Fashion has never been apolitical
This year’s Met Gala saw stars, politicians and fashion designers using the high-profile event as a platform to give voice to political issues – from female empowerment to animal rights.
Two of the University’s senior fashion academics explore the relationship between fashion and politics, which was prominent at the event.
Dr Flavia Loscialpo, Senior Research Fellow in Cultural Studies and Fashion, and course leader of the MA Creative Direction in Fashion and Beauty, says: “Fashion has always provided visual, material, symbolic and narrative spaces within which political issues are performed, articulated and challenged. If we resist oversimplifications that dismiss fashion as a frivolous phenomenon, or that view it in terms of mere commodity, we can understand the multi-faceted nature of fashion’s deep political dimension.
“Fashion is never apolitical, for even the rejection of fashion, the decision not to care about fashion, ultimately is a political statement.
“In recent years, we have witnessed an unprecedented awakening of fashion’s political consciousness, within a global political context characterized by unrest, the rise of populism, nationalism and xenophobia, Black Lives Matter protests, environmental concerns, feminist protests and social justice movements. It is hence inevitable that clear and loud political statements would be seen at the Met Gala, one of the most important fashion events of the year and a precious platform to share messages, also of political nature.”
Sharon Lloyd, course leader for MA Make-up and Hair Design Futures asks: “So, when is fashion not a political statement?
“Monday night's Met Gala in New York was a timely reminder that the donning of attire is a conscious decision, and in the current social and political climate fashion is reasserting the conversations that have been pushed to the side regardless of how important they seemed at the time (for example, how many conversations are still being held around BLM, which trended so conspicuously last year after the death of George Floyd).”
Exploring the statements made at the event, Flavia says: “As an emotionally charged, highly visual, and embodied practice, which can question existing power structures, hegemonies, and even bring change, fashion becomes the medium through which political messages are communicated. Put it slightly differently, as Alexanderia Ocasio Cortez wrote on Instagram, ‘the medium is the message’.
“The New York Congresswoman, who attended the Met Gala for the first time, did not miss this chance to send a strong political message and make a powerful impact with her white off-the-shoulder dress ‘Tax the Rich’ by sustainable brand Brother Vellies, founded by Aurora James, an immigrant and Black female designer.
“Other political statements made by Met Gala attendees addressed LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, animal rights movements, and remarked also the composite nature of ‘American identity’, which is not made only of ‘American’ ingredients. Rapper Saweetie eloquently draped the Black American heritage flag and the Filipino flag behind her, explaining "That's what makes me an American girl".
“Indeed, we must be careful to take the theme ‘American fashion’ as a purely patriotic move. Andrew Bolton, the Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, explains that the exhibition ‘In America: A Lexicon of Fashion’ intends to offer a nuanced definition of American fashion, which focusses on heterogeneity, diversity, and pluralism.”
Sharon Lloyd adds: “It is not without irony that the theme of this year's Met Gala, "In America - a Lexicon of Fashion', and the accompanying exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts was informed by discussions around the Black Lives Matter Movement, which was met with a range of interpretations and political statements that summed up the discussions to be held around diversity, inclusivity, sustainability, gender fluidity, and body positivity. And while there are those that would say that fashion is not the place for these debates, I would say if not here, then where else could the collective consciousness of an industry be highlighted so effectively.”
To conclude, Flavia explains: “Just as the exhibition accepts this complex challenge, several attendees of the Met Gala have taken the responsibility to address uncomfortable issues related to power, hierarchies, and cultural identities. After all, through time, sartorial choices have always represented sites of political articulation, negotiation and resistance. These choices, whether they appear at the Met Gala, in the street, or at a demonstration - such as the SportsBanger’s “Fuck Boris” T-shirt – are visual reminders that contemporary fashion is deeply embedded in current global politics.”
Sharon reflects: “Is this new? Let us not forget that a collective decision is better than none, I am thinking here of the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, where all the women wore black in protest of sexual harassment and to raise awareness for Time’s Up, the initiative created to fight sexual misconduct and gender inequality in Hollywood and beyond.
“So, while the Met Gala fashion statements may seem trite to some, and raise questions of authenticity, complicity, of consequence, of impact and real world struggles as well as representation, fashion has the ability to galvanise people collectively, if only for one night.”
Dr Flavia Loscialpo is a senior lecturer in fashion and MA coordinator at Solent University, UK, where she also leads the research cluster in fashion. She obtained her PhD in philosophy from Sapienza University of Rome (2008), and is alumnus of the MA Fashion Curation, London College of Fashion. She is specialised in curation, philosophy of language, aesthetics, and fashion theory, and has published internationally on deconstruction, Japanese fashion and utopian movements.
Sharon Lloyd is a course leader in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Architecture and Engineering at Solent University, leading courses including MA Creative Direction for Fashion and Beauty as well as make-up, hair design and special effects specialisms. Sharon studied at Chelsea School of Art and later achieved a MA Fashion Textiles and European PgDip in Textiles and Fashion Marketing at Winchester School of Art. Her identification of the representations of beauty, size, age, and ethnicity formulated by the media and fashion industry has led her to seek critical debate on the nature of transgression within fashion, celebrity, cosmetics and beauty.