For a certain period of time, it was assumed that fashion would be political. With every decision to trim back the hem of women’s garments an inch here or there, or avail them of pants (or pockets)- controversy and outrage followed. Fashion has always wielded an enormous amount of influence over culture: a place where trendsetters, power brokers, huge brands and influencers coalesce around the most approachable and necessary form of art there is: clothing. Clothing epitomizes the feelings, ideas, attitudes and beliefs of a decade, of a society, of a place and time, better than nearly any other medium. As an industry that is disproportionately female-run, not to mention heavily influenced by and comprised of gays, Jews, POC and other minorities, it is all but natural for fashion to trend towards the political in a divisive world. Fashion, if it’s good, always has something to say about society.
However, in recent decades, this has not been the case. Although fashion is still influential, perhaps more than ever, it’s no secret that it has long since ceased to be political. Somewhere between the 1970s and the mid-2010s, indifference and detachment crept in. Eventually, a sense of apathy began to be pervasive, even “cool” in pop culture. After skirt lengths were no longer shocking to alter and gay marriage had been achieved under a black President, at last, we’re done! Mission accomplished. Well, that might’ve been the case, had Donald Trump not been elected President. Now, as fashion brands and those who helm them scramble for a response, missteps abound.
With fashion’s rich history of political engagement in mind, here are 5 simple, easy ways the fashion community can step up to be a more effective voice for a diverse, tolerant & egalitarian future.
5. Fashion is not a trend. Politics is not seasonal.
Apparently, all Gucci had to do to single-handedly impeach Trump was to sprinkle the world “resist” a handful of times in the intro statement accompanying their SS18 Milan show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a delightful collection, but this is just fake woke word salad. Resist what? It’s the most tepid, inoffensive, brand-appropriate revolutionary prose ever written. It’s charming that Gucci is praising nonconformity, but this statement seems incredibly tone-deaf at a time when nationalist sentiment is rising worldwide, including in Gucci’s own native Italy.
An American flag jumpsuit? A fur coat? A statement sweater? All great pieces to be sure, but to be mentioned alongside “revolutionary acts” is just ludicrous. And from Gucci? It simply doesn’t pass the smell test. While it is nice to see Gucci re-engage with more substantive ideas, this scramble for political consciousness risks coming off as insincere and trendy.
I now feel like I have to fight hard for all sorts of rights I once took for granted?
As opposed to when? Obama was hardly a perfect president on human’s rights issues, and many people serving in Trump’s cabinet were serving as Governors or Senators well before this election. Women’s rights were hardly in a perfect place then, either. And when Trump eventually leaves office, what, take them for granted once again?
This is not to say that politics should be off limits for designers, but there are tasteful, tactful ways to do it. There are ways to do it that don’t reek of bandwagon hopping or carpetbaggery.
When, for example, Dolce & Gabbana make references to Sicilian culture, they do so in a way that incorporates its full complexity and richness, that is visible in every fiber of the garment, and that ultimately makes the clothing better for being imbued with that added layer of cultural value.
Designers like Pyer Moss are no newcomer to using fashion to express political ideas and values.
While most of the other designers only introduced political themes to their collections in February 2016 (Trump was inaugurated a month prior to NYFW F/W2017), Pyer Moss had an explicitly #BlackLivesMatter related collection in September of 2015, and suffered materially because of it. References to Eric Garner’s brutal arrest and suffocation death by the NYPD were on the shoes, the outerwear, and played before the beginning of the runway show. He’s since gone on to produce shirts emblazoned with notorious crony Capitalist Bernie Madoff in further collections focused on American greed. Never once along the way has his creative vision been diminished or held back by his engagement with politics — only enriched. Even those pieces that weren’t outwardly political must be re-examined as such, by virtue of the designer’s thoughtful, substantive incorporation of political ideas elsewhere.
Compare and contrast this with Jeremy Scott’s F/W2017 campaign which was supposed to be a “political statement” based on the inclusion of…. A single t-shirt?
And what does this lone t-shirt have to do with the orange Go-go boots and Cleopatra tops that make up the rest of the collection? Go figure. Blink and you’ll miss it! And did this desire to make a political statement persist into the following year’s collections?
