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2 March 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 2:44pm

Dress codes: can there be a productive relationship between politics and fashion?

Political fashion has never been straightforward.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

A committee room in the House of Lords is spilling over with fabric pens, felt, badges, transfer paper, and political idealism. This revolutionary aesthetic sits uncomfortably in the wood-paneled walls of the Palace of Westminster, something that our host, Baroness Lola Young, acknowledges with a smile. “As you might be able to tell from the decor,” she says, “this is not the usual kind of event we have here. Which is brilliant.”

The I Stood Up event, from the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, seeks to prompt first-time voters to “use fashion to communicate political thoughts”. The organisers eagerly encourage everyone to state their political ideals by altering a T Shirt, already branded with the CSF’s ‘I Stood Up’ logo. I’m given a leaflet which tells me to express my “concerns and ideas within one of five themes”, the bolded number instantly reminding me of exam papers and overdue library fines. I can’t help but feel that this state-condoned rebellion is oxymoronic, if well-intentioned. 

Zia Ahmed, a young poet invited to speak, neatly captures the absurdity of being instructed to communicate concrete political stances in a single item of clothing in his poem ‘Ideas for images on a climate change awareness T shirt’. The ideas include, “6. Penguin in a Kim Kardashian pose #savetheatlantic” and “13. Messi repeatedly being tackled by a carbon footprint”.

But the relationship between politics and fashion has always had wider inherent complications. From the size of an Elizabethan ruff to the logos on monogrammed luggage, fashion functions as a kind of text from which status, identity, and values can all be read. It’s an inescapable vehicle for self expression and alignment with social groups, from the Default Man in his monochrome suit (the “aesthetic of seriousness”) to queer fashions subverting the gender binary, making the clothes we wear a powerful instrument for dissent. 

Yet, at the same time, this expressive tool is fundamentally part of a pervasive process of commodification that works to sanitise and standardise once subversive fashions. Fashion is often used with great effect by oppressed groups to shape a social and politically visible identity, but frequently then subjugated and homogenised by the commodifying forces of the fashion industry. We see this in the cultural appropriation of black youth trends, the laughably ignorant feminist catwalk from Chanel (can anyone else figure out what “tweed is better than tweet” means?), and the farcical existence of sweatshop manufactured “This is what a feminist looks like” shirts. The capitalist pressure behind fashion enables it to usurp the progressive and hollow out all its political clout, neatly packaging it as a contemporary lifestyle choice.

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Young women and men are more than capable of exploring these tensions between self-expression and consumerism. Tavi Gevinson, now an editor for a magazine for teenage girls, acknowledged them at her own Bat Mitzvah. “Using fashion as self expression can go beyond wearing a shirt with a slogan,” she said, if it “doesn’t have to sell.” Arabelle Sicardi writes at the Hairpin that clothing marketed as political is “the inside joke of fashion and Marx”:

Clothing marketed as feminist apparel is a joke. It’s all a joke. It’s a beautiful, elaborate joke, one tied into capitalism and production and visibility and affect. It’s not just a t-shirt, it never was, and fashion was never just about how good you feel in your clothes. It is also about who made them, the creation of the ideas behind them, who has sold it to you, and how they knew you’d buy it. Clothing might give you agency to be that kind of femme or butch or whatever that you can will yourself to be, but it’s not just about the signals your clothes give off. It’s about how they came to be in the first place, too. 

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Hannah Phillips, an 18-year-old student at the I Stood Up event, tells me that all these competing contradictions concern her, as does, conversely, the effect that “fashionable politics” can have on young minds. “It makes me uncomfortable when I see people around me making political decisions because they’re the trendy choice: at lot of people at my school joined the Palestine Solidarity Campaign because it was seen as cool, rather than because they’d engaged with the conflict. But, at the same time, I’m pleased when more radical movements like feminism become mainstream.”

Politics and fashion, then, seem to be engaged in a cyclical, mutually harmful dialogue. But, at I Stood Up, we return again and again to the moments of brilliance when fashion has seemed truly and irresistibly subversive. Rei Kawakubo’s lumps and bumps. Katharine Hamnett meeting Margaret Thatcher. Pussy Riot’s raging neon balaclavas. Vivienne Westwood, then and now. Meadham Kirchhoff’s bloody tampon earrings. In these moments, fashion is a language like any other, complicated, limitless, full of inherent contradictions and messy power relations, at once oppressive and liberating. Our conversations may be chaotic, but they are still worth having.