by Casey Ludick
Fashion has always been political because it holds a mirror to society, reflecting the socio-
political viewpoints held within that community. Fashion is a tool for self-expression. That
means you can begin to understand the people around you by paying attention to how they
participate in fashion. Fashion and politics are not binary concepts: neither can be defined
simply by their two most popular traits. They are each connected through the human
experience and, therefore, should not be isolated.
Politics is not just about the elections or government conspiracy. Fashion is not just about being trendy. They are about human nature and the governing of the human body and experience.
Fashion has played a significant part in many of the world’s most politically divisive movements throughout history. If we were to turn back time to analyse how fashion has intertwined itself in the politics of life. We would find that fashion played a vital role in the suffragette movement and was directly affected by that movement.
More recently, the world used fashion to further the Black Lives Matter movement by employing the image of a martyr on t-shirts. There are far too many examples of this linkage for us to ignore its importance.
Beauty or Brains?
Fashion has historically been used in a politically oppressive context, and it continues to reinforce certain narratives. Because fashion was so hyper feminised, it is limited to what
we wear rather than the context in which anything is worn. Or created. Fashion is not
considered as a serious form of communication or self-expression.
Fashion was considered a highly feminine form of self-expression, and thus, according to the
male population, limited women’s capacity for critical thinking and strategy. As such,
fashion was one of the concepts that many feminists rejected altogether. A woman who cares about fashion is not someone to be taken seriously. Yet, when we look at the world
we live in today, women have more than proven that we can think critically about the ins
and out’s of the world in which we live. This is essentially what movies like Legally Blonde have taught us. That we don’t have to choose between beauty and brains.
How has fashion affected feminism?
That’s a good question, thanks for asking. The answer is that there is no way to measure the
exact effect that fashion has had on feminism. However, I am aware of how fashion was
used by feminists and gender activists alike. For example, the suffragettes didn’t utilise
fashion as much as colour. They wore specific colours to represent particular intentions to
manipulate men. For example, to counteract the way men perceived them, the suffragettes
appropriated the meaning of the colour white (symbolic of purity). This use of colour is
often demonstrated by the democratic women of the House of Representatives in the U.S.
Not to symbolise purity but to honour the women who came before them. Alexandria
Ocasio-Cortez wore white on the day she was sworn for that reason alone.
This is a second example of how fashion has affected feminism, and this one’s a doozy. This
particular view on women’s fashion calls the attention of feminists everywhere. I’m
referring to the argument that what a woman wears implies consent. What women wear has nothing to do with the way men behave themselves. And that male conduct is the responsibility of that man as an individual. Yet this bias is often considered in sexual assault cases because of patriarchal ideals. This bias sets the feminist movement back by decades because it ignores women’s right to practice agency over their bodies. The bias bars men from responsibility because they have no self-control to speak of.
How has feminism affected fashion?
Fashion is a historically male-dominated industry. Many of the most famous designers in the world were men. This means that men in power called all the shots regarding women’s
fashion. That all changed when the female fashion designers, like Coco Chanel- who was the only female fashion designer in the male-dominated industry for years- began setting the
trends for women’s fashion, rivalling many male-run fashion houses. Including the likes of
currently major fashion houses like Christian Dior, Gucci, Prada, Armani. She championed
the idea that clothes made for women should fit women. Which were criteria that she thought the men in high fashion had forgotten.
Women like Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Vivien Westwood, Zelda Wynn Valdes, etc.,
paved the way for many of the female designers we know of today. Creating a fashion
industry that doesn’t just cater to women as consumers but as entrepreneurs. As creatives
and as capable, intelligent individuals. This version of the fashion industry has aided the
feminist cause in that it empowers women to achieve. It encourages women to embrace
both femininity and intelligence.
By encouraging women to express their individuality through fashion, the feminist
movement eradicated the idea that “the clothes make the woman”. Empowering women to
consistently decide what they wore and how they wore it. The rise of women to positions of
power within the fashion industry has emphasised the need for the female perspective on issues about the human experience. And as such, fashion is feminist, and fashion is political. Fashion is not just about the clothes you put on your back. It’s about people.