDK Not Trump Tho 2016” and “Feel the Bern” are ostensibly designed for campaign rallies, but have also earned a bonafide place in casual fashion all their own. Thanks to, generational tastes, the co-sign of the fashion industry, and the presence of a political fashion cycle, it may well indeed be fashionable to be political.
Although brands wield tremendous power over this cycle since they create the political fashions themselves, celebrity influencers (another integral part of this cycle) have another power all their own: they decide whether a trend lives or dies. For example, designer Marc Jacobs made a political statement by wearing a Hillary Clinton T-shirt at NYFW, one of his own designs that Kendall Jenner soon wore (and Instagrammed) as well. This celebrity co-sign broadcast the designer’s views to the many millions who follow a celebrity’s Instagram account, exponentially increasing the reach of their message past just a fashion week runway.
Thanks to participation-focused generations around the world, fashion labels have license to break rules and start trends differently than they ever have before: by weaving political views into the fabric of every garment. While the approaching winter may the covered tees until next spring, the messages remain clear: politics and fashion go hand in hand.