Fashion and Politics

pearly kings

Fashion can champion our identies and communities within an existing culture, photo from pearlysociety.co.uk

Fashion and politics have a long and multidimensional relationship, fashion’s political voice taking on a wide variety of guises inside and outside of the pillars of state. The communicative power of fashion’s artistic practices can bring challenge to a political status quo, a brilliant exemplifier of this was drawn together through ICA’s recent offsite exhibition A Journey through London Subcultures showing work from LCF based Mark Lebon amongst others. It can also champion identity and solidarity within an existing culture or society in delightful ways – think Pearly Kings and Queens.

Fashion’s business practices also have inextricable links to political ambitions and endeavours, offering a conduit for economic and societal ambitions of a state to be realized in tangible form.

As individuals and within communities, we articulate our voices through what we wear, how we spend our money and the things that we make and do.  As a designer, trained by a maestro, Katharine Hamnett, I gained a grounding that helped me to place fashion’s political role at the forefront of centre for sustainable fashion’s explorations in sustainability, its members creating new political dialogues through their work.

One of the centre’s five themes is to Be A Voice for Change and we have the opportunity to do this in fantastic ways. Thanks to the vision of Baroness Lola Young, CSF is co-secretariat to an All Party Parliamentary Group in the House of Lords, where questions can be asked and voices heard that represent fashion for sustainability. One such question is being raised there and elsewhere, #insideout, a means for students to come together as part of Fashion Revolution, through a simple fashion act, that can ask each one of us to reveal the inside story of our clothes on our bodies.

When Charles VII set up a ministry for fashion in 15th century, it would have been hard to conceive the global resonance that fashion would be making in the 21st century, with its ability to celebrate and to exacerbate the differences between people and our links with and dislocation from our natural world. We have much to celebrate in some parts of the world, in that fashion has enabled many women to choose what they wear, although we still have a very long way to go in respect to the freedom that this brings. Whether it is in supporting women in places where their identity and freedom is curtailed through dress, in changing practices of fashion’s industries or in questioning the continued objectification of women through dress and undress, fashion continues to play a vital role in connecting and honouring all people in serious and playful ways.

When we set out 5 years ago, we were able to work alongside the department of the environment (defra) as they developed their roadmap for sustainability in clothing and were tasked by defra and the India Ministry of Textiles, to look at how fashion can foster practices for sustainability between the UK and India. Since then, the SCAP action plan has been developed and played out involving leading fashion brands, NGOs and recycling organiations and is now under the leadership of a second UK government department, WRAP. In realising the impact of fashion in resource and cultural terms, it is signing up fashion businesses to make commitments towards sustainability through SCAP 2020 and leading campaigns such as Love Your Clothes, to reduce the symptoms of waste and over consumption.

The discussion of fashion and durability must go much further however. Fashion, in many of its practices, has responded to an economic model based on cheap, consequence free growth through making, selling and discarding – one of the greatest successes of the built in obsolescence model for growth. Reducing unsustainability through actions such as re-cycling and reducing washing temperatures are vital, but we must not get too distracted by them or pacify ourselves through them into thinking that this is enough.  Fashion can shape as well as respond to culture and as we reflect back over the last 5 years of our work and set out our stall for the next half decade, our research takes us into areas and disciplines that go deep into the core of our nature and society. Engaging with economists, anthropologists, psychologists, urban planners, philosophers, historians and poets, alongside working with fellow designers, artists, photographers and craftspeople, my hope is that just as Don Letts said that ‘When the pistols took to the stage, it was cultural year zero’ the next five years can mark a cultural shift towards Better Lives through fashion aesthetics and ethics with great music of course!