Fashion isn’t beyond politics, it’s bound to it

Madalyn Williams examines the fashion industry’s inextricable link to politics, and what that means for the clothes we wear

When you google “What is fashion for?”, results may claim it to be anything from the purest expression of the self, to a tool best used to ward off a fear of death. But what’s clear is that fashion is a choice, which is directly tied to the fact that fashion is necessary. Even if you opt out of the colourful runway that dominates the Arts Building, a reactive grey jumper can say just as much as a boxy chartreuse velvet blazer. Perhaps that is why fashion finds such a natural intersection with another necessary and important form of choice: politics.

In the age of big business, the brands we buy from matter. This can impact policy directly (Amazon has spent 1.4 million dollars on Seattle’s 2019 city election so far), or indirectly, through its impact on the world. Last year, the fast fashion industry contributed 5% of global CO2 emissions (more than air travel and international shipping) and produced 20% of waste water. Simultaneously, a rise in environmental awareness has led to environmental policy and regulation being a hot topic in elections and debates alike. Reducing your individual carbon footprint, and minimising your financial contribution to problematic brands can be an important step toward ending your complicity, and creating a new system.

“Whether it’s an Extinction Rebellion logo pinned on your coat, or a MAGA hat donned in your profile picture, messages are being sent.”

Sustainable fashion is either a relatively new industry, or an ancient one, depending on your interpretation. I spoke with Geraldine Carton of Sustainable Fashion Dublin (SF Dublin) about her own experience navigating a more viable consumerism in Dublin. Americans buy three times as many new garments now as they did in the 1960’s, but there is also an ever-increasing number of sustainable brands popping up, attempting to mitigate the adverse environmental and social costs of clothes production. This may entail using organic cotton, paying decent living wages, and so on. Unfortunately, cost is often offloaded on the consumer. On many websites for sustainable brands, the price-tag accompanying even a simple white t-shirt can be well over €100. For Carton, this is one of the biggest contributors to sustainable fashion’s frequent dismissal as elitist and inaccessible: “If ‘fashion is for everyone’ then sustainable shopping should be too… and it should be fun!” 

As well as being over budget for many consumers, slow fashion tends to avoid addressing our own consumption levels. This is what inspired Carton and Taz Kelleher to found SF Dublin in the first place. It is an event-based company which facilitates swap shops, thrift crawls, and sewing workshops to give people access to sustainable clothes and extend the lifetime of their current possessions. Their goal was to draw attention to accessible outlets for similarly impassioned fashion fanatics, without sacrificing environmental consideration. When asked whether or not it was political, she responds: “absolutely.” According to Carton, “sustainable fashion is about building new habits around consumption” without assuming infinite growth is healthy or without consequence; these habits build a culture that will reflect itself in its spending, and build an example for future policy makers.

“…it can be easy to dismiss branded activism as another performative fad that has much more to do with ‘likes’ than a genuine commitment to a cause.”

Although we didn’t get a chance to discuss it in the interview, I had heard SF Dublin speak significantly on the intersection of media exposure, fashion, and consumerism in college a few weeks before. We live in a world that is constantly being reflected back at us through our screens, and we would be silly to think this doesn’t influence the way we think. Only posting a picture once for any given outfit can bleed into not wearing an outfit twice remarkably quickly. Geraldine herself admitted that, a year ago, she was “deep in the fast fashion industry”, and that getting out has taken a commitment to education and work. But it is our age of constant media and fashion scrutiny that allows fashion to be wielded so effectively for political causes in other contexts.

In recent years, activists have been some of the first to understand the power of social media to spread a message and help create grassroots movements. As more and more of our ‘self’ gets uploaded onto Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and as ideological rifts seem to be deepening faster than anybody can track, politics plays an intrinsic role in conveying our online persona. Branding is big, and nowhere is that more apparent than on my Instagram feed. Whether it’s an Extinction Rebellion logo pinned on your coat, or a MAGA hat donned in your profile picture, messages are being sent. With new and important causes constantly surfacing before being buried in a Facebook timeline, it can be easy to dismiss branded activism as another performative fad that has much more to do with ‘likes’ than a genuine commitment to a cause. And the same signalling that can get a privileged group labelled ‘progressive’ can lead to a marginalised community being dismissed. It is often the people whose identity is viewed as most inherently political, such as women, immigrants, or the LGBTQ+ community, who receive the most commentary and backlash from their fashion choices, solicited or not.

“It is only fitting that the visual power of fashion should provide a voice for those who are often silenced.”

Because of this, fashion can be a way to take control of the conversation. Celebrities gracing the 2018 Golden Globes red carpet in all black were an arresting pinnacle of the #MeToo movement. For once, the inevitable question of ‘who are you wearing’ took a backseat to the conversation women had been waging for months about power imbalances, sexual assault, and the shocking treatment of women in Hollywood and beyond. When female democrats wore white during President Trump’s State of the Union address in 2019, they paid homage to the white dresses suffragettes donned over a century ago in their fight for a political voice. It is only fitting that the visual power of fashion should provide a voice for those who are often silenced. 

Performative or not, fashion is a tool which should be respected not least for the role it can play in furthering important conversations, political or not. As for what it’s actually for? The best quote I came across was from Nick Remsen, a freelance writer: “The point of fashion as an abstract or an ideal or something conceptual, I hope, is to at least spark a thought. ANY thought. A throwback, an idea, a reckoning, a consideration of a moment in time, pop-related or otherwise, that resonates. There are things that can be pondered and traced through fashion. And I think that’s the real point: to give you pause and make you consider, for a second, something broader.”