Fashion is often called a social mirror, part of its role being to reflect the zeitgeist while putting clothes on people’s backs. So politicized fashion isn’t exactly new — think Vivienne Westwood’s Seventies punk, Katharine Hamnett’s graphic T-shirts in the Eighties or even Christian Dior’s revolutionary New Look of the Forties. But it’s very of the now.
It may feel cynically commercial to lump positive political messaging in with standard seasonal trends, such as red, Eighties, arts and crafts and fur details, yet ruminations on and reactions to the upheaval sweeping Western civilization were everywhere during the fall collections.
At times, designers spelled it out — literally – with blatant messaging printed across garments in collections including Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, Public School and Versace. Angela Missoni turned her show into her own mini Women’s March, giving each guest, model and backstage hand a pink “pussy” hat made in the Missoni mills. Other designers handled topical issues with more subtlety, making female empowerment, hope, love, diversity and inclusiveness the subject of backstage conversations or working ideas into their show through casting, narrative and silhouette. Two prime examples of that were Undercover, where Jun Takahashi staged a theatrical alternate reality of otherworldly creatures of equal rank and file, and Stella McCartney, who made her point with tailoring spliced with pointy cone bras and a choreographed dance with models singing their anthem: “Don’t you f—k with my energy.”
So is this what protest fashion should be? Is there a right way to do it, lest it come off as a gimmick? Do customers even care — or is it mostly a fleeting statement the designer makes at their runway show with little broader cultural resonance?
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘protest,’” said Pamela Golbin, chief curator of the Musée de la Mode et du Textile. “It’s not about protesting, it’s about expressing a point of view about what’s going on. It’s a very political moment. For a whole year, Americans went through a very vigorous process electing a new president. And in Europe, whether in England, France, Germany, Italy, all of these countries are going through a voting process and it’s very difficult. Fashion has always been a mirror of society and it’s only normal that they comment on it.”
One thing that felt new and distinctive about the season was the sheer number and breadth of designers who, to invoke a trite way of putting it, were moved to get in on “the conversation.” Motivations and executions differed, but the timing had much to do with it. The political upset escalated drastically since the spring shows when the vastly liberal-leaning fashion industry was riding high on the hope of a historic Hillary Clinton administration. Fast-forward to February when New York Fashion Week fell two-and-a-half weeks after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration and the global Women’s March.
Missoni was directly inspired by the image of a sea of people wearing the pink “pussy” hats that became the de facto uniform for the March. “Actually, I didn’t know much [about the march] before,” said Missoni. “I went to look what it was and what happened and how it happened and I thought it was really, really incredible. I said OK, I want to be part of that — and of course I have a knitwear company. I said, I’m going to give out those berets. I’m going to produce them.”
She had four weeks to figure out how she could produce enough hats for everyone at the show — some were knitted, some were cut-and-sew. They were all different. “At the end we gave out something like 1,300 berets that day,” she said.
She went a step farther by making an impassioned speech at the end of the show, gathering her family and asking all the guests to join her on the runway. “The week before the show, I thought, I really have to say something, more than a press release talking about the berets,” said Missoni.
She had never used her catwalk to make a political statement before. “On the day of the Women’s March, I realized how much of the fashion community, every single person I know, was active on Instagram,” she said. “I realized we are all thinking the same and we might need a place where we can say, ‘Yes, we are all together.’”
The Women’s March also inspired Gurung to call out women’s and immigrant rights, diversity and love with his finale when he sent out a parade of slogan T-shirts — “Nevertheless She Persisted,” “We Will Not Be Silenced,” “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” — worn with skirts that walked to a new version of John Lennon’s classic “Imagine.” “I left the march feeling very inspired, and I thought if I could capture that particular emotion [on the runway],” he said.
Gurung has in the past used his show to make a statement for a cause about which he’s passionate. For spring 2016, a few months after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit his native Nepal, he opened the show with a group of Nepalese monks chanting to give his audience a glimpse of the local culture. And his spring collection was a more subtle ode to Gloria Steinem. He decided to be more overt in his message for fall.
“I was just like, ‘How do I make people understand where my thoughts are?’” said Gurung. “I also thought that just doing a collection and not saying anything felt very tone-deaf and not who I am. I have this, let’s say, captive audience for 10 minutes, what am I going to talk about besides selling clothes?”
Both Gurung and Missoni said that they didn’t think about actually selling the T-shirts and hats until demand spiked after their shows. “I’ve never seen a reaction like that,” said Gurung. “It was just insane, the amount of people interested in the T-shirts. They wanted it immediately.” The shirts are available on his web site for $195 and proceeds go to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and the Shikshya Foundation, which he established in 2011 to benefit underprivileged children in Nepal. The Missoni hats sell for $190 on Missoni’s online store and sales benefit The Circle Italia.
