When the Duchess of Sussex partnered with fashion bible British Vogue recently to guest edit the magazine themed around "forces for change", featuring activists and advocates for all kinds of causes, it was hardly a surprising pair-up.
On the face of it, fashion and politics appear unlikely bedfellows – the former is centred on physical commodities and is concerned with personal identity, trends, money and labels; the latter is routinely associated with governments but is also, more generally, about big ideas, opinions, activism and change.
Yet, these two entities are also tied together in a complex, often jarring, sometimes complementary, marriage. Author Djurdja Bartlett, in the preface to her recently released book Fashion and Politics (Yale University Press), makes an eloquent case explaining why: "As an embodied everyday practice, fashion is endowed with the capacity to bring pleasure, to incite and transmit affect. Thus, in an era when politics is largely mistrusted and, increasingly, divides people along national, class, race, sex and gender lines, fashion might effectively provide a means of challenging such dissension." Fashion may even, she suggests, create "a bridge between politics and economics, providing a platform for today’s most urgent social and cultural conversations".
It’s an opportunity several fashion brands have recognised. But "making a statement" through one’s clothing has also been an art form stretching back way before the concept of commercial branding.
Back in time
A brochure produced for a 2018 exhibition to mark 50 years since the 1968 Paris protests, by the fashion school La Cambre Mode(s) at the Fashion & Lace Museum in Brussels, cites the clothing of Adam and Eve as perhaps the earliest example of fabric being imbued with meaning. It goes on to detail other examples: stripes on clothes, which were seen as immodest in the 13th century because they were too colourful; the cone-shaped "hennin" headdress and veil ensemble popular with rich European women from about 1430 onwards, but criticised as devil-like because of its pointy outline; the deliberately trendy "tears" in the sleeves of late-15th century clothing that showed the material beneath, an ostentatious fly-in-the-face of convention, which held that rips in cloth were a symbol of poverty.
Around the same time that the earliest fashion brand – commonly held to be the House of Worth, founded by British designer Charles Frederick Worth in 1858 – got started, women’s suffrage was also beginning to gather speed. Dress styles played many roles in helping popularise this movement, and its messages, but it wouldn’t be until the early 20th century that fashion brands themselves started to get involved.
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, then co-editor of Votes For Women, the newspaper of the British Women’s Social and Political Union, chose the dominant colour of the movement to be white (for purity), introducing purple (for dignity) and green (for hope) "where other colour is necessary". This gave brands a way in – with stores from the newly founded Selfridges, which reportedly flew a purple, green and white flag from its flagpole, to Liberty and Peter Robinson (now Topshop on London’s Oxford Street) selling clothes and products in the Suffragette colours.
Essentially, however, these brands were little more than side-contributors to the main movement. They were merely equipping the activists with their uniforms, sponging off their ideals, you could say, even if they did support their cause.
Ramping up the message
But fashion brands would soon start to explore making organic "statements" of their own. It may have been less overtly "political", but when Dior launched skirts that emphasised the waist and hips in a liberating new way in the 1940s, for example, it subverted the norm and introduced a new vision for the future of women. This would be taken up by other brands, including Yves Saint Laurent (pictured, above – 1971 trouser suit), with the 1970s women’s trouser suit. But it would be some time before that vision stretched beyond the clothes women wore to encompass the things they might do. In this, Donna Karan, then one of just a handful of women at the helm of her own fashion house, was a front-runner. Her 1992 "In women we trust" advertising campaign depicted a future where a woman had become US president. It was "a premonition of the future, a statement of what was to come", long before Hillary Clinton ran for the White House, says Trey Laird, founder and chief executive of New York agency Laird + Partners, who was working with Karan at the time the campaign came out.
"In women we trust" was "super bold", he says, and Karan was "the perfect woman to tell that story. If Versace did it, it would have been kind of a joke. Because then it would be like ‘let’s put Naomi in a safety-pin dress and position her as prime minister’, and then it’s just kind of like a fashion fantasy."
According to Laird, "In women we trust" was a perfect example of a brand making a statement that aligns with the things it stands for, a "marketing 101" lesson that he feels many brands still need to learn. "It’s authentic, and when you’re authentic, you’re OK. When you’re not, you’re just doing it to chase a headline or just to be provocative; or one minute you’re sexy, the next minute you’re political, the next minute you’re sustainable, the next minute you’re charitable. Then it’s hard to figure out what you stand for."
Activism for a season
There are many culprits of this so-called "activism for a season". Campaigns that could be said to fall into this category include Diesel’s "Make love not walls" for its spring/summer 2017 collection, a good-looking ad that won easy sympathy from the many people who opposed the idea of President Trump’s border wall. Diesel is one of many fashion brands condemning Trump’s "Wall" in their collections. Mexican-born designer Raul Solis made probably the most provocative statement against it at his autumn/winter 2017 New York Fashion Week show, where models wore underwear embroidered with "No Ban No Wall" and "Fuck the Wall" slogans.
Another example of a campaign that attempted to co-opt politics in a less-than-convincing way was the Levi’s "Go forth" campaign which, in 2011, deliberately released ads featuring various scenes of protests around the time of the Arab Spring uprisings. Robert Hanson, global president of Levi’s, said at the time that it was about "embodying the energy and events of our times", and symbolised the brand’s view, like that of the protesters, presumably, that "optimism is power". Unfortunately, released in the UK just a week after the London riots, the campaign was quickly "postponed" after being accused of glorifying public violence.
