We’re living in a world thatâ€™s becoming increasingly â€œwokeâ€ and quite opinionated â€” or perhaps we notice it more now due to the ease of access to other people’s thoughts via the internet. Our definitions of social justice and morality have also evolved and continue to do so. Moreover, we constantly expound our beliefs for any and all who’ll listen â€” or shall I say, for those who’ll read.
Digital media platforms, such as Twitter, have given rise to the social justice warrior (SJW), who champions causes, often quite loudly. Naturally, the capitalist society we live in has caught on to the trend of voicing opinion and often creates products directed towards the socially woke. Nowhere is this more obvious than the fashion industry. Global politics and debate have seeped their way into our daily lives through the most unassuming of channels: clothes.
Political statements and art, have always been intertwined. Many artists and writers have produced works specifically aimed at jolting the status quo or to highlight an injustice. The film and television industries have done this most effectively due to their large viewership and impact.
Iconic moments somehow always occur at award shows. A couple of the most impactful ones for me include Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Oscar in order to shed light on the status of the Native American community in Hollywood and more recently, Frances McDormand’s resounding speech at this yearâ€™s Oscars calling for the industry to be more inclusive. Moreover, the entire #MeToo movement has stirred the entertainment industry out of its slumber.
However, politics and fashion specifically have had a very interesting relationship. Many politiciansÂ and world leaders use fashion to make political statements (e.g. Gandhi wearing his traditional attire at the British Royal Court). Sometimes, what politicians wear sparks debate across the board (Melania Trump and her “I Really Don’t Care” jacket). The Queen of England, in fact, has a whole protocol in place for how to interpret her social needs based on the use of her accessories â€” a bag on the table signals the end of a conversation and her desire to exit the room. Just last year, several celebrities showed up in all black at the Golden Globes 2018 to support the â€œTimes Upâ€ movement that stemmed from #MeToo.
Recently, this relationship has taken a more overt nature. Celebrities are donning outfits with clear political messaging on them, to either support or bash a politician, or to shed light on a cause dear to them. Designers have also made statements with one-off pieces or by consciously choosing to dress a particular person (Christian Siriano custom designing a dress for Leslie Jones to promote body inclusivity). And how can we forget Rihanna’s body-inclusive lingerie line that has put Victoria’s Secret to shame.
Despite all this, I wondered, is there really a place in fashion for politics? Is the clothing industry the place to make such statements? Should it not only be about just making clothes and leaving policy and opinions to others? Clothes should just be clothes right?
I, therefore, decided to find out what others around me felt. Naturally, I took to Instagram and set up a poll. I simply asked, “Does politics have a place in fashion?” Out of the 48 people who responded (more of you should follow me on Instagram @hassantl â€” yes, shameless self-plug, I know), 41 clicked “Yes” and only 7 decided to go with “No.”
To further find out people’s opinions on the topic, I put forth the question, “How do you view the relationship between politics and fashion?”
Responses that I received included:
“â€¦now people have really started to look at the story behind each piece which is great.”
“Issues highlighted through fashion. Treatment of karighars/workers, gender wage gap, etc.â€
But what’s the value of these relationships and are they important?
“Quite necessary to be honest,” says model Yasmeen Hashmi.
My friend Omaina Aziz wrote in a long, impassioned response. She stated, “It’s art. Art has always been a commentary on the world and the powers that be.” She cited various politicians and their signature looks, including Jinnah and Che with their caps, Marie Antoinette’s excesses at the court, Melania’s infamous jacket and Trump’s “horrendous ties.” She then went on to question, “They’re using their clothes to make a statement, so why shouldn’t the makers of those clothes then be using their art and their product to make a statement of their own?”
Fair point, to be honest.
A quick glance at some of the collections over the past few years, both local and international, demonstrates that designers have actively been portraying such sentiments. However, I’m wary of their execution. Dior, for example sold t-shirts for $860 with the slogan “We should all be feminists” â€” which by the way is the title of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book-length essay.
Locally, we have had Maheen Kardar create a line of kurtas with Imran Khan’s face on them before the 2013 elections. These were likened to the famous Che Guevara t-shirts (I don’t think he would have approved of such capitalist tricks). Apart from mainstream politics, feminism has also found its way into Pakistani fashion. Hira Ali’s 2018 PSFW collection titled “Woman is Future” had models walking down the runway holding placards crying for social justice (reminiscent of Chanel’s SS 2015 show). Ali Xeeshan has surprisingly been successful in introducing social causes in a bridal show by drawing attention to child brides in Pakistan.
However, these at times remain one-offs, a bandwagon to be jumped on. Karl Lagerfeld in fact has been accused by many of not being a feminist. So how does one trust such capitalist tropes?
Fashion gives a very powerful voice to those behind it and, naturally, a mandate for them to be authentic about what they support. If fashion is allowed to be political, what are the rules? How do we judge someone who’s being real versus a disingenuous design house? I reached out to fashion journalist and stylist Mehek Saeed for her views. She agrees that authenticity is important and that as consumers we definitely buy into a brand’s value proposition. Therefore, a brand that seeks to promote a political statement or social cause should focus on consistency and putting thought into each and every campaign. Zara Shahjahan, in her opinion does a fantastic job of doing so. “Authenticity,” she adds, “comes from a long-term standing of what you put out. Designers should stand by it in the long run and add these causes to their brand values.” I concur; without a brand fully incorporating such messaging into their practices, they run the risk of losing favour (rightfully so) and coming off as pure, capitalist drivel.
Aamir Bukhari, of the popular Aamiriat blog, adds on to this wonderfully. He opines that most designers in Pakistan are just piggy backing off the cause of the moment to gain traction, especially on social media, with ill-thought statements that come off as flippant. However, he believes â€” and I wholeheartedly agree â€” that any design house or brand hoping to be political should start from the basics. They should go for deeper impact and inculcate their beliefs in the way they do business. “Maybe hire more women, pay them at par with men â€¦ it needs to be a holistic approach in doing business,” he asserts.
In conclusion, fashion and politics, especially nowadays, cannot and shouldnâ€™t be divorced. Fashion is powerful and what we wear is a statement. Therefore, such politically and socially charged collections do have a place. However, for authenticity to be clearly visible, fashion houses need to imbibe what they outwardly project. Otherwise, it’s just another social media gimmick.