At the end of his Spring 2019 NYFW show, Jeremy Scott walked down the runway in a shirt urging Americans to act against the very controversial confirmation of now-Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. This was not the only political statement of his show however, as many pieces were embossed with words such as “Resist” or “Revolt”, all in neon colors. His collection however raised serious questions about the connection between fashion and politics and issues with the commercial aspects of the fashion industry.
Artistic expression has always allowed us to express and stoke dissent with current events, but fashion, especially modern fashion, is first and foremost an industry. Any political statement made by an “authority” of fashion is marked by the commercial motives that being a business of selling clothes induces. Mr. Scott has taken a laudable stance to use the coverage his show gets to encourage people to be more active politically. However, this statement also increases the coverage his show got and makes his whole collection a “statement” if worn, racking in large benefits. In a growingly large and sprawling fashion landscape where brands and trends resemble each other, Scott has managed to get more media coverage than all of Milan fashion week. If fashion as an art forms reflects discontent with current affairs, it also uses that discontent to commercial ends.
So, should fashion stay out of politics? Of course not. Clothes in general have always reflected societal pressures or their rejection, especially on the female body. Corsets were developed in the Caucasus (by the Circassians) as a way to highlight the symmetry of women’s shapes but more importantly to encourage them to stay obedient and marry young, as the corset would only be removed permanently on their wedding night.
On a more micro-level, everyday choices of clothing are influenced by concepts of “appropriateness” and the choice to conform (or not) to these norms is in itself political. Dressing becomes a way to express our beliefs and we appropriate our clothes, which hold no inherent political design in themselves, and use them to political means. For example, when women started wearing pants, the outrage was not raised because of the pants in themselves, but because they were on women. This was perceived as a usurpation of male authority.
It can therefore be argued that society’s perception of what each person wears is tied to that person’s identity. Even if we make these decisions unconsciously, we constantly negotiate our beliefs, our identity and the way we want to be perceived to determine our style. The examples of this unconscious process are aplenty. We “dress for the job”. Alyssa Milano was criticized for wearing a dress showing cleavage at Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing. Women like Hillary Clinton “power dress”. Abercrombie refused to sell size XL shirts in 2013 because Mike Jefferies, the CEO at the time, refused to have Abercrombie associated with “overweight people”. In the age of the Instagram “influencers” and celebrity models, the aspirational motives of our dressing are exacerbated.
Fashion helps each person to express outwardly their identity and sometimes their beliefs. It is therefore logical that certain attires became symbols for movements, a way to show belonging to an ideological group. The aforementioned bloomer pants were originally used as a way to contest restrictive dressing standards. Similarly, the hippie movement appropriated more broadly bell-bottom blue jeans because they had associations with marginalized members of society and the working class, unlike the mainstream current of pro-vietnam war 1960s America.
The issue with Anderson’s Spring 2019 collection is not that he asserted his political beliefs at the end of his show, but that this assertion of political beliefs is tied to ultimately empty exhortations to “resist” and “revolt” on the actual clothes that he is selling. His collection, with all its flashiness, does arguably not challenge the status quo. He is selling the idea of political activism and, as a heavyweight of the fashion industry, makes activism “cool”. But being “cool” does not guarantee any meaningful change. What any activist needs is clothes that can be made into symbols for a movement, not clothes that sell the idea of a movement.