Well, unless stumbling out of Berghain at 4am can somehow be misconstrued as a political statement, not really. This short-sighted flirtation with politics reeks of opportunism and is a true disappointment coming from a designer once hailed as “spearheading” innovation and bold moves.
The purpose of the t-shirt? On the back is a list of numbers to call to reach Congressman. And what should we say, should one of our Congressmen actually deign to pick up? Up to you! What should we say to people who disagree with us? “I don’t really think about that.” And come FW19? Just forget about it. More bejewled camo track pants instead.
Christian Siriano wins points in the 2017 F/W RTW collection for inclusivity and an all-around beautiful & diverse show, but again, the inclusion of a single slogan t-shirt does not make your collection political.
In follow-up comments on the collection, Siriano explains:
“We were trying to figure out what politically we wanted to say, because I didn’t really want to be political,” he explained. “[The shirt] is about human rights. It’s not about politics, it’s about supporting everyone. That’s what I thought was important,” he said.
Siriano’s husband, Brad Walsh, later tweeted that he was the one who designed the tee, and that 100 percent of proceeds will be donated to the ACLU.
Stop being afraid to “get political.” The world is political whether we like it or not. Hugo Boss dressed the Nazis. The AltRight actively embraces the use of fashion and aesthetic values to advance their goals and policy agenda. If you work in fashion, you work in a political industry, period. Every day you show up to work you are engaging in a political act. And if you “didn’t want to be political,” why put the shirt on the runway at all? Let alone with the roiling debate over whether or not supporting the ACLU is appropriate, given their extreme commitment to free speech — even for Nazis, and the organizers of the Charlottesville hate rally.
The added financial risks in an already challenging selling environment may discourage some, but fashion never attracted new customers by playing it safe. Yes, you may experience some pushback if you do take a meaningful stand, but that’s precisely what makes it so meaningful — and sincere. And that brings me to my next point.
4. No more slogan t-shirts or caps.
While Gucci, Christian Siriano, Milly, Jeremy Scott, and a few other brands may have seemed insincere, others dared plumb further depths. The slogan t-shirt actually has a rich history in fashion, first attaining prominence with the iconic “58% Don’t Want Pershing” t-shirt worn by creator Katherine Hamnett to confront Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984:
Fast forward to Public School’s F/W2017 collection and you have a decidedly more opaque message:
Apart from being shockingly tone deaf and completely devoid of originality, from a distance it just looks like a regular Trump hat. Not only is it beyond the pale that actual fashion designers, in trying to send up Trump, literally just copied the design and changed a few words, but what is the actual message? How should America be made into New York? By leading in income inequality? By imprisoning 16 year olds for stealing backpacks? By being unaffordable for working people? The point being: even if America was made into New York, it still would be plagued by countless issues.
New York is far from a utopia, and the sheer lack of originality here is appalling. Are we to believe that Donald J. Trump’s apparel design team is more sophisticated and creative in their work than actual New York fashion designers? It just seems like a cash grab, a novelty, something done for shock factor and not given much thought beyond that. To further illustrate the cynicism on display: Public School’s most recent collection was completely devoid of any political statement or message.
Femininity with a bite? Love is love? These statements were all true before the election and will be true long after it. Prabal Gurung is a feminist, and that’s truly something to be applauded, but why did he choose to incorporate that into his work now? There are better ways to incorporate political ideas into apparel than by literally just writing the idea out on a t-shirt. Some of these come across as plain smug or as hashtag activism and it’s just simply lazy from a design perspective. Imagine if Dolce & Gabbana, in referencing Sicilian culture and history, simply wrote “We are Italian” on a t-shirt. That’s the level we’re engaging with intellectually, here. It’s going to take a bit more boldness, complexity, nuance, courage, specificity, and yes, “getting political” for actions like this to be credible coming from the fashion industry.
If you’re looking for inspiration as to how it might be done better, look no further than your front door: as streetwear begins to reign supreme (pun intended), keep in mind that it was always at the forefront of political fashion, and has done so in a genuine, cool, thought provoking way.
