The Politics of Fashion

No matter where you stand on the election, the fashion industry is deeply entrenched in global politics

It’s been nearly a week since Sophie Theallet penned an open letter about her choice not to dress Melania Trump, and naturally it garnered responses from editors (FU included). But that wasn’t enough—it never is. Many a publication went out looking for responses directly from other designers, and lo, WWD got one. Tommy Hilfiger told the outlet that he would be happy to dress the soon-to-be first lady. He also went on to tell the publication: “I don’t think people should become political about it.” Really? Why not?

Designers are becoming increasingly politically outspoken, as explored by FU’s Ashley W. Simpson when covering New York and London fashion weeks. Ditto to fashion publications, which, for the first time, appeared to cover election news through a sartorial lens. Some (like American Vogue and W) even took a position. Designers, writers, and everyone else in the fashion industry have every right to voice their political opinions as much as they have every right to stay mum about them. They have every right to support whichever candidates they choose, as well.

The issue, for this writer at least, is not the “rights” of fashion to get political—it’s whether or not it “should”. Should (or “should not”, as Mr. Hilfiger was quoted) implies that fashion itself is not political, that individuals within fashion impart politics on it. Well, that’s just not true.

Fashion is political, whether you want it to be or not. The industry does not live in an impervious bubble of superficiality, in which everything is champagne and air kisses. You cannot leave the real world at the door for the magic and wonder of Fabulous Dahlings who toss reams of fabric to the heavens while spewing Vreeland’s gospel of “Why don’t you?” Fashion takes place in the real world. It is affected by real world issues, and suffers real world consequences.

Take Brexit, for example. Putting immigration issues aside (at least for this particular argument), consider how trade deals are affected between England and the rest of the EU. Many designers source fabrics from across the continent, and then distribute their clothing to retailers worldwide. How does this political issue, which directly affects business practices, have nothing to do with fashion? Does the fashion industry run on its own secret economy?

Apologies, I shouldn’t have brought numbers into it—lord knows, we didn’t get into fashion because we were great at algebra. We’re the art freaks, and fashion, as many have so desperately been arguing on behalf of for decades, is a legitimate art from, non? Well, art is political—it has a voice, an opinion, a position. You can’t have it both ways, fashion—you’re either taken seriously, or you’re not.

And fashion should (there’s that verb again—the one that is synonymous with “obligation”) be taken seriously, because there’s a lot wrong with it.

Fashion is exploitive: Sweatshops continue to exist all over the world, with brands taking advantage of lower minimum wage laws in some countries, and turning a blind eye to even the most basic of background checks in terms of who is actually producing their clothes. All for profit, all for the bottom line, all at the expense of the unseen, unheard garment worker.

Fashion is hurting the environment: This industry is among the biggest polluters in the world. Between wasteful clothing practices and factories that seep dyes into bodies of water, major reform needs to be instituted regarding how large companies operate, and how consumers are informed about what they are buying.

Fashion is sexist: Any industry that equates an entire gender’s worth with beauty, and in turn sets rigid standards for what is beautiful, is sexist. Never mind the fact that an industry that largely caters to women is largely controlled by men. This is also only the tipping point in terms of discussing said beauty standards, which are ageist, ablest, sizeist, and racist.

Fashion is racist: Fashion’s issues with race and culture extend well beyond standards of beauty. The industry has big problems with cultural appropriation, as well as representation. The Fashion Spot analyzed the Spring 2017 shows across all four major fashion cities, and found that only 25.4 percent of all models were non-white. When diversity in the fashion industry is actually only one-quarter diverse, something is broken.

This all being said, fashion is a positive force for many. It’s one of the few industries that allows and promotes career mobility and support for women, and the LGBTQ community. Fashion is not just clothing—it’s a concept. It has long been used by marginalized groups to form a community, to form identities, and to provide solace. It is used to protest, to rebel, to redefine.  It is an industry filled with immigrants, and runs on globalization. Is it really surprising that people in the fashion industry might take issue with a political platform which threatens so many within the fashion community?

Fashion is not the fucking Matrix. We do not need to be awoken from a falsehood, we need to stop clinging to it. Yes, the weight of the issues that plague the industry are heavy, and anxiety inducing, and it is understandable that when it gets to be too much, it is easier to find comfort in safety of superficiality, glamour, and fantasy—fashion is a form of escapism, after all.

A dress will never solve the myriad of problems in the world. But through thoughtful discussion of how fashion and clothing interact with the different facets of global life (identity, trade, communication, civil rights), and contextualizing it within social constructs, we can begin to get to the heart of where these issues lie, or at least bring them to light.

Fashion can be intelligent—if we let it. If we continue to question the way people view our industry, and the way it operates. Voicing political opinions is the most basic step (and bare minimum) in terms of combating practices one does not agree with. But even those who choose to remain silent—which is a right—should not not try to deny that fashion is deeply entrenched in political issues. The world is spinning whether we acknowledge it or not.

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