Politics of/and fashion

by Lorenzo Piccoli

The relationship between fashion and politics is full of contradictions. Fashion appears on the one hand to be associated to somehow negative ideas, such as ephemerality, frivolity, triviality, commodification, consumerism, alienation; but on the other hand, fashion has historically vehicled identity politics by providing groups and individuals new channels of self-expression and cultural rebellion. In this written exchange of ideas two professors of politics show the connections between Karl Lagerfeld, Karl Marx, the gay metropolitan movement in the eighties, Dior’s New Look, the veil – and suggest that fashion can be seen in creative, dynamic terms, as an agent for change: Often times, however, the disruptive strength of fashion trends is controlled via appropriation. Shell suits, for example, used to be the sign of black urban youth culture, but they’ve become weekend suburban leisurewear. Similarly, the low slung jeans and no belts trend came out of prison culture and now is a mass phenomenon. The key lesson is that we can’t focus on fashion out of context. In the debate about the wearing of the veil, for instance – a fascinating debate – we must consider the radically different meanings of this symbol. For example, the film Battle for Algiers shows how the veil was used by women as a means of smuggling weapons on behalf of the independence movement. In contemporary western societies, the veil is often judged to be a symbol of absolute patriarchal oppression. But for many women it is linked to very specific forms of communal belonging. The article I am sharing suggests that such debates are “unsatisfactory and excessively judgemental when each side seeks to attribute a kind of free-floating essential meaning … It’s a dead end if you just focus on a piece of clothing and valorise or denounce it per se, without looking at the complex of power relations tied to it“.