The Politics of Fashion


Fashion has always been considered frivolous, unbothered with humanity and its social issues and at times, just simply shallow. As a result, a handful of social issues have actually been triggered by the nature of some fashion trends. Animal cruelty?

Yep, we’re looking at you MAC cosmetics and you too Jennifer Lopez in that chinchilla fur coat. Cultural appropriation? A term synonymous with the Kardashians and Gigi Hadid. Slut shaming? Any short, tight or revealing item of clothing that any woman has ever worn in history that upset the entitled male gaze.

It’s very easy for the bigwigs in fashion to perpetuate some of these social ills purely for the sake of aesthetics. We saw how Khloe Kardashian wore her hair in Bantu knots (a protective hairstyle for natural hair) without caring to understand the history behind this hairstyle donned by black women around the world. It should therefore come as no surprise that the very same people would do the converse for trendiness’ sake.

“It’s very easy for the bigwigs in fashion to perpetuate some of these social ills purely for the sake of aesthetics.”

You’re probably wondering what the converse is in this case. The other side of being sartorially callous is wearing fashion with a conscience. The alarm on ignorance has gone off and everybody’s woke…or so it seems. Suddenly people are wearing causes worth fighting for on their chests and paying a lot of money to do so too.

Wearing the phrase popularised by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We should all be feminists,” on a plain white Dior Tee will cost you about 9000 South African Rands. Granted, the proceeds from the sale of these Tees are going to Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, which is concerned with health and education. Even so, one can’t help but wonder if people are buying because the sentiment and cause resonates with them or if it’s just trendy to wear a T-shirt a celebrity owns and seem like you care. There are a lot more labels which have also jumped on the wokeness bandwagon and it’s most likely because on the one hand; people are genuinely passionate about certain social issues and will gladly wear the sartorial placards to show it, while on the other hand, labels may just be in it because politics have become lucrative.

Earlier this year was the Women’s March against the United States’ unfortunate 45th president, Donald Trump. This political protest later became a runway display of resistance and a clear rejection of the snooze button on things that matter. The 2017 New York Fashion Week had models strutting down the runways substituting the usual couture for feminist outrage. An article in the Washington Post aptly described this phenomenon of responsible fashion as a manifestation of what happens when designers “recognise the volume of their microphone and the irresistible allure of fashion.”

“…but there was also a need for the sea of lily white models to have some colour sprinkled in it.”

This sartorial wokeness goes beyond literal expressions sprawled across A-cup chests, but can also be seen in the way in which representation on the runway has changed. Yes, the industry had been fighting the unhealthy use of size 0 models, who would pass out seconds after stepping off the runway, for years now, but there was also a need for the sea of lily white models to have some colour sprinkled in it. We have since witnessed more representation of colour on the runway, except for that one time, of course, when Marc Jacobs thought it swell to use white models for a dreadlock styled runway show. Dreadlocks – an inherently black hairstyle and “Mr Marc Jacobs by Marc Jacobs” could not be bothered to pick from the plethora of black models that still need as much exposure as possible in the industry.

But let us not allow Marc Jacobs’ misdemeanour to steal the thunder of the designers and creative directors who are actually making political statements on the runway. Such an example is that of Anniesa Hasibuan, a Muslim designer, who has re-imagined the hijab and given it a seat at the couture table. The Western gaze has for a long time deemed the hijab worn by Muslim women quite oppressive and an act of succumbing to patriarchy. However, Anniesa Hasibuan not rejecting the hijab in an industry that seems to have little regard for religion is a loud “swallow your words” to the naysayers. Hasibuan wants to portray how religion need not be stifling, as she states that conservative dressing isn’t a sartorial death sentence. Her beautifully and intricately embellished dresses that are paired with variations of silk hijabs are evidence of how Muslim women still have scope for self expression and they don’t need any kind of Western faux pity.

“It speaks to how we are moving towards a decolonised sense of fashion as Africans.”

In the same way Laduma Ngxokolo of Maxhosa has put Xhosa culture on the global map with his unapologetically home brewed knitwear. It speaks to how we are moving towards a decolonised sense of fashion as Africans. Something we have needed to see for decades since one of our many creative struggles has been that we emulate Europe too much, while Western and European creatives have been appropriating too much – a laughable irony.

It truly makes for a beautiful catwalk then, when we see models parading political statements of their own countries, cultural education through dress and the ownership of a designer’s religion, but let us also learn to take these messages home with us in an attempt to understand way after the applause has been given. If we fail to do this, we are simply trivialising social issues like feminism, gender identity and oppressive state laws that the fashion industry is bringing to an audience that would otherwise have not been exposed to and perhaps you might as well wear a “Cute AF” Tee from your local retailer.


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