Fashion activism is something many of us encounter without necessarily thinking of it that way. There might be a reason for that.
As a teenager, I suddenly became super interested in punk history and fashion. Some of my friends became obsessed with punk music, and it was contagious. Being the nerdy one in the group, I was hungry to know more.
Mind you, this was in the early days of social media. Even Tumblr became famous maybe a year or two after that. So, immersing oneself in aesthetics and looking for inspiration was a bit different. When you find, for example, an image that speaks to you, you save it and return to it times and times again. One of those images for me was this:
Later, I would discover that this is a photo of Vivienne Westwood from the 1970s. She’s wearing one of her most famous creations: a distressed t-shirt that reads DESTROY and Sex Pistols lyrics, over a Nazi swastika. Even back then, the bold anti-Nazi statement was clear to me. I remember thinking how cool and powerful it was to make statements like that, with your clothes!
Years later, I see this as one of my first encounters with fashion activism. Inspired by this year’s Met Gala and all the political statements we saw, I thought it would be a good time to talk about this.
Defining fashion activism
We’ll start from the top.
Fashion activism is a term coined by Céline Semaan-Vernon, co-founder of the Slow Factory Foundation. If you are not familiar with Slow Factory, they are a collective focused on generating solutions and change for social and environmental justice through fashion. And that’s precisely what fashion activism is.
Broadly speaking, fashion activism means using fashion and beauty to advocate for social and environmental change. Think of using clothes, jewellery, accessories, makeup, hairstyles and more, to send a message and make a statement. As such, there’s no single form of fashion activism. It can take many forms and often, the same piece of fashion will change its meaning through history or contexts.
However, I feel that we should take a step back first.
I’m sure you’ll understand me when I say that fashion is personal. We all deeply feel this. After all, clothes are the closest things to our bodies. They help us construct and express our identities and belongings. Clothes and fashion are a part of our cultural memories, as well as our own lives. Even more, fashion communicates relationships between people, often generations and families. Many of us connect deeply to our clothes, especially those that make us feel good.
Still, personal is just one side of the story. Clothes are also political. The reason why I’m insisting on this is that I continue to see the tendency to look at personal and political as something opposing or separate. It is neither, and especially when it comes to things we wear.
To say that fashion is political is to recognise that it is a product of a certain political and economic context. The fashion industry, particularly, is shaped by political decisions, power dynamics, and global exchange. It may sound rigid and gloomy but that’s also the beauty of it. You see, because of this, fashion and our clothes can reinforce those power dynamics, political ideas and so on. But they can also challenge them!
In a way, we can look at the whole history of fashion as a story between reinforcing and challenging or negotiating different ideas, ideologies, systems, and powers. In other words, though the term might be recent, history is full of fashion activism.
That being said, I won’t even attempt to give any comprehensive overview of the history of this form of activism. Rather, I’ll bring up some examples from the past century or so, as there are some interesting changes we are seeing lately.
Fashion activism through history
As I said, we can see a dance between conforming and challenging society, ideas, and norms throughout the fashion history. However, it would be hard to point out when fashion activism, as a form of a political act began. Partly because the historical records are declining, the further we go back in history. But partly because the way we think about politics, especially as governments and institutions managing our lives, is sort of new. This is something that developed gradually, only in modern history.
We certainly have many instances of rebellion and even deviance in fashion recorded. For example, some Spanish ladies from high society dressed as majas (people from the lower classes) to rebel against the dominance of French fashion in the late 18th/early 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, the suffragettes started wearing white as a symbol of their fight.
But fashion activism as the visual representation of social and political beliefs and ideology to achieve change really started during civil rights and Black liberation movements.
Denim workwear became connected to black activism in the 1960s. And Black Panther Party’s distinctive look (black leather worn as uniform and iconic black berets) is one of the most recognised looks in history. The members of these movements used fashion deliberately, for more than just to express their ideas. They used it to celebrate non-Eurocentric beauty standards and thus challenge wider cultural and economic forces. Such instances of deep fashion activism continue to have an on the industry today.
Because clothes can be such a powerful symbol and political medium, sometimes we create myths around them in the context of activism. The infamous bra-burning feminists in the late 1960s might be one of the most famous examples (hint: no bras were burned). This speaks of the fashion's potential to translate political ideas, even if nobody used specific fashion items to express them. Women’s fashion especially is a subject of politics and discussions about norms and deviance. Take for instance corsets. Corsets became one of the most misrepresented modern clothing items, mainly because of the critics at the time. But that’s a subject for another blog post perhaps.
