Fashion and politics are two topics that continuously influence and cross-reference each other, entangled in the same web, like a passionate love affair, never leaving each other alone. It's no secret that fashion's role in the political sphere has been well documented over the last century; after all, fashion is and always will be inherently political. Clothing reflects who we are and no matter how many people in a crowd stand up and say 'I don't care about clothes or my image,' those same people still choose to make a conscious choice to get dressed in the morning, stepping into clothes that send out a message as to who they are, what they represent and what they believe in, whether they realise it or not. The very act of dressing in the morning is a personal declaration of stance, aesthetics, consumption and class. If that isn't political, then what is? Just yesterday, Virgil Abloh dedicated his Louis Vuitton A/W 21 collection to the exploration of dreams, desires, biases and the political implications behind clothes.' To sit here and list the countless scholarly articles that have braced this topic or even to cite the Katharine Hamnett slogan T-shirts in their hundreds, would be a somewhat tedious exercise for me and an even more soul-destroying one for you to read. So, we'll keep it short for now but say it with me; fashion is political. And in her latest project, artist, stylist and director Betsy Johnson proves just that.
Johnson's photo series The Candidate, which stars dancer model and trans activist Sakeema Peng Crook, intelligently and broadly widens the spectrum of what sort of figures we consider as part of our political conversations. Through her sensitive yet unapologetic photographic lens, Johnson raises questions integral to today's debate, focusing on fashion and the identity politics that take part in the political playground. When we think of politicians, we often think of white men (say 50 plus at best) and although there have been some fabulous white male politicians intrinsic to this country's history (Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn and Clement Atlee to name a few) I'd like to think of them as a few good apples in a basket of badly bruised ones. White, male and quite frankly old politicians should be the exception, never the rule - yet it seems to be the reverse both for Britain, America and many countries worldwide. When thinking of Black female politicians both in Britain and America - the choice is somewhat limited; Kamala Harris and Diane Abbott are the fairly obvious ones that spring to mind - one of whom has been notoriously bullied and ridiculed online by the public and fellow politicians, I think we know who I'm referring to.
The Candidate (which launched 17:00 GMT on Johnson's Instagram last night) is as timely and relevant as it is thought-provoking and imaginative, honouring the sentiment that politics and fashion are aligned and sometimes even headed in similar directions. When you consider the sublime - not to mention symbolic - fashion on display at yesterday's presidential inauguration, it hammers home the voice and platform that fashion has in today's political spectrum, a voice that Johnson is trying to highlight. The stylist called upon her friend (and inspiration), fellow BFC New Wave Creative Sakeema Peng Crook, to star in her photo series which has been in the works for the past year. It is a project that was going to coincide with the inauguration no matter the election result - triumphant or not.
Upon being asked whether Peng Crook felt represented politically, she stated, 'I represent myself politically,' going on to reference the notion that 'to some extent every queer person who exists unapologetically represents me politically, existing to find something outside of the matrix that brings us together.' Admitting that the majority of people in politics at the moment resemble little to no variation whatsoever, Peng Crook commented, 'If politics is to continue, I want to see all kinds of people in these plantation houses fucking up the old system for better and much less of that Capitol storming atrocity.'
When speaking of activism and representation, Peng Crook noted that the George Floyd murder led to an 'entire awakening measurement' for her.
'Collectively, I think it was the first time we had no choice but to really see and feel the realities that we had been ignoring while caught up in the rat race. I didn't consider that what I would step into would be the role of an activist. I just felt compelled and found my voice in the process.'
Admitting that her activism and research has 'shifted somewhat from the initial protests', Peng Crook wants to align her current focus with visibility. 'In being visible, my intention is that I can encourage others to stand up, and make them feel seen too,' which is exactly what Johnson's photo series conveys; the visibility of people in politics and positions of authority in general. 'We've been whitewashed, and it's time to bring back the true meaning of the rainbow. Real change is happening, and change is the only consistent thing we have, we have to embrace uncertainty because it holds so much possibility.'
Johnson has made it clear she wants all eyes to be on Peng Crook when revealing her project — a woman that Johnson admits has '...inspired me from the moment I met her, as a close friend and an artist.' Johnson explains 'every piece of advice or opinion is always so informed, intelligent and empathetic, she (Sakeema) needs a billboard.' And a billboard she now has. Johnson admitted the pair have been keen on the idea of creating something together for a while but wanted to make sure they weren't just producing another fashion shoot that was being thrown into the void. 'We wanted to do something that extended past just beautiful imagery and represented both me and Sakeema's thoughts and strength as women' Johnson explained.
Growing up fascinated by political imagery and how women are portrayed in politics (albeit, when they rarely appear) Johnson looked to old photographs of Margaret Thatcher as a springboard for inspiration for the series. The outcome? Imagine the satire of a Private Eye cover with the sharpness of a Vogue shoot. No white man is present, but a powerful Femme Queen is, and she rules supreme, styled tastefully and elegantly while standing tall. The Candidate is as much about the representation of different women in politics as it is about fashion being political. Johnson made sure that she wanted someone who 'encompassed the ability to empathise with and represent all women,' something Sakeema does effortlessly and defiantly.
When speaking of symbolism, its presence was staggering on Wednesday afternoon at Joe Biden's inauguration. The event itself was a symbol of hope, bringing home the idea that no matter how bad things seem - politically or not - everything is temporary, including Trump's presidency which many thought would never end when he came to power in 2017. Wednesday afternoon was peppered with symbols that offered unity and faith, freedom and democracy; from Jenifer Lopez walking out in an all-white Chanel ensemble (white being known by many as the colour of the women's suffragettes), to the rich shades of purple elegantly worn by vice president-elect Kamala Harris in Christopher John Rogers, Hilary Clinton in Ralf Lauren and Michele Obama in a monochrome look by Black American designer, Sergio Hudson. Purple has long been associated with being an allegory for hope and unity; feelings that were restored in many Americans Wednesday afternoon while watching the historic event.