An Industry at Odds: Fashion Politics 2017
For $710, a t-shirt with the word ‘Dior’ stitched on a tag can be yours. It is white and cotton, with the message: ‘We Should All be Feminists.’ Pulled from an essay by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and placed on the chest of a white woman, the saying feels not only racially, but socially out of place. Use of the word ‘all’ in this scenario feels like a dose of twisted irony, but in reality, it may accurately illustrate the lack of context the fashion world has when it comes to real-world politics—classism, sexism, racism, and social inequality. For an industry that relies so heavily on illusion to sell a lifestyle, it begs the question: can fashion truly practice the sort of runway politics it preaches?
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The catalyst for the Dior tee has much more to do Maria Grazia Chiuri’s need to establish herself as the provocative female at Dior than it has to do with her committed loyalty to feminism. Some would call this the sort of impulse that makes ‘white feminism’ so infuriating: it only benefits one particular group or type of person. But to be fair, Chiuri is taking the reins at Dior as the first woman creative director in the 70 year history of the house. If we are truly embracing the ideals of feminism, this move is totally within her right, but the issue at hand here is not about choice—it is about practice. The practice of treating politics and the everyday oppressions of fellow human beings as a chance to capitalize on a trend is exactly why the fashion industry consistently finds themselves at odds with the rest of the world.
Fashion's impulse to jump onto the political bandwagon only ends up highlighting its own vapid, limited sense of thinking and perspective, which has lead to some potentially embarrassing moves in 2017: a Vogue cover on diversity (that was lacking in actual diversity) or Donna Karan’s vicious defense of an alleged sexual predator are some standouts made by otherwise iconic personas of the industry. Despite the well-sold fable of fashion being endlessly imaginative and cutting edge, the truth is the industry is just as plagued by the past as many other institutions in question. Classism, racism, misogyny and Eurocentric beauty standards still are a very real part of the foundation on which fashion stands.
Throughout the past year, we witnessed glimpses into a more informed, progressive fashion industry, but there is undoubtedly much further to go. It was only 5 months ago that L’Oreal celebrated Munroe Bergdorf, a UK based trans model and DJ, as one of the featured faces of their True Match makeup line with an ad campaign pivoted to promote diversity. But, only a few days after their announcement of the partnership, L’Oreal dropped Bergdorf when her statements on white supremacy went viral following a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina. She told the press, "I’m an activist. Being an activist means calling people out, not just saying what everyone else is saying and what everyone else wants to think. L’Oreal knew that when they hired me”—but her activism, though it originally attracted them, turned out to be something they clearly did not want associated with their brand.
We enter 2018 with a considerable amount of work under our collective belts thanks to a handful of women who publicly fought for social equality both in and out of the fashion industry. Women like stylist Karla Welch are vocal in their public disdain for the Trump administration’s handling of everything from gun control and foreign relations to healthcare and leadership in general. She believes that there is a sense of democracy when it comes to fashion, and describes the act of shopping as “philanthropic consumerism,” saying, “wear what whatever the fuck you want…[but] know that your dollar is your vote.” As a consumer, every buy is a choice and every choice aligns you with a company’s beliefs or practices on some level. Consumers that are concerned with not only how far their dollar gets them, but what their dollar is actually supporting, can make each purpose more meaningful. On a similar note, Model Cameron Russell has been a longtime advocate for getting the fashion world up to code when it comes to equality, shedding light on its narrow vision and its beauty standards since as early in career as 2013. In October 2017, she started a hashtag during the Weinstein scandal, #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, and shared the stories of models who suffered from sexual trauma, misconduct, or other severe abuses of power that models experience on a regular basis while working.
With so many fashion and retail brands experiencing financial difficulty there is a noticeable odor of desperation as brands scramble set themselves apart to the general public. Brands are constantly trying to outdo the competition, but truthfully this method is impossible because of the chasm that exists between fashion’s target audience and the world at large. Fashion has built a legacy upon what model Ebonee Davis calls, “a society that that constantly reaffirms our inadequacy.” Its limiting standards of beauty, access and overall perspective leaves the industry at risk of running itself into the ground. Davis explains that, with a forward-looking mindset, “The old paradigm rooted in hate, fear, guilt and shame is being eradicated so that a new one rooted in love and compassion can be ushered in... The greatest form of activism is to be a living example of the type of people you'd like to walk the earth with. The (r)evolution starts with self.” With the new year comes the opportunity to build a fresh, modern legacy. But can an industry that has remained loyal to grandeur, spectacle and imagination ever really start over? Faced with sobering truths and reality, what does luxury look like in this atmosphere? At the end of the day, the word freedom may look good on a t-shirt, but people are craving much, much more—and the fashion industry must rise to meet these needs.