Pants and culottes, the most staple choice of any woman, hanging at the back of her closet, encapsulate in themselves such gravitating importance that we fail to acknowledge. What they signify is the class of the working woman; of a woman who left the bounds of corsets and dresses, of home and household and set her foot out in the world after the devastating World Wars to take charge of putting together the pieces of the broken society back. A mere piece of cloth stitched together to shape history.

Not just limited to history, Fashion and Politics have paved a path to the present hand-in-hand. Both have had the power to change the other. When Social and Political norms stumbled, Fashion movements were carried out as a sign of passive protest or active promotion. Fashion was the sign of acceptance or rejection, and several major designers and retailers have not been shy to express their opinions through their art and design. Today, many ready-to-wear and haute couture brands are reaping the benefits of Fashion Activism.

What is Fashion Activism?

Coined by the famous designer Céline Semaan, the Founder of tech lab Slow Factory, Fashion Activism simply means using fashion to implement social and political change. She breathed life into the term as she successfully created and sold an assortment of fashion garments and accessories to dissent and support several key social movements.

Some of the most memorable ones out of these are: a necklace called ‘Dignity Key’ to show support for displaced refugees of the Middle East and a ‘Banned’ scarf to revolt against the American President Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban. Another one was a ‘First Amendment Jacket, which was a part of her collaboration with ACLU, and featured the First Amendment written in Arabic to show disagreement towards crimes against American Muslims.

Examples are multifold and of varying magnitudes, from the global platform where the peace sign symbols that broke the market during the hippie movements to the Trump supporting hats that said ‘Make America Great Again’ through the 2016 electoral campaign in America that retailed to show profits up to 40 per cent for the small retailers that sold them.

Fashion: A Silent Protest

Seeing how the influence stands today, several movements throughout history were promoted better using the power of attire. It started with the suffragettes. They made use of fashion and colour to communicate and spread the idea of votes for all: purple for dignity, white for purity and green for hope. The fashion retailers Liberty and Selfridges then put an assortment of tricolour ribbons, underwear, bags and soaps on retail to uphold the dignity of the woman in everything. Matching their counterparts from a century ago, several women wore white for the Women’s March in London last year.

Taking a page from the leaflets of history, several fashion movements conform to the new fashion strata to emphasise a point. The Black Panther spirit of 1960s and 70s was evoked by a simple accessory of the era: the beret. It came alive as the pop sensation Beyoncé adorned their uniform at Superbowl 2016 set against the Black Lives Matter backdrop. Famously a fashion feminist, Maria Grazia Chiuri unveiled on the Dior ramp, the collection of leather berets by Stephen Jones with every attire, representing an army of strong and independent women.

The movements against discrimination of Blacks gave rise to the adornment and subsequent production of an attire called Dashiki. Worn by people of different backgrounds and colours, the brightly coloured tunic became synonymous with Black Pride. Fashion House Versace was the first to start its production for the high fashion hub.

Social Identity, Inclusivity, and Representation

In the wake of a world that sees diverse groups stand up for each other and get powered by the influence of social, broadcast and print media, Inclusive Fashion was born. This fashion caught fire in year 2017, when the American President called transgender community a ‘burden’ and started his campaign with ‘Grab them by the pussy’.

A sudden outburst of the rainbow colours laced over layers of garments was then triggered. Numerous fashion retailers started supporting the Pride Movement to show support for the LGBTQ community. The mecca of basics, Calvin Klein launched a capsule collection called Calvin Klein Pride and donated the revenue collected to Human Rights Campaign. Another basics retailer, