Photographs and television footage can make the Houses of Parliament seem so familiar that the history and power of the building overcome you as you cross Westminster Bridge and Big Ben grows taller above you. Yet that was the imposing location for an I Stood Up workshop and panel discussion which CSF were privileged to have the opportunity to host at the end of February, to discuss young people, political engagement, fashion and politics.
All too often the conversation about young people and politics is dominated by negative assumptions, by accusations of apathy and disengagement. Fashion too is critiqued either as a frivolous indulgence or as hijacked by the values of consumerism. Framing fashion as frivolous does disservice to its capacity to both express and engage, in personal, private, serious and the not so serious arenas. Framing young people as apathetic similarly dims their voices, and a vicious circle of indifference to politics of the more formal kind follows not far behind.
From this starting point, and fully conscious of the looming election, CSF hosted the event to explicitly pair fashion with politics in both site and subject. In one of the most formal and undemocratic of political settings – the House of Lords – the concerns and thoughts of first time voters were considered, expressed creatively and thereby revealed. A gentle disruption to the normal undertakings of a quiet committee room marked the beginning of a wider experimental practical process: the workshop used fashion as a mediator for conversations in which young citizens could voice their personal political concerns.
Fashion, often marginalised in academic and political circles, became for that afternoon a voice for change, amplifying cultural, social and political relationships and challenges, and facilitating conversations about change and values. With the support of Baroness Lola Young, CSF was able to initiate these discussions and utilise fashion as tool of engagement and communication for young people, actively exploring, at the very heart of British political power, personal and public issues such as the minimum wage and the cost of higher education.
Linking engagement of first time voters and potential non-voters with the political process through fashion in this way is clearly connected to participation in traditional political processes, particularly voting, but the aims of the workshop were wider than simply promoting this conventional political action. The political nature of fashion is inherent in the production, consumption and use of both fashion object and fashion media, and within creative cultures. Our hope was to use fashion not only as an expressive mechanism but also as means to converse about the everyday, highlighting how the minutiae of our lives are both political and created by a wider political agenda. It is these conversations which need to be furthered, considered and developed as we seek to find ways to use fashion to create better lives.
The workshop was followed by I Stood Up: A Time for Questions, a panel discussion chaired by Baroness Young, which touched on the diverse political aspects of fashion. The conversation between the audience and the panelists – Professor Frances Corner; Professor Lois McNay; Louise Court, Editor-In-Chief Cosmopolitan magazine; Lord Tyler, Liberal Democrat Peer; Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader of the Green Party; Alison McGovern Labour MP – ranged from feminism and body image to housing, the economy, foreign policy and city living. With questions from the audience about the emotional, financial and spiritual challenges of living in London as well as comments on party manifestos, all explored fashion’s role as conduit for larger political conversations.
Through this event and much of our other work, CSF hoped to, and hope to still, promote a view of fashion as a vehicle for the discussion of political ideas and real change towards great social and environmental resilience. To adapt the title of Susan George’s book ‘Another world is possible if…’ we refuse to see fashion as apolitical and young people as disengaged.