3. Demand better labor standards — not just for models, but for garment workers as well.
Given that Trump had his own modeling agency which shut down amid claims of mistreatment, to do better, the industry must be better. This should go without saying, but sadly it needs to be said again, and forcefully: treat employees properly and with respect. It comes off as an incredibly hollow criticism when the same people decrying Trump’s sexism or “pussy grabbing” are suddenly deciding to flaunt their feminism while beholden to similar or even worse practices in the same exact business. Models at Trump’s agency felt they were treated like “slaves”, were not paid for their work, (ironically) abused the H-1B visa program in numerous violations of immigration law, accusations of human trafficking abounded, as well as claims of being extorted out of earned wages, you name it, the works.
The worst part of all? It’s standard operating procedure for most of the modeling industry. And that’s only a small sliver of those getting shafted by fashion’s incredibly poor commitment to fair and decent working standards. To say nothing of the people actually making the clothes, wherever they may reside. Casting agencies which have cast for major fashion houses like Balenciaga have been called “sadistic and cruel”, “serial abusers”, leaving 150 girls-many under the age of 18- to sit in a dark stairwell for three hours, and that’s just the beginning. A recent study by the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 81% of models in the sample had BMIs that were classified as “underweight.” Model apartments are a widespread scam, where dozens of young models are crammed into substandard housing at well above-market rates, with the money being taken out of their paychecks by the modeling agency. Extreme work hours, sexual abuse, bogus fees, a total lack of payment, incentivizing anorexia, extremely unhealthy and unrealistic body image expectations being placed upon girls as young as 14 or 15, sexual favors being exchanged for modeling contracts… It would seem Trump’s model agency wasn’t even one of the worst offenders.
And again, that’s just the models. Not to mention the numerous photographers who’s work is routinely used without credit or pay. Or the slave labor and sweatshops involved in manufacturing an enormous percentage of the garments involved. And “Made In America” does not mean “sweatshop free.” Nor does making “empowering” athleisurewear.
Unfortunately, incidents like the Rana Plaza tragedy are still entirely too common. The magnitude of that tragedy hasn’t meant much in the way of meaningful change for the workers, either. In fact, factory explosions, fires and incidents plaguing garment industry workers, particularly in countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and India, are ongoing issues. The Rana Plaza tragedy alone claimed the lives of over 1,100 workers. It has not received a fraction of the attention as, for example, the anti–fur crusade has.
At every level of the process, from the manufacture of the garments, their design, to who wears them on the runway, to who does the makeup, to who photographs them, to the interns… People are treated as objects, robbed of pay and dignity by the very same industry proposing to “empower” them with fast fashion slogan t-shirts. With great influence comes great responsibility, and fashion has utterly abdicated its collective responsibility as an industry for far too long.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to stay this way. To improve the working conditions of models, more legislation like California’s AB 2539 must be supported and passed, throughout the nation. Models who work in the industry and possess large social media followings can and must advocate for such important legislation, extending workplace protections to the notoriously unregulated modeling industry.
Brands and consumers must take greater care to insure that they are not buying or manufacturing clothing in a way which disrespects human dignity and human rights. Those in glass houses should not throw stones. As far as improving conditions for garment workers, there’s no shortage of solutions. What there is a shortage of, however, is a public outcry (particularly from within the industry) and a demand for change. Prior to the Rana Plaza tragedy, the fashion industry rejected a better factory safety plan which potentially would have prevented the building collapse — because of cost. Where was the outcry? The hashtag t-shirt?