It’s not surprising that the more recent Women’s March quickly became involved in fashion activism. The pink hats, also known as Pussyhats, are one of the most recognised and unique symbols in the last decade. I find it especially interesting that most of these are DIY hats and their symbolism and use if far from over today.
Yet, like many other things, fashion activism cumulated in 2020.
Fashion activism becoming...fashionable?
What we’ve seen so far in the 21st century is certainly a lot of fashion activism.
Fashion activism, of course, isn't just about shared symbols. Oftentimes, it’s a matter of an individual act, especially when it comes to designers. Designers using their work and creations to communicate political messages isn’t anything new, as Vivien Westwood’s t-shirt shows. But we are seeing an increasing number of designers doing this.
Many designers coming from minority backgrounds have been advocating for a change in the industry for decades, if not longer. On the other hand, the big luxury brands shied away from political messages, believing that it is too daring. Also, most of the decision-makers in the brands were white, straight, upper-class men. So, I guess that trying to keep fashion “politically neutral” in the new century isn’t anything surprising.
Anyhow, this started to change in the past decade or so. Largely thanks to non-white fashion professionals taking higher ranked positions. In 2018, Virgil Abloh became men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton and one of the highest-profile Black designers in the industry. He became promoting the ideas of diversity and inclusion in high-end fashion. Soon, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton was among the first major luxury groups to give their creative directors the freedom to speak about issues like racism and misogyny. Since, messages, slogans, and bold statements became a frequent sight of runaways. Almost like fashion activism became, em, fashionable?
Anyhow, last year, one particular runaway moment showed just how much fashion activism shifted. At the end of the Dior Spring-Summer 2021 show the last September, a protester came up on the stage with a big sign that reads: We are all fashion victims. The protester was identified as a part of the Extinction Rebellion. The extinction Rebellion, of course, has a whole history of fashion activism. They are known for calling to cancel London Fashion Week and protesting against big brands. Them crushing on a big show isn’t the news here. What’s so significant about this moment is that lots of people weren’t sure if this was part of the original show or not. At that point, Dior was known for their (performative) activism and messages on runaways. As Benjamin Simmenauer, professor at the Institut Français de la Mode said: “It wasn’t the first time a fashion show was disrupted by a protester, but it was the first time that people were not sure what they’d seen.”
Put differently, fashion activism is not controversial anymore.
Surely, what was happening in 2020 was a big reason for this. The pandemic spread, the first global lockdowns were introduced, Black Lives Matter protests were happening, and some of the worst climate change signs yet were evident. We expect brands to respond to these. Fashion and activism became entwined.
I won’t get into discussing how much of this stayed on performative activism only. Because the answer is probably a lot. Instead, I want to mention two more ways we can see fashion activism evolving nowadays, which I find far more important.
Unique to our time?
Alright, if you’re still here with me, well done. I’m about to say something that’s gonna make me feel super old but here it is.
During the time that went between me discovering Vivien Westwood’s photo and obsessing over punk’s aesthetics and today, the internet and social media completely changed. Since it’s the main mode of communication for so many people, it’s not hard to understand that the way we learn about and experience fashion also changed. With this in mind, we can start looking at consumers asking brands for accountability. It might be easy for brands today to jump on the activism train but a lot of consumers can see right through that.
Refusing to accept the state of the industry as it is today and demand more environmental and social justice is a form of activism. And the fact that we have people on social media who are devoted full time to this is, in my opinion, a good thing. I am well aware of the criticism that goes around the ideas of ethical or sustainable influencing and social media activism. Much of it is valid and I agree with it. However, I like to focus on a bigger picture, go beyond individual cases. You may or may not agree with the activists on social media but their activity is a sign of the deep need to change things in the industry. To me, it’s just a stage in the evolution of fashion activism.
Finally, here’s another way fashion activism changed.
I perhaps gave too much space to luxury and big brands adopting activism in their interest. Meanwhile, there are smaller brands who may or may not do bold political statements but they work on changing the industry. It goes beyond statements, social media activity, and even the clothes they make. I’m talking here about brands that use their businesses as a form of activism. Again, we have a whole spectrum here, and it’s not something we’re seeing for the first time in history. Nevertheless, there are brands now whose whole business purpose and set up is to make a social and environmental change. Some brands, like GNGR Bees, even fund directly climate action projects.
Look, protests and bold political statements will continue to happen in fashion. What is significant is that activism became a core of how some businesses work.
Honestly, that is what gives me hope. How about you?