Fashion’s relationship with activism is long and convoluted, so much so that a Facebook status might say 'it’s complicated'. On-again, off-again with social movements, despite accusations of whitewashing, body shaming, and cultural appropriation, the industry has hosted its share of protests and shouts to the social conscience on everything from AIDS to immigration. Today, in the shakiest sociopolitical climate since the 60s, young designers and big brands are joining a long line of predecessors using clothes to communicate and the runway to rebel.
For people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and minorities, the election and its aftermath saw most questioning the stability of their rights – as well as how fashion could matter in a time like this. But designers weren’t ready to be counted out of the conversation just yet. Rather, the best collections responded with political commentary, staging presentations that stood against the administration or at least clapped back against its claims.
Calling out ignorance towards the refugee crisis, Gypsy Sport designer Rio Uribe preceded his AW17 collection with a plea for showgoers to acknowledge the oft-ignored plight of homeless refugees. Likewise, Mara Hoffman’s AW17 show opened with a speech by Tamika D. Mallory, Linda Sarsour, Bob Bland, and Carmen Perez, the co-chairs of the Women’s March on Washington. For both designers, their collections were catalysts for drawing attention to a greater cause.“I was inspired to do a show and use it as a microphone for something bigger,” Hoffman said backstage. “These women just pulled off the biggest human rights protest in the history of the country. The subject matter is a little heavy, but now’s the time to talk about it.”
Still, most designers decided on a show-don’t-tell approach using slogan tees. While SS17 was a season of speeches for Prabal Gurung, who reprinted the words of Susan B. Anthony and other prominent women along silk dresses and on knit sweaters, AW17 was far more succinct. The designer closed his show with a parade of models in declaratory t-shirts reading, “I am an immigrant,” “Revolution has no borders,” and the ever-popular “The future is female." In similar expressions, Creatures of Comfort and Christian Siriano peppered their collections with commentary: their wearable responses to Trump respectively read “We Are All Human Beings” and “People are People."
While the slogan tee rightfully saw new life this season, using a t-shirt as political speech is nothing new. Katharine Hamnett pioneered sans serif on cotton as a statement in 1983, sending anti-war rhetoric down the runway reading “Choose Life,” “Stop Acid Rain,” and “Education Not Missiles”. In fact, for most designers this season these shirts are punctuated statements in a long line of otherwise commercial collections. For others like Hamnett, activism is woven throughout their careers.
Both the late Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood have repeatedly used fame and fashion as a platform to shock, surprise, and speak up. In 1998, McQueen guest-edited Dazed’s Fashion-Able issue, which showcased models with physical disabilities and acknowledged the industry’s relationship with ableism. And long before the embrace of environmentalism, McQueen staged his ‘Horn of Plenty’ collection in a scrap heap of his old sets, commenting on consumerism, waste, and fashion’s potential role within the two. Punk’s reigning monarch, Westwood and her anti-establishment antics have called attention to everything from animal rights to anti-terror laws. Most recently, yet another collection in a handful calling for a revolution, her SS18 Men’s collection saw trash-stuffed stockings as allusions to climate change.
These two spoke up before #GenerationWoke became consumers and when activism could hurt a brand’s commercial viability. Likewise, when Kenneth Cole released his AIDS awareness campaign in 1985, he challenged the blind eye most pointed to the virus and risked marginalizing himself and his brand. Cole’s activism came in reaction the death of David Brugnoli, Kenneth Cole Productions’ head of visual design, and today the designer posits that activism still works best when it is genuine and personal. “Often people ask me about getting involved in service and philanthropy, and my first advice is: Make sure it’s real and it’s transparent,” he told Gabriela Hearst, herself an activist for Planned Parenthood and champion for sustainability, in an interview for Vogue. “People are very smart today.”
And he’s not wrong. Many consumers criticize the fashion industry for its lack of social conscience, or remain skeptical when it appears. Case in point: Chanel’s SS15 preview of the Women’s March on Washington was seen both as the most political fashion show in recent memory and as a commercial caricature of a social movement. Yet while many argue the fashion industry is too exclusive to champion social issues, they forget clothes have long been a catalyst for change. After Paul Poiret condemned the corset, Chanel popularized the suit and looser silhouettes for women. And even before screen-printing made it possible to declare oneself a feminist, Mary Quant was an inadvertent representative of women’s liberation. The first to put the miniskirt in the mainstream, Quant helped normalize sexuality and the hiked hemlines that came with it.
Nevertheless, most of the industry spent years being silent on political issues while causing controversy of its own, begging critics to question why now and if the messages are genuine, or if brands are merely after socially conscious consumers. Speaking up is great, but many question if the occasional slogan tee is enough; actions speak louder than words, even if those words are worn. But despite being a repeated antagonist of diversity, body positivity, and politically correct appropriation, the industry has significant leverage as an agent for change and who are we to silence designers now that they’re wielding it. Fashion has been and continues to be an industry of creatives of every race, religion, sexuality, and gender whose rights are now in question, so the issues they’re advocating for are viscerally felt. Whether their collections are judged as a publicity stunt or political statement, designers and consumers alike can’t deny that silence in this sociopolitical climate is deadly.