Political Style

Do Fashion and Politics Belong on the Same Drawing Board?

News | Margaret Childs | December 2007 / January 2008

After the fall shows at Paris Fashion Week, the world of prêt-a-porter saw a new slant to the hot pants and chiffon tops that had dominated the runways in past years. Now these "ready-to-wear" fashions were accompanied by a Cashmere Palestinian scarf or made from fabrics in the colors of national flags, or perhaps with a silk military jacket.

As the camouflage era finally subsides, we seem to move on to an international "the world is fashion’s oyster" mentality. No longer will Victorian flounces and tailored "western" styles be the drawing board for designer’s inspiration.

But what are these fabrics and accessories meant to represent? Do themes of war, terror and violence belong in the fashion world? Is the "practical" art-form prêt-a-porter the right outlet for this kind of artistic expression?

Clothing has long played a symbolic as well as a practical role, used to express the beliefs, affiliations and socioeconomic status of the wearer. From military uniforms and nuns’ habits, or the deep purple robes worn by Renaissance aristocracy, to the peace-symbol, tie-dyed T-shirts of 1960’s hippies, what a person wears has been a medium of communication for people who have something they want the rest of the world to know. And when it comes to having an opinion, nothing fires up a heated debate faster than politics. Or maybe religion.

As Virginia Postrel wrote in The Substance of Style, after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan the first thing Afghan men did was line up at the barbershops to lose their beards, "burka merchants diversified their wares, adding colors like brown, peach and green to the blue and off-white dictated by the Taliban’s whip-wielding police." More important than elections, education and a free press the first thing Afghan’s wanted was to shed the physical and superficial connotations of the past regime.

Walking through the University of Vienna, a black and white Yasser-Arafat scarf caught my eye. I approached the wearer, a 25-year-old philosophy student. Why was he wearing it? "I’m cold," he said. "And anyway, I think it looks good."

He wasn’t making a political statement. He laughed. "I bought it in Paris from a Jewish guy. So, no." He then corrected his statement. "If people know the connotations, then so be it. Then it’s a symbol."

According to Nina Führer, a Dutch knitwear and canvas designer, this nonchalant attitude about political symbolism is a recent phenomenon. "Back in the 80s, anyone who wore a Palestinian pattern did it out of conviction. Today, it seems to be chic," she said. "But I don’t condemn that at all; I like when people play with that. Of course it’s hip and cool, but it doesn’t carry that much weight anymore."

Austrians seem to have a mixed relationship to fashion as a political art form. At Blickfang, the design fair for furniture, fashion and jewelry at Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), designers had varied opinions about the presence of political views in fashion. Martina Rogy, a Viennese designer of evening attire, contended that fashion is just "about what looks good." She insisted she has "absolutely nothing to do with politics. My fashion makes no political statement."

Of course, the fashion itself may not carry a political message, but if a certain group of people start wearing the same elements of clothing, it gains meaning. Führer believes that fashion is "less political than before." In the past, she remembers projecting her own views through clothing. "In the 80’s, fashion was a much more distinct part of culture," she said. "You could see the political affiliation of people by the clothes they wore."  These types of associations have diminished.

"When I was a teenager we used to move in groups, and these groups had uniforms that applied several labels to its wearer, like what opinions they shared politically."

Monica Markert, co-designer of the German label Markertkraft, seeks to create timeless fashion, but she sees the industry’s political trend. "Before, people used to have [political] positions that they represented with heart and soul," she said. "Nowadays, it’s like: ‘Oh, let’s make a Palestinian theme today.’ The next day it’s the rainbow colored PACE flag. There is nothing behind it."

Führer agrees. She sees the catwalk trends as a hollow outlet.  "In that moment it’s meant simply as fashion. It’s not so much the statements behind it but more the Wiedererkennungswert, the sheer recognition value of the item."

On the other hand, Markert contends that the superficiality of the temporary themes is "very fitting to the business of fashion." In the end, she says, "that is what it signifies."

Is the only way fashion deals with political themes by creating an artificial spectrum, in which to carry out a sort of pseudo-political commentary?

The political world uses fashion to win the confidence of the public, as the military has used uniforms. The best recent example is Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose choice to wear long blond braids, wrapped in a crown around her head, has caused nearly as much press than her policies. Her website features articles about the hairdo, saying that it has influenced designers like Narciso Rodrigez and celebrities like Sienna Miller. Her braid is not however only a fashion statement, but a political tool.

The braids are a traditional style common in all the farming cultures of northern Europe from the Ukraine to the Alps, and Tymoshenko uses it to underline her nationalist views and loyalty to a common heritage. Is this the same reason designers adopt political themes?

Although the eye-catching effect of symbolic attire does contribute to the visibility of a designer in the public eye, the labels are not usually adopting a political standpoint. "I don’t like the way it is used merely as a way of gaining attention," says Markert. "It seems as if these ‘icons’ are used simply for their provocative quality, regardless of the political values attached to them."

Similarly, traditional fashion, a polo shirt with a small alligator or mallet-wielding horseman, screams just as many messages to the viewer. "I’m a member of the power elite, I know who I am and so does everyone else."

Where does this leave fashion? Are revolutionaries trapped in meaningless garments or are assumptions made about clueless fashion victims? Yes, both are the case, but we still have the option of donning bold-printed t-shirts to proclaim our views.

And next time you’re choosing an outfit, don’t fool yourself into thinking that fashion genres – i.e. designer punk, hippie vintage or the clean-cut Polo Ralph Lauren – have no political connotations.

Other articles from this issue

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    The Vienna Review Visits Trendy and Traditional Christmas Markets - A Holiday Custom in Vienna since the Middle Ages
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    the vienna review December 2007 / January 2008