The Politics of Fashion: How Clothing Can Be a Political Tool

By Hope Taylor

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The fashion industry, as popularized by chick-flicks and dramas, seems like a world of glamour and glitz: flawless blondes strutting the streets of NYC with a latte in one hand and a designer purse in the other, sketching up this season’s next shoe trend, artists and models studying the human form and the trends of culture, tacking away on computers for the next slogan to slap on their t-shirts in sequin print. In media portrayals, the fashion industry lifestyle seems relaxed, undemanding, and one of endless perks and parties. The act of being a consumer with a love of fashion and an overstuffed closet seems like a fun, harmless, apolitical hobby.

Never mind that almost everything in your closet—shirts, pants, jewelry, shoes—is usually crafted by the hands of underpaid workers in unsafe conditions. In countries with high goods industries—China, Thailand, southern Asian and various European countries—employees work inhumanely long hours for little pay. In countries with unrestricted labor laws, governments are allowed to take advantage of workers and slip past human rights enforcement. According to UNICEF, almost 170 million underage children are forced into textile labor, working for clothing companies to meet the high demands of European and American consumption habits. Child labor laws and sweatshop work environments are not issues that are at the forefront of the feminist movement, but consciousness and awareness are important on the road to equality. What you purchase and put on your body is reflective of how you want to portray yourself and what you believe in.

The politics of fashion within feminism has greatly evolved over decades, especially in the Third Wave, which has and continues to fight for the right to freedom of expression and self through clothing. Short-shorts and crop tops, which are a norm among female youth today, were seen as outrageous decades ago. Feminists have long been trying to dismantle the idea that clothes are synonymous with sexuality and promiscuity. In recent years there has been increased focus on the phenomenon of rape culture, and feminist advocates have been working to demand that clothing choices be taken back from the male gaze. The way a woman dresses is for the woman only; her expression, her comfort, her confidence and pleasure.

Women's clothing has become a hot topic at the center of the conversation about what is deemed appropriate within schools and workplaces. Often times, a version of victim blaming happens when the woman is held responsible for having a certain body type that is considered too overtly sexual. It is a deep conversation, but women of today are showing the world that clothes are a freedom of expression that acts on their terms and no one else’s, and that after decades of criticism for modesty or lack thereof, women can express themselves however they want.

Politics has always been interwoven with clothing, but recently it has become more and more blatant in terms of expression. Slogans like “This is What a Feminist Looks Like,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Vote for [Insert Politician]” have surfaced within the past couple years and have ran rampant in the mainstream, allowing consumers to support their cause, from social change to climate change, animal testing to veganism. The common man can now express their beliefs loudly and proudly to the public with a $9.99 shirt. It has become a societal norm to express the power of words and movements through casual clothing, buttons, patches, and more.

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When these clothes end up in your hands, you project meaning and symbolism by wearing them. Throughout recent decades, clothes have been used to represent statements, beliefs, and lifestyles. From D.I.Y. spiked jackets within 80’s punk culture, to the earthy tie-dye designs of the 60’s hippie movement, clothes have consistently been embraced as a statement to move against the norm of society. Within the LGBTQIA movement, fashion plays a large part in challenging gender identity and expression in Western society. Since the 2010’s, the rigid rules of gendered clothing have slowly but surely began to loosen—with women embracing traditionally masculine clothing, and men embracing “girlish” colors and slimmer cuts. The act of rejecting gendered clothing is an act that hopefully continues to bend and break perception of expression between sexes.

The revolution within clothing is a movement that gives power to the consumer, and as long as counterculture continues to exist, fashion will be used as one of its tools. Fashion has never and will never be the simple career we see in movies and on TV. Every action and product that enters the market is a statement in itself, able to be manipulated for any purpose. There is no such thing as an apolitical piece of clothing—there is deeper meaning within every thread, from the person who made your shirt to the reason you wear it. You are a living statement and clothes are part of your power.