Then there are the brands that don’t even pretend to seriously support a cause, but merely adopt the look and feel of a protest as just another creative concept. Take Gucci’s 2018 campaign and collection "Gucci in the streets" (pictured, top), for example, whose visuals recalled the 1968 French student riots. Or the "faux-test" staged by Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel’s spring/summer 2015 preview, in which he sent top models down the "Boulevard Chanel" brandishing "Ladies First" and "We Can Match the Machos" placards and shouting through megaphones. Just a couple of years before the #MeToo movement burst into the open, this was accurately described by fashion journalist Alexander Fury as "a portent of protest to come", rather than an actual protest. It looked effective and Lagerfeld declared himself "very into" feminism, but most Chanel-watchers took it as a tongue-in-cheek comment rather than a declaration of opinion. "Karl was always very savvy to reflect the times that we lived in, and it could be high or low," Laird says.
What Lagerfeld could get away with on the political spectrum, many brands cannot. Bertie Brandes, founder and former editor of magazine Mushpit and now working as an advertising creative, says part of the issue she has with the harnessing of causes to fashion is that social media means brands can leap on almost every social issue they like. A discussion that she sees bandied around in emails "constantly", she says, is that a brand has a certain amount of money set aside for media for one particular quarter and wants to "attach it" to an interesting cause for the sake of it.
"Honestly, it’s everyone, isn’t it?" Brandes says. "Everyone from every fucking streetwear brand who wants to make a video about youth culture in London to… well, it just feels like if you have a PR budget set aside, you’re going to probably have your brand name splashed on a worthy piece of content, at some point."
Brandes says that, too often, all these efforts stack up to is a well-placed caption or an appropriately timed social-media post, driven by brands gravitating towards things that "appear authentic" in a bid to shape an identity. Having a purpose is "the advertising default" of our time, Brandes thinks. She even says it’s always the same creatives called on to deliver: there’s a pool of around 15 "politically active, acceptable, beautiful creative people who live in either New York or London, and they are the ones who get tapped up to make the ’zine, or the film, about awareness".
The true believers
At the other end of the scale, there are many fashion brands that seem to have been born with activism running through their veins. There’s Dame Vivienne Westwood, of course, the designer who put anarchy on T-shirts 16 years before "In women we trust" and who has gone on to target causes ranging from anti-terrorism laws and fracking to climate change and Brexit.
And Katharine Hamnett has used her T-shirts to promote a range of causes. Famously, she wore one with the anti-nuclear message "58% Don’t Want Pershing" to a 1984 meeting with prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Then, of course, there’s Benetton, whose "All are united" ad campaigns in 1984, by the "King of the #fashactivists" Oliviero Toscani (so labelled by Tiger Savage, founder of British agency Savage & King), staked its position as one of the earliest brands to embrace a diversity agenda. It would gradually raise the temperature of its message by degrees throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with campaigns around HIV awareness, the death penalty (the campaign that saw Toscani fired, only to be reinstated in 2017) and interracial relationships. It courted further controversy with the "Unhate" campaign, first released in 2011, and depicting historically opposing world leaders kissing.
The most recent example that industry-watchers mention as a fashion brand making an effective, believable political statement was by Nike, which made the American football player Colin Kaepernick – who famously knelt during the national anthem to protest against racism and police brutality in the US – the face of its brand campaign with the tagline: "Believe in something. Even it means sacrificing everything." The move prompted a huge backlash, running under the hashtag #justburnit, as people burned Nike products in protest, but many others think it was the bravest brand move of recent times.
"That man’s got balls. As has the brand," Savage said. Laird, for his part, admired the campaign’s tact and restraint – "they didn’t have to ever say the word ‘Trump’ but everybody immediately knew where they stood". This is something of a rarity in the creative community, particularly in the US at the moment, where Laird says he’s seen many designers take out their anger at one political event or another in a blatantly critical Instagram post, rather than thinking of a more effective, longer-term strategy.
Laird thinks the Nike campaign was partly so powerful because, unlike Benetton, Nike isn’t thought of as a political brand but rather one that’s about athlete empowerment. It was able to stay true to this ethos, however, while delivering a political punch at the same time. "For them to take the athlete spirit that’s true to them but apply it to a man that really stood up to a bully of a president, a lot of people felt that’s huge."
Nike’s tactic of subtle power is not a common one. Bold, colourful, write-it-on-the-wall statements are more common when the fashion world has something to say, and this can be to its detriment.
Fashion writer Angela Waters, writing in Sleek about the latest Westwood show, for instance, felt that the designer’s "ambitious AW19 runway berated audiences with activist messaging to the point where none of it was coherent".
Westwood will always have her critics, and the likes of Brandes (and likely many other journalists and creatives) form one, cynical, camp on the question of how well fashion and politics mesh together. But there’s another camp, which includes Savage, who think now is the best time for brands making statements because people, especially young people, care. "Teenagers – the oxygen of fashion brands – have never been into causes more," Savage says. "Denied what their parents had, often written off as ‘snowflake millennials’, they know a cause when they see one. Woe betide fashion brands (take note, Topshop) that eschew the teen movement and keep doing the same old."
Whether fashion is a suitable platform for protest, or not, at least it creates more interesting partnerships than other sectors, such as banking’s, attempts to take on the world. "A fashion brand is sometimes very closely rooted in either aspiration or desire or emotion or elevation or beauty," Laird says. "When you see something that beautiful or that edgy or elevated or aspirational and it starts to take on a meaning or a message that has maybe more substance to it, it kind of adds a little bit of a punch."
Reactions to the Duchess of Sussex’s edition of Vogue have been many and varied, but few took issue with the publication chosen for the social and political statements she wanted to make. Perhaps we’ve reached the stage where fashion and activism are so entwined that we hardly notice the pairing any more.