Fashion – the world of glamour. A new “it bag” or trend colour every season. Fashion shows in Milan, Paris and New York. Fashion influencers presenting the newest items they “cannot live without” on a daily basis. This is what most of us associate with the term “fashion” – a billion dollar industry built on a superficial need going beyond just covering our bodies.
But fashion can be so much more than a short and superficial trend, or a piece of fabric covering our body. It is about expressing ourselves. But it is also a way of storytelling: What are the stories behind the clothes? Why do I wear this particular piece of garment? What does the item or brand stand for? I would even go as far as to say that fashion can be an expression of political views.
One of the most recent examples of using fashion to convey political messages was the fashion choices for the American President’s inauguration ceremony last week. At first sight, the style may be labelled “monochrome”: Vice-President Harris in head-to-toe purple, First Lady Dr. Biden in blue tones and former First Lady Obama in plum. But these choices were much more than just nice colour schemes. They were a carefully planned puzzle of messages.
Michelle Obama wore purple gloves as First Lady in 2013. An interesting colour choice for gloves. Maybe Mrs. Obama’s favourite colour? Maybe, but there is more to that. Purple is the colour of the National Woman’s Party of the United States which is also known as the suffragist organization. In a newsletter from 1913, the organization stated that purple stands for “loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause.”(1) Therefore, these gloves were probably a nod to the women’s movement. Purple seems to have become “the” colour of this year’s inauguration and was deliberately chosen in support of the movement. Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton wore bright purple at the inauguration ceremony, Michelle Obama opted for plum and Jill Biden opted for purple during the Covid memorial service.
It has been a tradition that American designers are worn to the President’s inauguration. This year, the concept was not only some kind of restoration after Melania Trump’s passion for European luxury brands but was also taken a step further. Brands and designers were chosen because of the people, stories and attitudes behind them. Jill Biden’s purple outfit for the memorial service was by Jonathan Cohen, an independent designer focusing on sustainability – one of the priorities of the newly elected President.
Kamala Harris’s outfits cast the spotlight to several Black independent designers. Her outfit for the Covid memorial service was designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond of the brand Pyer Moss. Her purple ensemble for the swearing-in-ceremony was by Christopher John Rogers and her outift for the evening by Sergio Hudson (who also designed Obama’s plum outfit).
In addition to supporting Black designers, another message was transported via fashion. It was probably no coincidence that Kerby Jean-Raymond was chosen for the Covid memorial service. The designer was among the first to distribute protective equipment during the pandemic and ran initiatives to raise money for businesses impacted by the lockdown.
This was a fairly recent example and there are many more throughout fashion history. At the beginning of the 20th century, women fought for their rights – at the very same time, they freed themselves from the corset and the “sans ventre”-style. (“Sans ventre” means “no stomach” stands for the hourglass figure created by wearing a corset.) The result was loose cuts. Later on, women even started to wear pants and cut their hair short to express their emancipation. In the 1960s, the mini skirt was another symbol for the women’s movement. Similar to today’s “my body, my right”, the mini skirt was a symbol of freedom. After the hourglass shape had a comeback in the 1950s, cuts in the 1960s became loose again. It was the time when the pill as birth control came up and the right to abortion was demanded.
I personally find this link between fashion and politics fascinating. And when I think about it, even today, fashion is still used as expression of our views. We may not be a Vice President at their inauguration but many of us opt for certain clothes to transport a message.
I remember that I had a picture of a Chanel 2.55 pinned above my desk when I started university. I told myself that if I ever make it, this would be the bag I would buy for myself. I cannot tell you why I picked that bag, but I guess it stood for luxury and success for me at that time. Furthermore, Coco Chanel was a woman who built up an incredible fashion empire.
Fast forward about 15 years, I still have not bought it. It was not because I did not reach the goals I had for myself when I was in my early twenties. The bag just somehow lost its appeal. I also read a few books about Coco Chanel herself and quite a few publications cited facts that the designer collaborated with the Nazis. This dampened my “hunger” for her designs. Moreover, I have to admit that I was never really a big fan of Karl Lagerfeld. The fashionistas may now cringe and stop reading my article. But I found many of his designs, shop windows, fashion shows and statements about women sexist. Furthermore, in my opinion, the bag has become a kind of mass product (a very expensive one indeed). Especially in Asia, it seems that you cannot live without a Chanel bag. Do I really want to spend so much money for a mass product without a soul? Or can I rather opt for products by independent designers, those with a message or those which really stand for unique craftmanship?
My attitude to fashion has changed over the years. I still love it – I love the magic about it, I love how great I feel in a beautiful design. But instead of supporting fast fashion and the newest trends or just another big brand name, I have started to think more about the who and what behind the products. I do a lot of research on brands and their production approaches, their commitment to ethics and sustainability and what do the designers themselves stand for. If I wear their items, what is the message I send? Needless to say, I have to like the designs. “Clothes make the man” (or the WOman) and they “make” us from the outside but also reflect our inside.
What do you think about links between fashion and politics? Do you see them as well or do you see fashion merely as a way to dress ourselves? I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
(1) The New York Times: Inauguration Fashion: What did it all mean?