Charged Fashion: How Politics and Protest Effect Style

What do anti-fracking, gun control and the May 1968 Paris student riots have in common? For one thing, they are all strong and emotional movements, but the main similarity is that each charged idea was alive and prominent this Fashion Month.

During London Fashion Week, Vivienne Westwood gave her models picket signs and marched them down Knightsbridge declaring anti-fracking slogans. Gucci’s Alessandro Michele gave $50,000 to the March For Our Lives gun control movement following the attack at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month. And Maria Grazia Chiuri cited the historic Paris riots in her Fall/Winter 2018 collection for Dior, while decorating the presentation at Paris Fashion Week with allusions to all kinds of fights for equality from the 1960s to present, showing that this theme of wanting a better world has stayed constant.

This political charge pulsing throughout the fashion world might feel different and unique, but the truth is that the concept is nowhere near new. Vivienne Westwood alone has around 40 years of protest under her belt, speaking out on anything that piques her passion, from climate change to Scottish independence.


Westwood was a pioneer in the 1970s punk fashion movement, which might be what began fashion’s quest to earn a place as a legitimate political platform. Along with partner Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols, Westwood ignited the purposefully boisterous and ostentatious punk aesthetic. The look was intentionally rebellious and stood behind a youth culture desire to get a rise out of authority and have their voices heard. They weren’t rebelling against one specific notion but rather seeking radical change: changes in race and gender equality, changes in how the world saw the youth, and changes in traditional views of how lives should be lived.

Since the provocative punk fashion trend, protests and political messages have become increasingly more commonplace. Earlier on, these messages came across as rebelling against the status quo, like Jean-Paul Gaultier dressing men in skirts in 1984. Slowly, sartorial revolutions became more specifically motivated, yet still without a strong, current message. For example, Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape collection in 1995, which drew attention to the brutality of 18th and 19th century attacks from England on the designer’s native Scotland.

But the fashion industry truly solidified its seat at the political discussion table in recent years, starting three years ago when Karl Lagerfeld literally staged a riot to present his Chanel Spring/Summer 2015 collection. Sporting the Chanel garments, models carried picket signs with slogans of “History is Herstory” or “Feministe Mais Feminine” and marched down a Paris street created within the city’s Grand Palais, somewhat reminiscent of the May 1968 riots that inspired Maria Grazia Chiuri this year. Though powerful, this display of political fashion is still lighthearted compared to what the campaign has evolved into. Lagerfeld’s protest was a general celebration of women’s rights and the fight for those rights, not too specific to a singular cause.

Following the act of terror on French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Walter Van Beirendonck added a message of solidarity to his Fall/Winter 2015 menswear collection. Clothing displayed emblazoned letters reading “Stop Terrorising Our World.” “Initially, I didn’t want to make statements but when you see what is happening in the world, you must react,” the designer explained to French newspaper Le Pont.

via Refinery29

Words printed on clothing are the most prevalent form of protest fashion, starting in 1983 when Katharine Hamnett crafted the famed “Choose Life” printed T-shirt. Last year, numerous American designers took to the printed T-shirts as a way to express their feelings towards recent political changes and social issues. Slogans included “We Are All Human Beings” from Creatures of Comfort, “People are People” from Christian Siriano, Public School’s “Make America New York,” Jonathan Simkhai’s “Feminist AF,” and many sayings from Prabal Gurung, including “Revolution has no borders,” “The future is female,” and “I am an immigrant.” LRS studio printed the words “Fuck Your Wall” on the backs of underwear, and inspiringly, Alice + Olivia included Gandhi’s “Be the change you wish to see in the world” quote on printed tees in their Fall/Winter 2017 collection.

Fashion is no different from fine arts, which have always responded to problems and changes within our society. Andy Warhol mass produced screen printed depictions of commonplace items to call out on conformity in his lifetime. Abstraction in art developed out of the upheaval of a post-war world, with artists like Willem de Kooning or Jackson Pollock smearing or throwing thick globs of paint onto canvases to cope with feelings of uncertainty. Art reflects its society, and fashion is the most powerful art there is. It interacts with our lives and effects everyone; unlike a painting, clothing is the art we wear. Just like with fine artists, fashion designers from Vivienne Westwood to Maria Grazia Chiuri take influence from current events and communicate their feelings through their design.

It only makes sense for fashion to become more politically charged as we become more concerned with taking a stand. Fashion, like any art, is a mirror to its world, but also aids in understanding and coping with the frustration and confusion in that world. Fashion is the most political art there is.

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