Beyond the Fabric: Fashion Statements for a Cause
By: Natalia Finnis-Smart
The nucleus of fashion has always centered on expressionistic style, personal interpretation, and individualism that cultivates creativity and innovation. From runway collections that emote serious tones to whimsical lines filled with bright hues for a more lighthearted nature, fashion beholds the eye of its creator. Its ultimate purpose surrounds the symbolic vocalization of creating a statement and broadcasting these notions to the world.
Throughout fashion’s history, we can witness the intertwining of these interpretations with specific historical eras and current events that overall connect to one’s personal, moral, or political standing. This year’s Met Gala, In America: A Lexicon of Fashion, saw invitees grace the red carpet in looks that emulate American fashions throughout history with a nod to various facets of societal culture and representational diversity.
Climate change activist and model Quannah Chasinghorse, Vogue Mexico cover star, who also recently closed Prabal Gurung’s and Gabriela Hearst’s shows as part of her NYFW debut, made her Indigenous heritage known on ‘fashion’s biggest night out.’ Chasinghorse, of Hän Gwich and Oglala Lakota descent, wore a custom piece from Peter Dundas’ collection with REVOLVE. The look’s accompanying jewelry was bestowed on behalf of her aunt, formerly crowned Miss Navajo Nation, whose mission is to uphold and conserve Navajo values and culture while exemplifying her role of “grandmother, mother, aunt, and sister to the Navajo people.”
In an interview with Vogue Magazine, Chasinghorse expressed her sentiments about her Met Gala debut. “It was amazing to be there and represent Indigenous people. Before I got to the Met, I was listening to Native music and artists to feel more empowered, and I was extremely excited to show the world the beauty of native indigenity.”
The reckoning force as a model and climate activist—a recipient of the Spirit of Youth 2020 and The Women In Green Forum Youth Trailblazer 2021 Awards—also emphasized the necessity of highlighting her roots. “It’s extremely important to represent and bring authentic and true American culture to this year’s theme, as Native American culture has been appropriated and misrepresented in fashion so many times,” she stated to Vogue.
Chasinghorse’s advocations against Native American culture’s misappropriation within fashion are not one of exaggeration. One of many significant instances occurred when Victoria’s Secret came under fire during their annual runway show when models strutted the runway in lingerie and Native American headdresses. This incident was not an isolated blunder for the brand, continuously facing public scrutiny for its actions. Chasinghorse was also victorious in petitioning the United States Congress to legislate HR 4116 — also referred to as ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins’ by Gwich’in people — to prevent oil drilling in The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
For his Spring 2016 collection, Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder and creative director of Pyer Moss, debuted a powerful message on one of fashion’s most renowned stages: NYFW. His streetwear-infused assemblage consisted of pieces that served as an amplification to the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing police brutality African-Americans face disproportionately within this country at the hands of white law enforcement officers. His show sought to outface society’s conventional image of Black Americans as “the thug” and “the entertainer.”
“Breathe, breathe, breathe” and “I can’t breathe,”—the final plead by Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man choked to death by former NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo—were graffitied on the collection’s outwear jackets and shoes by artist Gregory Siff. The inclusion of fake blood on Raymond’s designs represented these unconscionable killings. Before the show’s start, a compilation of videos was shown of police officers violently attacking African-American men and women, including Eric Garner’s last moments.
“We were all put down on our knees, face down,” Raymond shared in an interview with Quartz after the collection’s debut. “The cop hand his hand on his gun the whole time and was threatening us with it, kind of like flexing for it,” he continued, describing his first encounter with a police officer at ten years old, after jumping a fence to play basketball.
Raymond’s experience, like the countless other traumatizing police encounters that Black individuals face in this country was the first of many. The footage was a means to the foreground and stressed the severity of this epidemic and has had to experience countless times.
However, Raymond’s show was met with opposition, citing that some “fashion and front-row regulars” were disconcerted about family members of police brutality victims (invited on Moss’ behalf), sitting in the front row simultaneously, and thus, did not attend. He labeled the situation as “disheartening” during his interview with The Guardian.
“I’m black, I’m a designer. I’m living in a time when this is happening,” he stated. “You’re 28 years old, you’re watching kids younger than you who are being killed by grown men who claim fear as an excuse.” Raymond is a recipient of a 2020 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award for American Menswear Designer of the Year.
Legendary French designer Jean Paul Gaultier, widely known as fashion’s enfant terrible due to his collections that have continuously pressed limitations, is also regarded for his acclimations towards LGBTQ+ culture throughout the years. Gaultier has consistently voiced his advocations for the LGBTQ+ community as an openly gay designer. He has also suffered the tragic loss of his long-time partner and former business associate, Francis Menuge, who passed away from AIDS in 1990. Gaultier esteems Menuge for pushing him to build a (fashion) empire because of his drive and creative genius. “I was against the codes we had in Paris,” he told OUT Magazine in 2012.
“Through clothes, I felt that you could say something. In my shows, I could show a different type of beauty. Through my collections, I tried different casting, different ways of walking, and I loved to show ambiguity. What is masculine, what is feminine, anyway? Why should men not show that they can be fragile or seductive? I am only happy when there is no discrimination.” Gaultier’s statements align to how our world, unfortunately, can be deeply unforgiving. In this age of “progression,” individuals still face immense hardships on personal and governmental levels simply for who they are and who they love.
For his Menswear Spring/Summer 1996 show Pin-Up Boys, Gaultier’s collection highlighted male sexuality within the LGBTQ+ community. Models graced the runway in strikingly hued and denim suits, which later became Gaultier’s most attributed debut fashions after former model David Fumero attired one of cobalt blue with an accompanying bow tie. A decade prior, Gaultier defied the norm and featured transgender models on his runways.
His championing of the LGBTQ+ community through his brand is also apparent within his various campaigns. In May of this year, RuPal’s Drag Race UK contestant and star Tayce was the face of Gaultier’s LaBelle perfume campaign. Music artist Lil Nas X, who has remained open and unapologetic about his sexuality, also recently collaborated with Gaultier on a collection that re-conceptualizes the designer’s “second-skin mesh top” as part of his Spring/Summer 2021 collection with a Nas X twist.
United States House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s alignment with political statement pieces became a prevalent discussion topic after her recent Met Gala debut. Ocasio-Cortez quickly trended online after she arrived in a white, Brother Vellies off-the-shoulder gown with the statement “Tax the Rich” in bold, red letters.
The congresswoman who has been adamant about the taxation of this country’s wealthiest defended her message after receiving backlash from those who deemed her Met Gala appearance as ‘hypocritical.’ Some viewed Ocasio-Cortez’s actions as holier-than-thou due to her attendance at an event with the wealthy individuals she consistently calls out. Others saw her move as a perfect combination of ironic humor that was necessary because of the event’s high-profile coverage.
In Ocasio-Cortez’s instance, similar to other forms of statement fashion, showcase how garment’s purposeful, symbolic representations intend on being the catalyst that sets the foundation to invoke conversation, establish awareness, and amplify these convictions that one cannot ignore.