What Is High Fashion's Political Point?


Last month in Washington Square, participating in the Women’s Strike, I wore a baby pink sweatshirt that reads “Ni Santas, Ni Putas, Solo Mujeres,” a long-defining chant of the Mexican feminist movement. I bought the shirt from Bella Doña, a line owned and operated by Xicanas from Los Angeles; from there, I’ve also bought tees celebrating Selena and La Doña, and a little pin that declares, sassily and hungrily, “Tacos Before Vatos.”

As mainstream fashion designers trotted out their pricey, trendy protest wares during Fall 2017 fashion week—Prabal Gurung’s “The Future Is Female” shirts; Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” tee, which retailed for $700, with proceeds going to Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation—I wondered what it meant, that the arbiters of taste at society’s highest echelons were staking out their claim to feminism, or at least acting like it.

Yet I remained cautiously optimistic about the heft and commitment of it all, mainly because of an article about the Women’s March in January. It was a rather damning WWD report about an assortment of high-profile women in New York fashion and art taking a school bus to the occasion, including several of their stated first times experiencing a protest. While their journey began promisingly enough, once the novelty of it wore off, it seemed to become a chore. Specifically, wrote WWD’s Misty White Sidell:

The march — attended by an estimated 500,000 people — left the bus’ Millennials to reconcile the reality of protest and civil disobedience. The immediate gratification and ease-of-access to which they are culturally accustomed — particularly as New Yorkers — was not in any way reflected in Saturday’s outcome. Out of their element, some participants were left feeling glum, “purposeless,” and “disappointed.”

Rereading it, I’m still appalled by the dissonance between the experience of these well-heeled attendees and that of almost everyone I know who attended. Certainly there were valid reasons to feel skeptical about the Women’s March—the skepticism about whether these masses newly enthusiastic white woman would finally join the movements that women of color have been pioneering, for example. But the expressed feelings of discomfort and lack of immediate gratification was profoundly disconcerting, even infuriating, to read about. I still can’t find it in myself conjure the sympathy.

Still, the idea that the New York fashion world would embrace the symbolic but not necessarily the practical seems appropriate enough, because fashion’s job at its best, like that of any art, is to reflect and interpret the culture as it happens, and sometimes to predict what it wants. This perhaps requires cultural and human experiences outside of fashion’s realm, which at this point is almost exclusively for the moneyed, becomes an insular art, and is often not so interesting. On Wednesday WWD, again, published a well-reported piece about those designers who incorporated politics into their fashion, and it sounds well-intentioned enough. Angela Missoni handed out pink pussy berets for free at her show, and said she was inspired to incorporate politics on her runway, for the first time, by the Women’s March. Proceeds from the hats she’s selling will go to The Circle Italia, a foundation that helps women in need.

Gurung, too, felt the wave; he devoted his show to women and featured “The Future Is Female” shirts, the resurgent second-wave slogan whose problematic origins are apparently being recontextualized and reclaimed. He’s donating the profits to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the Shikshaya Foundation:

Gurung has in the past used his show to make a statement for a cause about which he’s passionate. For spring 2016, a few months after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit his native Nepal, he opened the show with a group of Nepalese monks chanting to give his audience a glimpse of the local culture. And his spring collection was a more subtle ode to Gloria Steinem. He decided to be more overt in his message for fall.
“I was just like, ‘How do I make people understand where my thoughts are?’” said Gurung. “I also thought that just doing a collection and not saying anything felt very tone-deaf and not who I am. I have this, let’s say, captive audience for 10 minutes, what am I going to talk about besides selling clothes?”

Many declared Pop Feminism dead with the election of Trump, supposedly signaling a return to brass-tacks feminism in an era when the basic rights won in the ‘70s and ‘80s look increasingly endangered. But because pop feminism’s very foundation was flawed—the idea that women have achieved enough that girl-power t-shirts and leaning in were the logical next steps erased the already-hidden struggles of women like Guadalupe García de Rayos, who made a life in the US for the past 20 years and was in February the first person deported under Trump’s executive order—its practitioners seem to be either seeking a deeper meaning within, or just doing the same shit they always did.

An even deeper problem is situating an act of protest—a rich person wearing the $700 Dior t-shirt, or me wearing my $50 Bella Doña one—within any construct of capitalism, and whether an item of clothing can be considered protest unto itself. Aren’t we trying to get away from a feminism that is merely representational and doesn’t step much beyond sloganeering? That’s what the WWD piece grapples with, but somehow the answers from designers still seem unsatisfying; the quote that resonated the most with me was from Katharine Hamnett, the pioneering t-shirt sloganeer whose wares in the ‘80s made it to a WHAM! video (George Michael’s iconic “Choose Life” shirt). To WWD, she said, “There’s been a lot of slogan T-shirts around but they’ve been pretty half-assed is the truth. You know, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’—I just sort of think that’s pathetic. You either are or you aren’t. Nobody ever really seems to say it like it is. It’s always a bit watered down. Why would you bother to wear that?”

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