There has been a recent wave of criticism from employees, former employees, and consumers regarding the way fashion publications and brands operate and the products they produce. Allegations specifically regarding discrimination based on race have led to the departure of several media executives over the past couple of weeks. While most people can agree that workplace discrimination should never be allowed, there are still people who are upset by the fashion industry's decision to address the Black Lives Matter movement and fire personnel accused of racism. Some consumers want significant changes in the way businesses function. In contrast, others look at fashion as an escape from the "real world" and want the industry to stay out of social or political issues. This online fight around the two perspectives has raised a big question, is fashion supposed to be political?
Race equality, LGBTQ rights, women's rights, and environmental sustainability are political issues — even though many people would argue that they shouldn't be. Nonetheless, any business that chooses to show their support for these causes will alienate some consumers. As politics invade every front of our lives, it is natural for consumers to want an escape, and they will be angered by any company that doesn't just "shut up and sell." Unfortunately for those shoppers, they will not find relief from reality in the fashion industry. Fashion has always been closely tied to reality, as Vivienne Westwood says, "Fashion is a mirror of the world." Currently, the world is grappling with issues that seem like they're straight out of an apocalypse-themed movie. The fashion industry is mirroring those issues through bankruptcies and job loss, human rights violations against garment workers, and unprecedented consumer anger directed towards brands from every direction. Fashion is reflecting the problems humanity is facing and the feelings that accompany them. The industry has no choice but to be "political" because the world is fighting about politics every day, and fashion and only reflecting what happens in the "real world."
"As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associate myself in any way with the next First Lady." This quote from Sophie Theallet was made just after the 2016 presidential election, during which Donald Trump was elected. Since then, several designers have been vocal about their decision to, or not to, dress the Trump family. Christian Siriano said this when asked by Time, "I think for a while, everyone was trying to figure out what to do [with Melania]. Unfortunately, it really doesn't have anything to do with her, but she is representing what's happening politically and what's happening politically right now is not really good for anyone." Other designers like Tommy Hilfiger said, "I don't think people should become political about it." When it comes to dressing a political leader or someone related to a political leader, it is the most blatant display of politics in fashion. Designers faced a lot of condemnation and support for their views on dressing Melania Trump because what she wears makes a statement. Who can forget the "I really don't care, do u?" jacket that she wore on a trip to visit immigrant children at a border detention facility. That was a statement, whether it was directed at the media, as she claims, or if it was expressing her tone-deafness towards the immigration crisis, the jacket led the news cycle. When Tommy Hilfiger says people shouldn't make clothes political, he is ignoring the fact that politics also includes humanitarian issues like immigration. Theallet and Siriano, on the other hand, are hyper-aware of the way that policy decisions and clothing intertwine. Some will say that Hilfiger was just trying to be neutral, while Theallet and Siriano are initiating a public feud. But, over the past couple of years, the political divide in the U.S. has grown and become more bitter, and remaining neutral is now the same as supporting injustice.
Someone who is not remaining neutral in politics is singer Joy Villa, who gained notoriety for wearing Trump-themed dresses — mostly designed by Andre Soriano — to the Grammy Awards. "It's about bringing people together," says Andre about his gowns, seemingly forgetting Trump has led the country to become "more divided than ever." Joy and Andre are both clearly vocal supporters of the Trump presidency with Joy admitting during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that she has a personal relationship with the Trump family. She attended the recent Grammys in a "Trump 2020" latex dress with the phrase "impeached and re-elected" on the back. Before that, she wore a dress designed to imitate a brick wall with the words "build the wall," a pro-life dress in 2018, and a MAGA dress in 2017. The 2020 re-election and 2019 wall dresses were created with the help of Desi Allinger. Joy Villa's outfit choices are the opposite of subtle, and it is not difficult to see how, in these cases, fashion has been politicized. Naturally, there was backlash, anger, and mostly joking at the expense of Villa and her designers regarding the dresses. This reflects how other Trump supporters are addressed on social media in particular. While her political and fashion choices were dragged, Villa was still able to attend the award show and was even joined by other artists flaunting political messages across their wardrobes.
The Grammy Awards were not the only show where designer gowns were used to make a political statement. The 2018 Golden Globe Awards saw the vast majority of attendees, particularly women, wearing all black in support of the #MeToo movement. "Women adopted the black dress as a means of proclaiming solidarity and conveying an important political message. At one of the most politically charged awards ceremonies in memory, clothes mattered more than ever. The action reminded people that fashion isn't just glamour but can be about many things, including solidarity and protest. I think this idea has never been as important as it is now." says Donna Loveday, the co-curator of the Design Museum's 2014 exhibition, Women Fashion Power. Three women did not wear black to the Golden Globes; they all defended their reasoning for doing this and reiterated their support for the Time's Up movement. Model Barbara Meier wrote this on her Instagram page before hitting the red carpet, "If we want this to be the Golden Globes of the strong women who stand up for their rights, I think, it's the wrong way not to wear any sexy clothes anymore or let people take away our joy of showing our personality through fashion. We were fighting a long time for the freedom to wear what we want to and that it is also OK, to dress up a little more sexy. If we now restrict this, because some men can't control themselves, this is a huge step back in my opinion." Meier's dress choice was a less obvious form of political protest, but it mirrors the reality of society perfectly.
Is fashion supposed to be political? Yes. Fashion mirrors reality, and our reality revolves around politics and political issues. The industry may face criticism for speaking out and be forced to change when actions don't back up words, but at least these changes will keep fashion relevant. After all, relevance is what keeps us shopping.