While Gurung reported that the feedback to his T-shirts was overwhelmingly positive, there’s always a critic somewhere. “Some people called out ‘Dior had already done it,’” he said, referencing the “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt by Maria Grazia Chiuri that became the standout item from her spring collection at Dior. Gurung gave her credit in his show with a T-shirt that said ‘Yes, We Should All Be Feminists…(Thank you, Chimamanda and Maria).’ I wanted to acknowledge because I by no means live in a world where I think I came up with this brilliant idea of putting slogans in T-shirts. I have no delusions about it, I’m very clear about that,” said Gurung.
His shirt was an homage to Chiuri’s homage to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, but also to Chiuri’s own story as the first female creative director in Dior’s history. She put it in her first show and it’s become a big hit. Jennifer Lawrence wears it in the newest Dior campaign. During a preview of the spring collection, Chiuri talked about how she was influenced by Adichie’s work, and also, the slogan T-shirts were a democratic way to acknowledge her milestone in Dior’s history. During the conversation Chiuri talked about the importance of symbols and signs that make a brand resonate — in other words, branding — naming John Galliano’s famous newspaper print dress that Sarah Jessica Parker wore in “Sex and the City.” She considered the slogan T-shirts part of the symbols of her time at Dior, and she clearly was on to something. The T-shirts retail for $710. A portion of sales benefitted Rihanna’s charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation.
Olivia Kim, vice president of creative projects at Nordstrom, said that the store sold out of the Dior T-shirts. She bought into the political fashion of the season across price points, including runway looks from Undercover and Topshop’s “The Future Is Female” T-shirts for $30. “We put so many of our creative directors and designers up on a pedestal already, that to see that they have a voice and opinion that we want to share and we want to resonate with a $30 T-shirt is awesome,” she said.
“I think there’s a young, educated customer that will buy [political messaging] in a joyful way,” said Ruth Chapman, co-executive chairman of Matchesfashion.com. “It’s great to wear and appreciate these very different messages, which I think will resonate with particular customers. I’m never convinced actual show messages reach or interest the customer, ultimately. It’s the product that counts.”
It’s difficult to find someone willing to go on the record to cast doubt about the execution and intentions of slogan T-shirts. Unless you call Katharine Hamnett. She was a pioneer of the politically charged graphic T-shirt going back to the Seventies and Eighties. In 1984, she famously wore a T-shirt declaring “58% Don’t Want Pershing” (in reference to America’s controversial Pershing II guided missile being deployed in the U.K.) to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. George Michael wore Hamnett’s “Choose Life” shirt in Wham’s video for “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”
“There’s been a lot of slogan T-shirts around but they’ve been pretty half-assed is the truth,” said Hamnett when asked what she thinks of the recent spate of slogan Ts. “You know, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ — I just sort of think that’s pathetic. You either are or you aren’t. Nobody ever really seems to say it like it is. It’s always a bit watered down. Why would you bother to wear that?”
Hamnett acknowledged that crafting a political statement that will make it through PC-checkpoints of bureaucratic approval at a conglomerate the size of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton could be ever so slight a hindrance, which is one of the reasons she’s kept her business independent throughout her career. She’s in the midst of getting her new projects underway, but in the meantime she has a black-and-white “Choose Love” T-shirt made from organic cotton, with sales from the 19 pound, or $23.75, Ts going to Help Refugees.
Donatella Versace also pleaded for “Love,” “Courage,” “Equality” for fall, branding her clothes with positive messaging. Asked what she was reacting to, she gave a rather politically correct answer. “For me, it’s bigger than any one specific event,” said Versace. “I believe in empowering women, and that is something that will drive me forward every single day of my life. But we are living through a global moment of awareness, where people are talking about their rights more than ever. Fashion is about capturing a mood, and it felt to me the right statement to make right now.”
A show where the message was not watered down, but handled artfully and powerfully, was Public School, where Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne worked with the idea of borders, building them up and tearing them down, which coursed through the collection, as well as the entire show concept. “The entire set was meant to challenge our ideals of liberalism,” said Chow. “We were all getting very comfortable. Initially, we were like, let’s create this safe space where everyone is welcome, there are no borders. And that idea was what got us in trouble in the first place, like we were all getting too comfortable in those zones. Like, of course during New York Fashion Week you would feel welcome and comfortable.”
They made their seating extra tight, the runway super narrow, so guests had to face their neighbors in quarters that were squeezed by even fashion show standards. The soundtrack was a stripped down version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which he originally wrote as a frustrated protest song, with the vocalist stopping and starting, instructing himself to do it again. Then came the hats, red baseball caps printed with “Make America New York” It was impossible to miss the reference. “We wanted to mock the hat,” said Chow, adding that their slogan came just a few weeks before the show by accident as the subject of an e-mail.
Chow and Osborne made 288 hats, put them online for $65 a week after the show and sold out of them in one day, donating proceeds to the ACLU. “It’s weird because from a distance those hats are pretty powerful, you know?” said Osborne. “If you don’t read them, which most people don’t, you would think it was a Trump hat. So, we were a bit conflicted.”
The designers are considering making more, but in a different color.