Politics in Fashion

It’s Haute Couture week in Paris; some of the most prestigious houses in the fashion industry are debuting their designs for the fabulously wealthy. It’s not meant for real life, but meant to indulge our imaginations through a re-imagining of modern aesthetics. We need beauty more than ever in this age of uncertainty and transition. Not to distract us, but to remind us of what we are capable of.

These creative directors imagine the current predicaments of humanity using the fashion industry as a lens. Feminism, race, and representation are among the issues that are most readily examined. Alberta Ferretti, Schiaparelli, and Dior all debuted Spring 2017 collections that are more embedded in our cultural matrix than they appear.

Alberta Ferretti debuted a Limited Edition collection that is both dark and glamorous. Although this is probably the most black I’ve ever seen in a Spring collection, I can’t say I’m disappointed. The black-on-black outfits were beautiful and often androgynous. Androgyny plays a big part in the fashion industry nowadays, as society becomes more accepting of non-normative gender expression.

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The serious model face is a staple in fashion, but the models in this show look more like they’re mourning than working the runway. And in this political climate, why shouldn’t they be? It’s easy to imagine the dark-haired models in all-black-everything mourning the loss of the rights and freedoms that many American women will experience in the next four years. All the dark-haired models are in all-black-everything looks, whereas blondes wear black, red, and gold. This is a huge statement about the stigma of being a dark-skinned woman in American society.

The colour red is a long-standing symbol of feminine vitality and creativity in high fashion. It represents the potential that women have to influence the world. In this show, the potentially powerful woman is blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Whether this is intentional or not, it clearly demonstrates why we need black feminism.

The fashion industry has a bad reputation for perpetuating inequality, but it’s a frustrating mixture because it provides such a big platform for women. Another collection that I loved/hated was Schiaparelli. At Schiaparelli, the palette was all primary colours and the designs inspired by two motifs: modern art, and Orientalism. Colour-blocking and bold patterns dominate this collection, evoking the reveries of modern art, and cultural aesthetics have been occasionally borrowed from Eastern cultures. Not to mention the shoes. I’m a sucker for over the knee boots as is, and the exquisite details on these have left me with serious shoe envy.

Some of the designs are markedly stylistic of Asian culture. This phenomenon in aesthetics was dubbed “orientalism” by Edward Said in the 19th century. During that time, it was fashionable to represent “the Middle East” in various cultural aspects of Western Europe. These images are represented as “European knowledge of the Orient”; that is, the Orient viewed through a European lens.

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This phenomenon is indicative of a long history of cultural hegemony that politically justifies Western imperialism. In other words, another way to understand orientalism is as cultural hegemony. In aesthetics, orientalism represents non-Western societies as primitive, inferior, and culturally static. Over time, it has established Eastern societies as Others and Western societies as normative.

The fashion industry is guilty again and again of contributing to the stereotypes that reinforce power differentials. So in other words, I’m not a fan of the designs that essentialize non-Western cultures. That being said, haute couture is about drawing the viewer into a fantasy land. But we must not lose sight of who is creating that fantasy land and who is profiting from it; in this case, it’s the designers.

Fantasy is a key element in most Christian Dior collections, and this one has taken a unique turn into some kind of enchanted forest. The Red-Riding-Hood-inspired cloaks, elaborate masques, and over-the-top headpieces are less Game of Thrones fantasy and more back-to-basics fairy tale fantasy.

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Couture week is marked by after parties and celeb-studded front rows. The matrix within which the fashion show resides draws more attention every year with the growing popularity of social media. Nowadays the most successful designers show off their latest collections on the runway, and their ready-to-wear looks in every other facet of fashion week. What this does is strengthen and perpetuate their brand image among the mainstream media. Although celebrity endorsements cost a pretty penny, they make all the difference in high fashion.

Social media has blurred the line between model and celebrity like we’ve never seen before. For the first time, designers are asking themselves: who ought to wear my clothes on the runway? Who should wear my clothes on the sidewalk outside the show? Who should wear my clothes to my after party? Choosing a model or a celebrity is not as clear-cut as it used to be, because being a model and being a celebrity are no longer mutually exclusive categories. Having even the subtlest of cosmetic surgeries has disqualified celebrities from walking the runway, until now. The only surviving difference between is that celebrities engage with their fans by using social media. The people we see saturating the fashion industry now have struck a balance between model and celebrity. This balance is an absolute boon for designers and their marketing teams.

Getty Images for Dior

Dior does this really well. The after party made headlines when Bella Hadid freed the nipple in a completely sheer Dior dress. Regardless of its shortcomings, the fashion industry is good at making strides towards gender equality. I, for one, dream of the day that I can wear a dress like this to the club and not get kicked out.

For those of you who don’t know, Bella Hadid’s mother is one of the Real Housewives and her sister Gigi is equally, if not more influential in the fashion world. Bella’s career skyrocketed when she underwent the reconstruction of the lower half of her face: nose, lips, and mandible. It’s kind of problematic that the model they picked to free the nipple has had multiple facial reconstruction surgeries and grew up on reality TV. If you’ve been following along, she’s another frustrating mixture.

The fashion industry is a frustrating mixture of it’s own. The first three shows of Haute Couture Week in Paris were about fashion coming to terms with these turbulent times. We can cling to modernity and antiquity at the same time, but our reality lies somewhere in between.

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