2. More models of color
For all the sudden calls for “inclusion and diversity,” fashion has been a Johnny-come-lately to the issue, in particular when it comes to who walks on runways and stars in adverts. Even though 2017 was a banner year and a marked improvement over prior years, with New York leading the way, that still translates to only 13% of models gracing the runways being black, to make no mention of other groups. Middle Eastern models were lucky to be noticed at all, increasing from a statistically irrelevant 0.28% of all models to a “banner year” of 0.57%. People of Asian descent, despite making up 12% of New York City’s population at large, were cast at a disproportionately low 7% in the shows. This becomes even more dire if you stop to look at particular brands. Commes Des Garcon, despite being widely beloved across the industry and being honored with a Met exhibit, hasn’t cast a single black model in more than 10 years. British Vogue hadn’t had a black model on the cover for 12 years until Jourdan Dunn’s February 2015 cover. Middle Eastern models are functionally nonexistent. Asian male models are extremely rare — especially South Asians, and are often reduced to an “effeminate” stereotype. Some are further still written off for being “too tall.” Disabled people are forgotten completely. While models of different ages and body types are finding greater representation, the pace is slow, and given fashion’s extreme penchant for tokenism and fetishization, it does merit deeper scrutiny. This, while some of the biggest trends in the industry are shaped by black consumers, historically black movements, black star power, black social media influencers, while some of the most beautiful cultures are invisible to fashion… this disconnect has never been more profound or ill-timed.
However, of all the items on this list, it is by far the easiest to change. Of all the items on the list, it is by far the most pointed way to oppose the rising tide of nationalism and homogeneity sweeping the world of politics and culture. Of all the items on this list, it is by far the most straightforward way for fashion to directly fight back against white nationalism and those who seek to situate it as some form of new cultural ideal. Don’t just let it be an empty buzzword or a hashtag, let it be a guiding principle for action. Fashion has always been a place where difference is celebrated, where misfits, unique faces, and beautiful examples of the far right’s kryptonite–miscegenation– are upheld as challenging new paradigms of beauty. That has never been more important. Either we set the tone and pace of culture or we allow others to set it for us.
And that brings me to my final point…
1. STOP HIRING FUCKING RAPISTS
When Bill Cosby wanted to find young women to prey upon, he asked a New York modeling agency to send him out-of-town models who were “financially not doing well.” Notorious pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein worked closely with Jean Luc Brunel, transferring $1 million to his offshore bank account, in exchange for access to Brunel’s newly scouted young models, courtesy of his modeling agency, MC2. Shaun Colclough learned photography while serving a prison sentence for rape, and later went on to photograph agency represented models, abusing dozens of them. Carrie Otis was raped repeatedly as 17-year-old new face model by her agent. Throughout the modeling industry, stories like this are rampant. Many have noted the scary parallels between the way the model scouting business works and the way human traffickers operate.
30 percent of models responding reported experiencing “inappropriate touching” on the job and 28 percent said they had been pressured to have sex at work. Additionally, 87 percent of respondents had been asked to pose nude at a job or casting without prior notice
If we’re going to be making a big show of parading models around in pink pussy hats during fashion shows to virtue signal our superior feminist values, the bare minimum we can do is insure they weren’t molested on their way to the runway. And male models aren’t safe either.
All too often, short of being allies in this critical fight, modeling agencies and those in the fashion industry end up complicit in this despicable abuse. Before we slip into our t-shirts proudly proclaiming our feminism for the world to see, we must insure we are not perpetuating an environment that quite literally delivers vulnerable young girls into the waiting hands of influential sexual predators. Actually, forget the shirt, just do the second part.
If you’re going to unveil your latest feminist-inspired collection to the world, you better make sure that known predators like Terry Richardson aren’t sitting in the front row.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, Richardson, despite openly admitting to viewing sexual favors as a method of career advancement (“it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow”), still finds welcome in the fashion industry. He has actively photographed himself engaged in sex acts with models. Dozens of models have come out against him. Aldo & American Apparel cut ties with him professionally for this very reason. And yet, at the very same time as feminism becomes the hot “trend” for fashion, Terry Richardson and others like him live life as normal, being invited to glamorous fashion shows all the same.
Many, many things could be done to address this, but by FAR the easiest one is this: just stop hiring these people. Have some modest concern for the 16 year olds you are sending to shoot privately with people who are in many cases known abusers. Stop inviting them to shows. Stop quietly tolerating their presence because of their fame.
As an industry fashion is easily the most diverse and international of all the creative fields. However, it’s thinking has become positively provincial. Nostalgia for safer times and selling environments is not the way forward, by definition.
Fashion’s influence has exploded worldwide in recent years. And the events of the recent election show us all too clearly the power social media, the internet, and celebrity has to influence others. The question is: will we step up, or will we tune out? At least we’ll get some cool t-shirts out of it.