By Rena Niamh Smith
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Fashion and politics

This article is over 4 years, 10 months old
Issue 449

A cursory glance at the catwalks reveals a new vogue for the trappings of political engagement, from the “pussy hats” of Trumps inauguration, to feminist slogan tee shirts. But the superficiality of season-to-season trends belies a deeper relationship between what we wear, and how we think.

Fashion and Politics, edited by Reader in Histories and Cultures of Fashion at the London College of Fashion Djurdja Bartlett, is a timely publication that teases out complex issues and thought-provoking debates around the matters at hand. The book is beautifully laid out, making easy reading of an academic tome. New and established fashion scholars look at the interplay between clothing and nationalism, terrorism, surveillance and individualism, and of course, capitalism.

The first section reconstitutes the understanding of fashion as commodity. In her essay “Can Fashion Be Defended?” Bartlett rejects an all-out dismissal of fashion as materialistic fetishism, considering in full the implications of Karl Marx’s theories around consumerism. She contextualises fashion as an “important social, cultural and political phenomenon”, and dissects the hegemonic structures around fashion, while considering the role of the working class in subverting and blurring of social boundaries through dress.

She looks at the 20th century, to countries like the USSR and China, where discourses of what it meant to be a socialist citizen interplayed with the form and function of fashion. Bartlett casts her eye to two of today’s most influential designers, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia, and analyses how the ghosts of Soviet-era aesthetics and counter-aesthetics echo beyond the dismantled Iron Curtain into the wardrobes of Westerners in an era of globalised free market economics.

The second section looks at the history of political dress, including a study of the Rock Against Racism movement, a movement Carol Tulloch contextualises alongside the Black Panther Movement as “style activism”, a form of dissent in its own right.

In her chapter “Fashion: An Oriental Tyranny in the Heart of the West?”, Barbara Vinken explores gender binary oppositions established under capitalism between male and female dress, oppositions in ideas of modernity versus the ancien regime, and between Western democratic ideals and myths of the Orient, as explored in Edward Said’s seminal thesis Orientalism. Vinken argues that while Said saw Orientalism as the projection of emasculation, effeminacy and decadence outward, she understands fashion as the West’s “Inner Orient”, which challenges its own patriarchy, notions of self-control and progress “within its Reformed Protestant or Republican discourse”.

The third section, “Borders and Bodies”, deals with the “entanglement of oppression and expression”. Writing on the keffiyeh, Jane Tynan builds on Bartlett’s exploration of clothing as symbolic of nationalism. She explores how a garment worn by the Bedouin in the Middle East became a symbol of insurgency in Palestine, adopted by all Arab men as a counter-surveillance tool by Palestinians resisting British military control, then a generalised shorthand for the Palestinian struggle, then glamorised by luxury designers such as Givenchy and Chanel.

Indeed, in the book’s opening essay, Bartlett also studies the rise of clothing as nationalist expression from the mid-19th century onwards, for example, how ethnic costumes of many countries were constructed from elements of regional costumes to reflect contemporary ideals of ethnicity, and “unite new citizens under one banner”. This, alongside the Palestinian case study, throws light on the complexities around issues of cultural appropriation, and the notions of ethnic dress as purely historic garments with sacred and immutable meanings, instead configuring style as another example of how culture and cultural artefacts are shaped by political discourse as much as they are inherited wholesale.

“Bombshell: Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” by Rhonda Garelick takes the post-9/11 landscape, one in which fashion in capitalist form is wielded as a weapon of democracy against terrorism, most memorably in George W Bush’s call for Americans to go shopping after the attacks on the United States. She studies how the West has newly obsessed over, and violently policed, the body-obscuring styles of Muslim women. At the same time ever more revealing dresses are seen on runways and red carpets, dresses which seem to simulate airport scanners or social media screens that form the fabric of the age of hyper-surveillance.

Finally, “Resistance and Recuperation” looks at contemporary issues in the practice and theory of dress. Anthony Sullivan, who spoke on fashion at Marxism Festival in 2018, contributed a chapter on the subversion of the men’s suit in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008 by insurgent, anti-establishment figures, including Jeremy Corbyn, Pablo Inglesias, the leader of Podemos, Alexis Tsiparis and Yanis Varoufakis of Syriza.

Like Vinken, in charting the establishment of the suit as the dress code of the bourgeois, capitalist class, Sullivan considers the suit in establishing codes of modern rationality. Sullivan argues that through styling, these politicians’ anti-neoliberal stance has been made flesh through an “iconoclastic sartorial irreverence”, allowing voters to see the links between “anti-political style and anti-austerity politics”.

Fashion and Politics makes for an insightful and thorough investigation of the two for all those interested in exploring the way hard politics can play out in the soft power of culture.

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