Racism, gender equality, homophobia, sexual harassment… From Black Lives Matter to Me Too, our society is marked by a multiplication of cultural demands, finding an international echo. There’s change in the air, all the more since Donald Trump has come to power…
Fashion is said to be a reflection of a society, a sort of Polaroid of a given era. However, when the latter seems to be making profound progress, can it translate its struggles? Tell its revolts…?
Clothing as a sign of political affiliation
What could be more obvious to the human eye than what you wear? When you meet a stranger, isn’t his outfit one of the first things you see of him? In this sense, adopting an identity look finds all its logic. As a way of saying “you can’t escape my ideas”.
This is not a new phenomenon, particularly in France. During the Revolution, the insurgents displayed their belonging with the cockade, a sort of tricolour ribbon. It even became a propaganda tool, when its wearing was made compulsory in 1792. That is to say the political power that a simple accessory can have.
Almost two centuries later, feminists adopted the miniskirt as a true symbol of freedom. At the same time, the Black Panthers fought for their right, leather jacket on the back and black beret on the head.
More recently, on the eve of the passage of legislation restricting access to abortion in the United States, several women march past the Senate, dressed as the scarlet maid of The Handmaid’s Tale — a dystopic work where ladies are reduced to the status of a walking uterus. When a TV series turns into a contestation figure…
The T-shirt, a medium like any other
From the advent of skateboard culture and hip-hop in the 80s, screen-printed t-shirts were installed on racks, then podiums. However, their history is directly linked to politics. Before the public discovered them, their invention was credited to the US Army. Their were introduced to the rest of the world with Thomas E. Dewey, candidate to the White House who used them as campaign material.
Since the 1980s, designer Katherine Hamnet has even made it her trademark. Anti-nuclear, pro-choice, anti-Brexit slogans: her opinions are displayed on 100% cotton. Walter Van Beirendonck, in reaction to ISIS, drawed a PVC tee adorned with a “Stop terrorising our world”. Vivienne Westwood regularly transforms this piece into a billboard in its own right, with a great deal of Climate Revolution flocking. A resounding statement in the face of the failures of COP 21-22-23.
Taking the simplest item from the wardrobe and elevating it to the rank of a manifesto is quite significant: the affirmation of one’s ideas through style is thus made accessible to all, beyond class or social origin.
Brands fighting to the core
From ready-to-wear to haute couture, some labels fully integrate their claims into their DNA. How can we forget the Paris obelisk condomed-up by United Colours of Benetton (in partnership with Act’Up, a French charity), warning about HIV at a time when we still preferred to ignore it?
From his beginning, Jean-Paul Gaultier has combined the choice of his models with a message: plus-size models in favor of body positivism, men in stilettos advocating another version of virility, or third age muse against youth-culture, all treaded his podium.
In its own way, Versace is a brand that embraces femininity in all its power, making sensuality and seduction proud weapons.
Du prêt-à-porter à la haute-couture, certains labels intègrent pleinement la revendication à leur ADN. Comment oublier l’obélisque encapoté par United Colours of Benetton (en partenariat avec l’association Act’Up), alertant sur le VIH à une époque où l’on préférait encore l’ignorer ?
Dans un autre registre, Jean-Paul Gaultier allie très tôt le choix de ses mannequins à un message : modèles plus-size en faveur du body positivism, hommes en talon aiguille prônant une autre version de la virilité ou égérie du troisième âge anti-jeunisme, tous foulent son podium.
De même, Versace s’impose comme une marque embrassant la féminité dans tout son pouvoir, faisant de la sensualité et de la séduction des armes qui s’arborent fièrement.
A reach that comes with limits
When Maria Grazia Chiuri, just appointed artistic director of Dior, chose the “We should all be feminists” print, she probably didn’t know that it would be turned the holy grail of Instagram fashionistas. Same when the brand appropriated the Black Panthers beret: if the approach was probably to divert it into a feminist rallying sign, it ended up copied by Asos for 15 € — far from the ideals of Malcom X.
Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the Golden Globes adopted a full black dress code to honour victims of sexual harassment. In this case, what about those diamonds rivers and rings that could have made a maharaja look like a slum kid? At best, call it clumsy. At worst, a publicity move that simply spared us a ballet of taffeta layette and princess dresses.
At the end of the day, can business and political commitment live together? Does the capitalisation of a brand on a cultural debate deprive it of its legitimacy? Concerns that have less place in a Do It Yourself spirit, like the one in which punks distinguished themselves a few decades ago: a vision freeing itself from any tendency, to translate the very essence of its revolt.
So, can fashion solve injustices? No, of course not. On the other hand, it has a unique power: to attract attention and make an impression. Well, until its aesthetic is made mainstream… •