How Fashion is Inherently Political
By: Namra Khan
We’ve read the headlines: injustice, police brutality, and climate change. In times like these, fashion-loving activists feel frustrated. How can we change the world and simultaneously support the fashion industry—an industry often seen as frivolous, escapist, and elitist? It’s often overlooked that fashion has and continues to be, political in many dynamic ways.
For the love of the Queen
From the beginning of time, fashion has been a vehicle for mobilizing political ideologies in a time when women couldn’t vote. The material of the clothing worn represented what trade alliances and political allegiances the wearer held.
Take, for example, the Duchy of Burgundy’s woolen suits, worn in the 1400s to support the alliance between France and England. Centuries later, during the Seven Year War between France and England, the English sought to cripple the world-renowned French silk industry. They boycotted French silk, paving the way for many London silk designers to emerge. To wear silk was to take a meaningful political stance.
During the American Revolution, women supported liberation from the British by closing their wallets to English silk and patronizing an emerging American silk industry. Later, American silk would be offered to Marie Antoinette, and not to the Queen of England, to represent a shifting of political allegiances, solidifying the Franco-American alliance.
Politics on the Runway
In today’s world, fashion continues to be just as political. Who would have thought that Hillary Clinton’s American-made Argent pantsuits would be a political talking point for supporters?
Political dissent has even reached the runway. In response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, designer Prabal Gurung sent sashes with the question “Who gets to be American?” down the runway. Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond created clothes focused on the over-policing of Black Americans for label Pyer Moss with shirts that read “Stop calling 911 on the culture”. Christian Siriano, a designer known for his body inclusivity, displayed clothing with the Depeche Mode lyric “People are People”.
It is clear to see that fashion has become something far from the elitist escapism it appears to embody. Designer Prabal Gurung sums this up in a Vanity Fair interview:
“In the good old days, fashion was an escape and a fantasy, and all of that is gone. The world we live in is so uncertain, people are really taking to action.”
Now, consumers are opting to shop sustainably to avoid supporting fast fashion brands. Who knew that thrift jeans and sustainable cotton tees could challenge unethical international trade practices and climate change? With the Trump administration choosing to exit the Paris Agreement, and young climate activists like Greta Thunberg and Isra Hirsi taking center stage, the clothes you wear are more political than ever.
Sustainable fashion tackles governmental failure when it comes to human rights. The fast fashion industry is infamous for its dependence on systemic discrimination. Women working in developing countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, who make the mass-produced clothes, are not given access to the same rights and privileges afforded to Western women who end up wearing the clothes.
Tools like Fashion Revolution’s annual fashion transparency index arm consumers with information on what companies are utilizing unjust labor and environmental practices to fuel their supply chains. Consumers get political in choosing whether or not they want to add to the problem that governments and businesses are indirectly spearheading or helping solve.
Fashion and politics intertwine, yet again, with consumers refusing to wear brands that do not adhere to their political beliefs, particularly racist brands. With the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, brands are being “canceled” by fashion lovers for using performative activism, while hiring little to no Black professionals and creating toxic work environments for Black people and People of Color (Thank you, Diet Prada).
Fashion is inherently political. From the silk wars of the 1400s to the sustainable fashion revolution of the present day, there is one common thread that politically mobilizes fashion: the consumer. Fashion is and can continue to be an avenue for political change, and what you choose to wear, where you spend your money, and companies you choose to promote and work for-are tributaries for political action.