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Essay: Political Fashion

by Jane Audas on 23 July 2008

Writer and Curator Jane Audas on the incongruity of fashion and political statements.

Writer and Curator Jane Audas on the incongruity of fashion and political statements.

Sarah Morrison by Nick Knight (2000)

In fashion you are not allowed to have an opinion.

You may wear something contentious, provoking, offensive…but only as long as it remains an unspoken challenge. Visual imagery - particularly fashion imagery - is less likely to be held accountable for its content than the written or spoken word. The silence of the image is its strength, its protection. Yet it is also what sites fashion as unimportant and trivial.

It may be acceptable to find the serious both beautiful and evocative. But attempting to take the ephemeral seriously can lead to ridicule. When fashion is deemed to have stepped out of its self-protective wrapper, the results can be uncomfortable, sometimes laughable: ‘I’m not a plastic bag’; Hussein Chalayan’s models, naked but for chadors; Bailey’s blood-strewn anti-fur images; Vogue and the size zero debate; Benetton’s politicised campaigns; Vivienne Westwood’s Manifesto; Knight’s images of Sarah Morrison; Hamnett’s ubiquitous T-shirts.

If the industry struggles to lay clean its own politics, then how can it complain when it is taken at face value?

It is always uncomfortable when fashion takes itself seriously. How can something so much concerned with surface have a political agenda of any depth? Yet other forms of popular culture are allowed to weight themselves without much quibble: film, sport, art, music, comedy.

Then there is the breadth of interpretation that the fashion industry has long prided itself on. It leaves the insider critic in an uncomfortable place. When an agenda is so seemingly open, how hard it is to pull any real meaning out of it. And if the industry struggles to lay clean its own politics - and retreats in the face of any sniff of disquiet - then how can it complain when it is taken at face value?

The wise fashion designer has learnt to keep quiet about political agendas. How can anyone be both fashionable and informed? Yet the very act of dressing in the morning is a personal declaration of stance, aesthetics, consumption and class. If that is not political, then what is?

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