Artwork by Ellie Thompson

If Miranda Priestley has taught us anything, it is that
there is no such thing as neutrality in fashion. Even the decision not to care about
what you put on your body is a decision. And as long as fashion has existed,
its wearers have been readily embracing the extent to which it can be used as
politics as well as aesthetics.  Dr
Jonathan Michael of Harvard University has called fashion “one of the most
readily available political tools” given the free access everyone has to their
own bodies – now even more readily available in a time when communication is
more and more visible, with citizens absorbing pictures and videos more readily
than words.

What this has meant in the 21st century has been
near-constant headlines about fashion, particularly on celebrities, being used
to make a statement. This can range from the overt – Stormzy’s Union Jack stab
vest at Glastonbury, NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts following the
death of Eric Garner – to the subtle, like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez wearing red lipstick
and hoop earrings during her confirmation hearings so that girls “from the
Bronx” could see themselves reflected in a congresswoman. 

Particularly for people who already have access to the spotlight, there is often more of a struggle to make what they wear non-partisan. With more and more women entering political or public arenas comes increased scrutiny of how they choose to dress, from Hillary Clinton’s classic pantsuit uniform, to the media’s obsession with figures like Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle. The power of the male suit is that it is the closest thing to apolitical you can get, a uniform that puts the subject first, rather than their outfit. This is an option women have never had access to.

Fashion, particularly in the last century, has been a
consistent tool of those wanting to make a statement, political or otherwise.
The story of recent decades, however, has also been one of individuals being
forced to confront the extent to which there is no such thing as neutrality in
what you wear, particularly in your role as a consumer. A PrettyLittleThing
haul is a declaration of apathy about the devastating impact of fast fashion on
the planet and scavenging or worse, reselling from charity shops is a potential
act of micro-gentrification, hiking up prices for those who genuinely need
them. Brands are also under increasing pressure to place themselves on the
right side of history, not just in public commitments or donations, but in the products,
they make – see ASOS’s gender-neutral COLLUSION pieces, or the H&M
“Conscious” range.

But even with good intentions, we should be realistic about
the capacity of fashion to be a valuable political statement or engender real
political change. Political fashion, particularly the mass-produced kind, often
serves to make a political movement an aesthetic aspect of an individual’s
identity, rather than a force for institutional change. No matter how public,
or how positive its stated political intentions, brands will always have a bottom
line at heart; whether that’s “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirts
being manufactured by women in sweatshops in Bangladesh or Gucci making a
#BlackLivesMatter post months after recalling knitwear reminiscent of
blackface. Global capitalism has every motivation to incentivise consumers to
express their beliefs with commodities as well as their voices. If they’re
going to make a statement, why not make it a statement you can buy?

This isn’t to say that it is inherently harmful, or that
there haven’t been incredibly moving examples of fashion used as a tool of
speech and solidarity. But if style is going to remain a valuable tool of
expression, it should be by making fashion political, rather than making
politics fashion. And this means remaining wary about the extent to which what
we can do with our bodies meaningfully challenges structures of oppression – or
whether it is just funding them.

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