Dressing for Rebellion

In our current political climate, even brands seem to choose sides. Starbucks’ recent decision to hire refugees, as well as other major companies aligning themselves with political issues, shows even the simplest purchase is political. The fashion industry in particular has never been shy about political involvement. Now more than ever, fashion brands are choosing to align with certain social issues and ideals. Fashion is a form of art, and as such, it often has the power to communicate a strong message. Many artists use their designs to help raise awareness for issues or challenge injustices, especially during times of political turmoil. In a recent video for W Magazine, some of the fashion industry’s biggest figures came together to share a message of unity against Donald Trump’s refugee ban. However, many are going beyond just speaking out about the injustice and are channeling their views into their works.

Last fall during New York Fashion Week, Opening Ceremony held a “Pageant of the People” instead of a typical fashion show. Instead of models, they recruited actresses and comedians to take center stage. The figures acted as contestants in this mock beauty pageant and used the platform as an outlet for political commentary.  In the show notes, Opening Ceremony designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon wrote about the connection between fashion and politics. They noted that many of our political issues hinge on self expression and the denial of self-expression. Their “pageant” aimed to promote a culture of inclusion and subvert traditional beauty standards. It also stressed the importance of the democratic process in the approaching election. The designers invited viewers to reflect and cast their votes in November.

Now, in the aftermath of the election, the brand is continuing to take on political issues. Departing again from a traditional New York fashion week show, this year Opening Ceremony opted to host a protest-themed ballet performance in partnership with the New York City Ballet. This odd twist of a fashion show not only promoted their latest line but also brought awareness to immigration issues. The dancers modeled fashion based around the diversity of America, including graphic T-shirts with slogans such as “fight” and “protest.” They aimed to send a clear message regarding the importance of immigration in American culture as well as the need for protest against the latest adversities.

Many other designers also used fashion week as a platform to express their disillusionment with the current American political climate. In particular, immigrant designers spoke up about the amazing opportunities America has given them and the importance of a diverse and inclusive American culture. Prabal Gurung, a Singapore native and an American designer, has openly expressed his concerns at recent immigration legislation. Gurung has stated that he believes it is his duty to use his platform to speak out. He creates collections focused on celebrating diversity. At this year’s fashion week he showcased a wide range of models to promote body inclusivity. The models wore a line of graphic tee shirts with feminist messages such as “Nevertheless She Persisted,” a response to the silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren.

After the election, immigration is just one of many key issues causing distress. Women are obviously concerned at the election of a man with clearly sexist rhetoric, and the fight towards gender equality seems to have a gained a new relevance. The clothing brand, The Outrage, was founded in this spirit  of outrage at the bias and sexism still heavily present in our society.  The company, founded by Rebecca Lee Funk and Claire Schlemme, is dedicated to promoting equality as well as working with ethical vendors to produce quality products.  To prove their dedication to the issues, they donate at least 15% of their profits to women’s charities. The Outrage offers everything from “Nasty Woman” T-shirts to socks with a raised fist print. The brand also released a line of clothing specifically for the Women’s March and hosted a pop up shop in Washington D.C. This line featured different graphic shirts as well as “March On” pins, and the proceeds went entirely to Women’s March participants.

These brands seem to be communicating an important message through fashion. However, in a capitalistic society, it is important to always think critically about a brand’s political contributions and how it is tied to their profit. It can be argued that when associating a brand with a political message some sort of risk is always being taken. The brand is actively alienating those that do not agree with the message supported. But, with popularity of social justice movements, some brands are only using these issues as hot button marketing words in an attempt to increase sales. It can be tough to determine the difference between a brand with strong values and one simply seeking a profit. One of the best things you can do is to support small businesses and local artisans. Shopping locally helps benefit your local economy, and you can feel much better knowing that your money is not going to a large corporation with questionable  motives.  If you are interested, you can also take the opportunity to make your own political fashion.

The Pussyhat Project, started by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, encourages women to do just that. Created by is another movement born out of the Women’s March, and aims to make a “collective visual statement.” A sort of performance art piece that is now continuing on as a symbol of unity of women, the project revolves around pink hats with cat ears worn in support of women’s rights. Not only are the hats a fashion statement, they also bring women together. The hats are typically hand knit or crocheted, traditional women’s arts. Now, women are able to take claim of these traditional women’s arts in an empowering way. The project encourages women to make and share hats as well as teach other women how to make hats.

The Pussyhat Project stands as a form of resistance to the anti-woman culture we live in, but it is still not without problematic connotations. By referencing female genitalia, the project alienates the transgender community and seems to send a message of exclusion. Co-founder Suh insists that was never the intention. Instead, the language was seen as a response to Trump’s notorious “grab ‘em by the pussy” statement. Many people of color have also expressed concerns that the pink color choice was a reference to flesh tone. However, to the founders the choice of pink was meant more as a means to reclaim the traditional “girly” color and associate it with women’s strength.

Whether you are purchasing from a major brand or a local vendor, it is important to think about how your fashion decisions may line up with your political beliefs. Shopping ethically while sometimes more expensive can definitely be worth it. When you can, take the time to research before you buy and critically evaluate. Also make sure to the best of your ability that if a company is using a donation as a promotion method that they are donating to a legitimate charity. What you wear sends a message, so why not use your style as a chance to voice a message you believe in.

Photo by: Mike Zahar