Is it any surprise that fashion designers have become politically-motivated in the current political climate? It shouldn't. At its core, theirs is a world about identity and self-expression, and so there's no time like the present for designers and models and editors to speak out about the ideals and progressive causes they have always embraced and defended.
The topic of politics was unmissable during this past New York Fashion Week. It was on the runway in the form of the obvious—political slogans adorning clothing in the collections of Public School, Prabal Gurung, Jonathan Simkhai, Christian Siriano, and the CFDA's Planned Parenthood campaign, among others—or the slightly more nuanced—the political considerations in the clothes shown at Calvin Klein, Gypsy Sport and even Jeremy Scott.
It was in the street style and in the front row (Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin and Tiffany Trump both made multiple appearances; Clinton herself turned up on the last day at a stamp dedication for Oscar de la Renta). It was the talk of even the most raucous after parties. It was in the video W released yesterday of 81 different figures from the fashion world repeating the simple phrase “I am an Immigrant.”
While there may be an impulse by some to dismiss all these statements as the silly worrying of urban elites who should simply shut up and make pretty dresses, there’s something else going on. This isn’t a simple matter of left vs. right politics as we knew them in America for decades. All the unease in these corners hasn’t sprung up over the idea of tax cuts, a smaller government or how best to deal with the future of Social Security. This isn't even sour grapes over the fashion industry's preferred candidate's loss. This runs much deeper.
It is because the goals and rhetoric of the Donald J. Trump administration, and the formerly fringe movements propping up his mandate, are at direct odds with the vulnerable people and values that have historically found refuge and protection within the fashion industry.
Fashion is, at its most powerful, about defining yourself through the way you dress and present yourself to the world. Whether it's someone codifying their social status through the predictable—say an affluent New Englander adorning themselves in the preppy chic of cable knit sweaters and polo shirts, or in turn, working-class Brooklynites appropriating those codes to re-invent themselves—or the proverbial story of the small-town aspiring fashionista who moves to the big city and redefines herself in thrift-store finds and Hood by Air sample sales, the power of clothes is here for both.
The dream of fashion is that identity is not something that is necessarily rigid and fixed from birth and class, but that identity is something that can be self-realized. This has been true especially in recent years as evidenced by the blurring of the masculine and the feminine on the runways, in the mixing of the high and the low in editorials, and in the ever increasing (though with long ways to go) celebration of diversity of all kinds, from race and religion to age and body shape (see Ashley Graham at Michael Kors this season, or the real women at Creatures of the Wind). The fashion world hopes that the clothes it produces lead to expression of one's chosen self-identity, whether it happens to be something someone adopts for a lifetime or changes every day.
This emerging movement on the right, however, sees identity as something absolute and fixed. They seem aghast at recent social progress and they somehow feel attacked when others speak up. In this emerging conservative mindset, Muslims shouldn't be offended by the phrase "radical Islamist," transgender people shouldn't complain about not having access to bathrooms, and concerns about voting rights are dismissed. The argument behind Trump's immigration ban seems to be that if you're a citizen from one of seven Muslim-majority countries, you have to jump through hoops and pass “extreme vetting” until it's 100 percent absolutely certain you aren’t one of the “bad ones,” or that if you're from Mexico, you're not one of the "bad hombres," in Trump's inarticulate phrasing. It's the racially-tinged equivalent of "guilty until proven innocent." They have defined their enemies at home in strict terms as well. All feminists, in the words of two worryingly prominent trolls whose names need not reprinting, will wake up one day and find themselves depressed, lonely cat ladies. Or, they're "nasty women," to quote Trump again. And anyone who has ever been offended by anything is simply a “snowflake.” These, by the way, are the "nicer" examples of their insults.
This is why fashion has responded the way it has.
It’s why Business of Fashion started the #TiedTogether campaign meant to “make a clear statement of solidarity, unity, and inclusiveness.” The campaign’s white bandannas were shown on the runway at Tommy Hilfiger and passed out to guests at Calvin Klein.
It’s why Gurung sent models down the runway wearing T-shirts proclaiming “love is the resistance” and “Stronger the fear,” and Siriano showed his own “People are people” shirt. It’s why Public School showed hats that read “Make American New York” because they (wished)[http://www.essence.com/fashion/woke-new-york-fashion-week-moments] “"the rest of the states were like New York from an inclusivity standpoint, from a diversity standpoint, from an action standpoint." It's why Raf Simons, after showing his namesake collection in New York, told WWD, "If you want to have a voice, you can’t walk around it. If you have a voice, use it.”
Fashion is a world where freaks and geeks have always been welcomed, if not outright thrived, where everyone from a young Puerto Rican illustrator like the late Antonio Lopez to the Minnesota-born, underground voguer Shayne Oliver can become the toast of Paris, and where immigrants like Oscar de la Renta and the children of immigrants like Alexander Wang can build empires. It's an industry that has long stood up for charitable causes, like its admirable and early advocacy to raise awareness and funding for HIV/AIDS and breast cancer research.
In other words, what may seem as recent "woke activism" has always been running just under the surface in the fashion community. The underlying message of the recent collections is that despite the niche it occupies in the cultural zeitgeist, for people in fashion, the personal has always been political, and designers are going to use the only platform they have, their runways, to stand up for the causes and individuals they believe in. In the end, there are some values that shouldn't be politicized at all.
I Am an Immigrant: Fashion's Biggest Names Issue a United Statement