Why the Fashion Media is Important to the Political Conversation

Commentary on the role of clothing is breaking down how hate groups are trying to normalize themselves

We’re living in dark times. The past year has revealed that hatred is not only alive and well, but that it currently feels emboldened to take to the streets. Thanks to the internet, we’re more informed than ever, and its up-to-the-minute aspect allows for media outlets to react to events in real time. And everyone—including fashion publications—wants to chime in.

Does the fashion media have a place in the conversation? Absolutely. As we’ve previously discussed, fashion is inherently political. This has become increasingly obvious over the past year, and fashion journalists and writers, who are skilled at dissecting apparel and its usage, are in an excellent position to hammer home the point that clothes aren’t “just” clothes. While many people have been quick to dismiss fashion commentary, writers are getting better and better at explaining the social implications of clothing.

We’ve seen the fashion press breaking down the importance of women’s suits (particularly in regards to female political figures like Hillary Clinton), explaining how and why it is a symbol of fitting into a realm of power, and the subtle importance of color choices. We’ve also seen the fashion press calling out “Marie Antoinette” moments, criticizing the conspicuously extravagant wares of the First Lady, and most recently, Louise Linton.

But fashion media’s most necessary triumph has been reporting on the concerted effort from hate groups to rebrand themselves, and gain legitimacy as part of the national political conversation through the use of clothing.

As far back as last November, The Cut ran a story about how the alt-right was using suits as a propaganda tool. “As the alt-right works to legitimize itself—to expand the range of acceptable political discourse and integrate fascist ideas into mainstream thinking—it’s important for us to understand how extremists can use style as a tool to disarm opponents,” warned writer Anna Silman. In July, Slate reported that Fred Perry was denouncing the “Proud Boys” hate group after they named the brand’s polo shirts part of their official uniform. 

But the polo shirt’s adoption by racists rose to national attention thanks to its ubiquitous appearance on torch-carrying protestors in Charlottesville. Suddenly, everyone from Twitter users to late-night comedians were discussing how the groups were dressed. But it was fashion journalists that really took it seriously.

Nylon did a deep-dive into white supremacist websites, reporting on how the sites were guiding their members on how to dress, stressing the importance of appearing normal. “What the movement has learned is that without the sartorial trappings of mainstream respectability, their ideas would be tossed aside as the ramblings of a radical few,” wrote Elena Sheppard. Meanwhile, Racked published a detailed exploration of the history of American preppy-ness, and how the evolution of the look (specifically involving the rise of the polo shirt) is built off the work of Jewish designers—something overlooked by those chanting anti-Semitic remarks at rallies.

One of the most nuanced takes of course came from The Washington Post‘s Robin Givhan, who not only detailed the alt-right’s efforts to be sartorially appealing, but also contextualized the importance of fashion in perception. “White nationalists are moving through communities cloaked in the most mundane, banal kind of fashion,” she said. “Clothes that do not inspire a double-take. Clothes that are acceptable and appropriate. Clothes that make them look like they belong. And the fashion industry has yet to tell them that they do not.”

So where do we (the fashion industry as a whole) go from here? Givhan hit the nail on the head: Designers and more in the fashion industry need to call out the problem by name. It’s surprising that many designers who had no problem speaking out against dressing the First Lady are not specifically calling out hate groups, and as a journalist, Givhan is right to hold them accountable. In the meantime, the fashion media should continue to do a fine job of poking holes into any attempt at the normalization of white nationalists, white supremacists, and Nazis. Hatred is not normal.

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