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Essay

Essay: Fashion and Politics

by Christopher Breward on 23 July 2008

Design Historian Christopher Breward on the limitations of politicised dress.

Design Historian Christopher Breward on the limitations of politicised dress.

Russian Constructivist workwear design by Alexander Rodchenko

If politics is about the exercise and regulation of power in public and private life, then fashion would appear to be the ideal mirror of, and vehicle for political action. In all aspects of its production, dissemination and use the fashion product engages in a distinctive polity. Its materials relate to ethical values; its manufacture is informed by the legal and illegal practices of government and business; its promotion entails an engagement with a visual politics of persuasion; and its wearing ignites the fiercest moral debates. And yet….

The history of dress provides a familiar roll-call of self-consciously ‘politicised’ items, where an over-literal interpretation of ideology seems sometimes to leach the political life out of the very fabric. From the sans-culottes of Revolutionary France, through the utopian prozodezhda of constructivist Russia to Katherine Hamnett’s iconic anti-nuclear slogan t-shirts of the mid 1980s, the potential of clothing to act as a form of sartorial agit-prop, seems to me to have been fatally limited. When garment becomes billboard, all the nuances of signification in which political meaning ultimately lies are amplified into a one-dimensional propagandist rant. Context, as ever, appears to be all. It’s the savage imagery of the sans-culotte in eighteenth-century satirical print-culture that terrifies; the face-to-face confrontation of Tory prime minister and campaigning fashion designer that inspires – not the item itself.

Fashion at its most vibrant is in and of the political – and no more so than when its surfaces coalesce to ‘épater le bourgeois’.

So, rather than embed the politics in the dress, far better to recognise the paradoxes and tensions which position fashion itself as paradigmatic of the broader politics of the time. Fashion at its most vibrant is in and of the political – and no more so than when its surfaces coalesce to ‘épater le bourgeois’. The provocations of Punk have often been cited in this respect. But in my view the Italians were doing it better and earlier. Anyone doubting this should turn to Paola Colaiacomo’s recent and excellent book Factious Elegance: Pasolini and Male Fashion (Marsilio: 2007) and in particular to the illustration on its back inside cover, where the matrix of dress, body, desire and power finds a piquant and electrifying resolution.

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