As the 45th President of the United States was inaugurated, the First Lady’s attire was a subject of great curiosity. After all, this Inaugural Gown was not going to be just any dress. It would be a legacy dress, housed in the Smithsonian. Meanwhile, the American fashion industry had chunks of designers swearing to never dress the First Lady. They did not approve of her husband’s politics.
The fashion industry has always had a liberal bent, resonating with Democrats. It is no surprise Michelle Obama made Vogue cover three times as First Lady. Even her style choices were democratic, independent and liberal. Melania Trump steps into Michelle’s heels, a First Lady who single-handedly did more for the fashion industry than her predecessors combined.
It is also no secret the fashion collective was very much pro Hillary Clinton. The whole pro-choice, feminist, pro-gay marriages and by dint of working within the Obama administration versus reality TV star and offender of many a fashion sensibilities made her a shoo-in as far as the beautiful people were concerned.
In any case, a political leadership that allows them to fully express their individuality in all it’s untempered glory was something the fashion industry could get behind. Which is why the avalanche of designers who refused to dress the next First Lady was no shocker. Since November, there has been a gradual turn around with other designers coming in support of Melania. At the end of the furore the new first lady was dressed.
The more important question is not by whom. It is, do fashion designers actually play a bigger role in society beyond clothing us? One that has a much bigger cultural impact than has been attributed to them. The creative and artistic community is founded on the principle of self expression and with fierce boldness. Writers, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers – people driven by the desire to speak the unspoken, say the unsayable.
Terms like “sustainable fashion”, “eco-friendly fashion”, “ethical fashion” and “fair trade” would not exist if the fashion industry disregarded the political. Responsibility sparked by conscience. Besides, one cannot expect pure capitalism to power true creativity. Artistic minds grow in deeper fodder which in turn shifts perspectives and causes transformation. It is the kind of opinion highly likely to turn its focus to political issues even in cases that end up redefining what patriotism is or looks like.
Politics and fashion have a heated affiliation. Last year the world’s attention turned to France and the Burkini. It triggered an upsurge in Burkini sales as women wore them in both defiance and support. Owing to the very personal nature of fashion, whenever politicians, largely male, have weighed in on what women are supposed to wear, it is inevitably the politician who comes across looking ridiculous.
The flip side of this kind of fashion democracy is this. If designers can say yes/no to the honour of dressing a first lady at a global event, so can their clients. The very same designers cannot then disregard the market when it raises issues on body positivity and eating disorders. Consumers, in return, can boycott fashion houses who do not speak to their values and authentic selves. Manufacturing plants will be held responsible for damaging the environment in the process of making clothes. Communities have every right to eject fashion business whose practises run contrary to their home. Anyone can start a campaign insisting brands involve and integrate higher percentages of the population or else.
Kenyan designers who work with locals are aware of this degree of responsibility, not just the reward. Patricia Mbela under her label Poisa, which includes extensive beadwork in her collections has the beadwork done in conjunction with Maasai women. The result is better social and financial status. Kazuri Beads employs hundreds of Kenyan women with fair trade practises.
The fashion industry can of course also find less overt ways to participate. They support causes like cancer research, participate in a great deal of political fundraising, making sure their opinions are relevant as any other contributor to a campaign, fight against HIV & Aids and are Black Lives Matter advocates.
Fashion activism and political commentary is labelled by Elle US as “weaponised glamour”. Politics can be nuanced. Dior’s spring/summer 2017 collection was inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists”. Her philosophy: smart women can love fashion and not have to choose between intelligence and fashion.
If you still think politics and fashion have no relationship I invite you to expand your definition of the political. That, and a look at your 2017 budget. How much have you allocated to clothing this election year?