When Fashion and Politics Intertwine


When Fashion and Politics Intertwine

Is fashion becoming more thoughtful and politically responsible, or is it commodifying the ideological questions of the day?

Burberry is a brand close to my heart. In 2015, I spent a rainy British summer working for the iconic fashion house. I remember running from my student room near Waterloo Bridge, in my patent black stilettos, to catch the tube to Westminster on a typically wet day. I was due to attend my training week at Horseferry House, Burberry’s architecturally magnificent headquarters. The elegant building is a former government office block designed by Gensler. I arrived early and took shelter in a quaint Italian coffee shop to pass the time with a cappuccino. A sea of men and women carrying black umbrellas and leather briefcases rolled endlessly past the steamy window, evoking Gustave Caillebotte’s Impressionist painting, ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877’. Londoners, all international, were on their way to work, many clad in traditional cotton gabardine trench coats in the iconic Burberry shades of honey, beige, black and stone. As the coffee shop filled with Burberry employees, I noticed that their coats ranged from the quintessentially traditional trench to artistic reinventions of it in jewel-like tones–emerald green, jade, onyx, midnight blue, lapis and amethyst. The fabrics came in leather, lace, cashmere and gabardine. I started to get a sense of the ways in which Burberry both maintains and reconstructs the identifiable historical features of the trench coat.

As a history undergraduate, I relished the history of the brand, established in 1856 by Thomas Burberry. Burberry was a draper’s apprentice in the old town of Basingstoke and specialised in British outdoor attire. In 1878, he invented gabardine, the durable, water-resistant and hardwearing fabric one sees in the windows of the fashion house today, predominantly in Prorsum trench coats. Gabardine took on a greater significance. In 1901 the fabric was introduced to the United Kingdom War Office as an alternative design to the Army officer’s raincoat. The “trench coat” was designed for the military during the First World War as an alternative model to serge greatcoats, which were heavy in weight, especially when sodden. If you happen to own a trench, whether designer or high street, look at the epaulettes on each shoulder. Soldiers in the consuming darkness of the front line and trench slotted torches under each epaulette. Today they are merely decorative features, as is the gun flap on the shoulder, but the coat brings with it this profound heritage.

Last week was London fashion week. Christopher Bailey, Chief Creative Officer at Burberry since 2014, dedicated his final show to LGBTQ youth. The collection Bailey exhibited on the catwalk took signature Burberry garments like the poncho, cape and puffer jacket and wove the gay pride rainbow into the 19th century Burberry check. The capacity of Burberry to speak to the present is manifest in the creative reinvention not only of the the brand’s heritage garments but also the models. Burberry has disrupted conventional model castings by having model-activists walk the show. Adwoa Aboah among other activists strode the runway, opening the show in what can only be described as a postmodern concoction: a rainbow coloured skirt fused with a Kandinsky-esque printed hoodie. Cara Delevingne, who has advocated LGBTQ issues, made her return to the catwalk after being absent from modeling since 2016. She sported a cape which trailed majestically along the floor. The garment embodies the juxtaposition of past and present in its traditional Haymarket check lining and rainbow flag outer layer. Tradition and convention have quite literally been turned inside out. History lines the coats while the present is unveiled in a naked, noisy, noticeable ideological statement.

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So my question is this: is fashion becoming more thoughtful, or is it commodifying the pressing ideological questions we are asking now? Should Burberry be praised for voicing the issues that history has silenced?

The line between fashion’s ability to engage in a political dialogue and speak to the masses is blurred with the corporate goals of the industry. Most high street stores now sell t-shirts, hoodies, jackets and blouses bedecked with feminist slogans or quotes about female empowerment. In Scandinavia, I saw windows of high-street Swedish stores like Gina Tricot and Monki displaying an array of garments dedicated to female empowerment, all for under $40. Is this a good thing? On one hand, one might argue that whether the consumer engages with feminism ideologically or not doesn’t really matter. If a young person decides to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with phrases such as “We should all be feminists”, does it really matter whether they know what feminism is? Does it matter that these garments may have been manufactured in third world countries by women who work inhumane hours under appalling conditions in sweatshops? Does it matter if those words become empty, shallow and meaningless without any conceptual understanding or critical engagement? Does it matter if they’ve read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine  Mystique or not? Is it just good enough if people normalise the word ‘feminism’? No one blinks an eyelid when they see the words Abercrombie&Fitch embroidered on a t-shirt, and yet Abercrombie’s history is controversial and problematic because it suggests men and women should conform to a certain ideal. Yet, as soon as we see a feminist slogan, the world is taken by storm. Is fashion subverting the establishment and putting a middle finger up at institutionalised inequality? Fashion has always been a form of social commentary and self-expression and has certainly challenged conventions and norms. But in the light of political upheaval and institutionalised sexism in the highest office, fashion has become deeply intertwined with politics to the extent that t-shirts with political slogans are becoming more and more normal.

Skepta, a British grime artist, left the Burberry show wearing a puffer jacket printed in the rainbow colours onto Burberry check. Surely the image of a grime rapper who usually conforms to an all-black dress code is subverting the metanarratives rap upholds when he wears the LGBTQ colours. I say let Skepta and other grime artists destabilize and challenge a world in which lyrics about “hoes” and “bitches” have been normalised, chanted along to and accepted without question.

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Designers are using fashion as a political platform to voice the silenced, marginalised and oppressed. Maria Grazia Chiuri rattled the fashion world when she made her debut as Dior’s first female creative director and unveiled her, “We should all be feminists” t-shirts. Vivienne Westwood is another designer who challenges, provokes and shocks with her slogans, phallic images and subversion of patriarchy. If this commodification of the ideological questions of the day is cynical capitalist opportunism, maybe it’s materialism and mass consumerism in its finest form. In all of these progressive fashion houses, men still earn more than women. There are inconsistencies, contradictions and ironies in the ways in which the current wave of fashion is crashing against the rocks of the establishment.  One might say, though, that the sartorial sloganeering manifests a revolution from below.


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