Style Column: The civil union of fashion and politics

by Mia Zarrella / Beacon Correspondent • November 10, 2016

Fashion has been exceptionally political this year.

The campaigns, debates, and scandals leading up to the result of this 2016 election created a  divide in the American people, but also inspired members of the fashion industry to promote their favorite candidate and encourage citizens to vote.

On Oct. 18, Vogue endorsed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. This is the first time in its 124 years that the magazine has endorsed a presidential contender.

Below a 1993 Annie Leibovitz portrait of Clinton, Vogue wrote, “Editors in chief have made their opinions known from time to time, but the magazine has never spoken in an election with a single voice. Given the profound stakes of this one, and the history that stands to be made, we feel that should change.”

The readers’ reactions online ranged from celebratory to outrage. Some stated they were going to become new subscribers to the publication, while others stated they were forever unsubscribing. After sifting through the 97 article comments, I started thinking about the important role fashion plays in politics, and how that role is so often overlooked.

One reader, @Connie05, triggered me especially when they commented, “Stick to fashion! For the love of all things sacred, stick to fashion. I buy your magazine for fashion and stylist and current trends in the beauty business not to endorse candidates...Glad to know where your publication stands. I cancelled my subscription.”

The typos, by the way, are @Connie05’s, not mine.

And @Connie05 wasn’t alone. Most unhappy readers had three things to say: stick to fashion, stay out of politics, and Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be president.

I understand that readers might be upset that Vogue endorsed a candidate they don’t like. Yet suggesting a fashion magazine has no role discussing politics and should “stick to fashion” is disputable.

Fashion and politics are not mutually exclusive. In fact, fashion is inherently political as designs are born from the designer’s culture, and style is determined by a person’s values and beliefs. Not to mention a fashion company’s own set of laws and ethics: who it employs, how much it pays its employees, what materials the garments are made of, etc.  All are determined by politics and speak to the company’s bureaucracy and legislation.

Fashion has been changing the political and social culture for centuries.

When Levi Strauss first designed Lady’s Levis in 1933, women could finally wear jeans made for their bodies, while working in the yard or farm. Then, in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent created Le Smoking pantsuit, allowing women to wear pants in a formal setting. These designers were influenced by feminist movements toward gender equality.

In 1994, the cruelty-free organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) broadcasted an advertisement protesting the use of animal fur in clothing. Supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz posed nude with the slogan, “We’d rather go naked than wear fur.” Though PETA has a reputation for being radical in its scare tactics to promote animal rights, this was a tasteful advertisement that used style and beauty icons to promote change through clothing.

In 2013, after neighborhood watch guard George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old, black T-shirts reading “Black Lives Matter” in white font were the uniform of what would become the Black Lives Matter movement. The recognizable shirts became a way to share and vocalize the need for racial equality.

And in September 2015, Kerby Jean-Raymond, designer for Pyer Moss, produced a short film about police brutality and racial injustice that aired during his New York Fashion Week show. Earlier that year, Jean-Raymond designed the “They Have Names” shirts that list the names of those wrongfully and/or brutally killed by policemen. The profits went to the American Civil Liberties Union.

And this year—an election year—the trend continued with a fervent sense of urgency to get Americans to vote.

Opening Ceremony’s Fall II and Winter 2016 New York Fashion Week show was a mock-pageant featuring comedians like Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and Whoopi Goldberg, who gave commentary on the democratic process. The show, dubbed “Pageant of the People,” had real voter registration booths on set while a dozen of A-list comedians talked on issues of immigration, feminism, economic inequality, police brutality, gender discrimination, and more. In its show notes, Opening Ceremony wrote: “No decisions we make this year are as critical as the ones our country will consider on election day.”  

The same week as Opening Ceremony’s show, Vogue hosted a Hillary Clinton campaign fundraiser. The event was organized by Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and Huma Abedin, the vice chairperson of Clinton’s 2016 campaign. In the spirit of NYFW New York Fashion Week, 15 designers, including Diane von Furstenburg, Marc Jacobs, Jason Wu, Joseph Altuzarra, and Tory Burch, featured designs for the Democratic Party nominee. The designers all created T-shirts showing they are with her—designs which can be purchased from Clinton’s website. The collection was dubbed “Made For History” to underline the possibility of a woman being elected president of the United States.

In an industry that thrives on appearances, to design a shirt that promotes one presidential candidate polarizes consumers. Yet it seems that during this high-stakes election year, designers and public figures are taking that risk.
 
The night of the third presidential debate, singer Rihanna wore a $35 Trapvilla T-shirt with a screen-printed image of Hillary Clinton wearing a Yankees hat while serving as New York’s senator. She shared two pictures of the shirt to her 45.6 million Instagram followers. Each post received over 1 million likes and between 4,000 to 8,000 comments.

Those who have the gusto to support or defame a candidate on their chest offer themselves up to scrutiny, but also has the ability to influence. Fashion is a platform for communication, a utility for expression. Therefore, naturally, it makes sense for it to be used to spread political beliefs.

As you can see, @Connie05, fashion has always been political, from the moment women started wearing pants to when men started wearing dresses, from the first Black Lives Matter T-shirt to the “Made For History” clothing line.

When we read about style and trends and when we go onto Instagram or flip through a magazine, there are political connotations. As long as politics are present, fashion will remain the powerful force it is today.