In light of the increasing global dialogue around politics and ethics in fashion, most recently through Fashion Revolution Day and the LCF PROTEST project, it is fitting that London College of Fashion Research Hub recently hosted a conference exploring Fashion and Politics. The conference provided new insights and raised questions on topics from the representation of class and race in fashion, to the study of capitalism and political resistance, all of which are ever present and relatable issues both within fashion and beyond.
The keynote speech on Fashion and Politics was compellingly delivered by visiting Professor Elizabeth Wilson, an academic scholar and writer focusing on feminism, politics, and popular culture, who started by asking us “What is the politics of fashion?”. To answer this it’s worth observing that fashion and communication can go hand in hand and be one and the same thing, and considering CSF’s own explorations of fashion as a means to communicate, I found it interesting that Wilson described her own work as exploring fashion as communication and an expressive medium, but not as a language.
However, as fashion and dress could potentially be described as the strongest and most visible form of communication after speech, could we in fact define it as a new form of language, a way to identify and communicate within and outside of tribes, and a form of expression with the potential to be politically potent? With the Oxford English Dictionary adding more and more colloquial words and expressions at an increasing pace due to the power of the digital age and social media, are we entering a time when language itself can be redefined?
Aside from considering the technicalities of what the politics of fashion can be defined as, throughout the conference many other ideas were discussed, from the power of websites such as The Sartorialist to expressing the politics of individualism, to looking generations back to Karl Marx’s prime objection to fashion: that it was created in horrific conditions in order to feed the wealth and greed of women; this attitude being described by Wilson as a “puritanical objection with a semi-political tone”.
I found it particularly interesting when Wilson discussed how fashion and dress have for a long time been viewed as a tool that “could challenge and subvert the norms of dress…[and] express dissidence as much as acquiescence”, enabling communication of political allegiance and moral standing, as well as the more expected class and social status. “Dress could express… critiques on mainstream society… and the stifling nature of the status quo.” However, Wilson also observed that dissident styles are being continually revived in fashion, until they begin to lose their purpose and meaning. With so much comparative freedom to dress as individuals, Wilson argued that “in a way with individualism you lose an expressive facet in fashion and end up with a mess.” This mess being when individualism is so developed there is no social cohesion, and no way of knowing how to dress for times which traditionally require a degree of conformity (such as attending the opera), therefore making it hard for people to have a recognizable language and way to express dissidence.
Perhaps this is where the power of words and clothes combine to enable us to more effectively communicate our values, thoughts, and opinions. She concluded by saying that “in a way there has been a declaration of how to object and be dissident so often. There has been and still is enormous anger against norms and political situations, yet people are deprived of a political language and way to express through fashion.” With all of this freedom we have to adorn ourselves however we wish, are we truly seeing less opportunity and fewer ways of expressing our views about the world?
The conference then moved on to include discussions around fashion in interwar and post-war communities, eugenics, gender, and race, teenagers as enemy of the state, Karl Marx’s views on capitalism, and class in fashion discussed by Lorraine Gamman from Design Against Crime. Lucy Orta from CSF delivered a talk on ‘Curating the Political: ‘Aware: Art, Fashion and Identity’, where she discussed how she felt the increasing need to be more socially active and find a medium to communicate social instability, developing her work to include investigating the individual within a social structure.
One of the most stirring talks came from Tansy Hoskins, author of ‘Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion‘, for which centre director Dilys Williams was interviewed, revealing that in Bangladesh garment factory workers earn a mere £25/month, whilst three of the world’s top 10 billionaires are from the fashion industry. It really illustrated the uneven distribution of power and wealth in the fashion industry, provoking thought about where our clothes come from.
With all of this discussion and opinion around fashion and politics, it is curious to think what form these discussions will take in one, five, ten years time – as Wilson observed, “It is superficial to try and judge contemporary fashion. We are too close to the present to be able to analyse it properly.” Whether or not you agree with that statement, it is certainly worth recognizing the value of fashion to communicate, and the power we all have to make our voices heard.