When news broke that the powder blue cashmere dress and bolero worn by Melania Trump to Donald Trump’s inauguration last Friday was the work of Ralph Lauren, social media went into power mode ‘High’. Was she deliberately channelling Jackie Kennedy? Why did she choose Ralph Lauren? Why did he agree? Questions came thick and fast, but the overriding message of this flurry of social media activity was this: fashion can be political.
This idea, of course, is nothing new. Indeed, designers have used their wares to make political statements for decades – designers like Katherine Hammnett. She rose to fame in the 80s for her production of the slogan t-shirts ‘PEACE’, ‘WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW’ and most famously ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ (a statement against war and death, nothing to do with anti-abortion, to be clear). ‘If you want to get the message out there, you should print it in giant letters on a t-shirt,’ she once said.
Vivienne Westwood similarly produced her 'I AM NOT A TERRORIST, please don’t arrest me' tee, in response to the proposed anti-terrorist legislation in 2005. In 2013, Gucci launched their global ‘Chime For Change’ campaign to raise awareness and funding for projects around the world supporting girls and women.
More recently, Alice + Olivia designer Stacey Bendet wore an ‘I'm With Her’ skirt to the brand's SS17 presentation last September in New York – a clear message of support for Hillary Clinton in the run up to the presidential elections – and designer Ashish Gupta wore a tee bearing the word ‘Immigrant’ to his SS17 presentation during London Fashion Week – a clear anti-Brexit message.
So yes, we know designers are not averse to inserting political messages into their garments. Now let's look at those directly involved in politics. You might think that their principles and policies are what really matter, but no, what they wear is often deemed just as important.
Take Jackie Kennedy. She became a global fashion icon during her years as First Lady, with a wardrobe made up mostly of Oleg Cassini’s creations, alongside select pieces from Chanel, Dior and Givenchy. With her signature knee-length skirt and three-quarter-length jacket suits complete with pillbox hats, the ‘Jackie’ look became a major fashion trend for the Western world. How’s that for influential when your husband’s the president?
It's a similar story with Michelle Obama. Case in point, who hadn’t heard of ‘that’ Atelier Versace gown she wore to her final state dinner as First Lady last October? As The New York Times wrote, ‘The dress, after all, was made of rose gold … chain mail. As much as it was gracefully cut and draped, it also spoke of armor and female strength, of the need to gird yourself to fight for what you believe in.’ Political statement or what?
Hillary Clinton, wearing her white pantsuits for both her Democratic nomination for president acceptance speech and Trump’s inauguration – a symbolic reference to the Suffragettes who wore white…
This side of the Atlantic, we have The Queen. How many column inches have been dedicated to her fashion choices over the years and how important it is that she consistently hits the right sartorial note? As The Guardian wrote last year during her 90th birthday celebrations, ‘[Elizabeth II’s] wardrobe has been her armoury, designed to purvey power and regal dignity as a national figurehead’. What more could you ask for from the wardrobe of a head of state?
And then we have our current Prime Minister. Theresa May is set to feature on the front cover of US Vogue's April edition, owing to her love of fashion. Don't say that won't spread her appeal across the pond. Why is her passion for fashion so renowned? Probably something to do with the fact that virtually every pair of shoes she wore last year (which weren’t a form of non-descript pump) became a headline of some sort. Don't even get us started on her trousers...
And they're only people involved in governance. What about our wardrobe choices? Can they be linked to politics too?
Yes. Here are some examples...
Wearing designer clothes. We buy designer because the clothes are on-trend and of better quality than non-designer, but also because they make us feel special – let’s face it, they do, even if we don't spend the RRP and find them serendipitously in a charity shop. Wearing designer clothes symbolises status. And what is that, if not political?
Conversely, what about wearing high street clothes? Is that linked to politics? Yes. Because the people working to produce them often operate under horrendous working conditions, earning less than the minimum wage – like the 8,000 Cambodian workers who have reportedly collapsed over the last six years producing clothes for H&M. It’s an uncomfortable thought, but by purchasing garments at conveniently low prices, it’s possible we’re supporting businesses that ignore the basic human rights of some of the poorest people on earth.
What about wearing leather? That says that we are not animal rights campaigners. Not wearing organic cotton? We are not ardent environmentalists…
We cannot escape politics when it comes to fashion, no matter what we wear. This means that the clothes we purchase are important – whether we’re politicians, heads of state or otherwise.
Think we already spend too much time pondering what to wear? Maybe we don’t spend long enough.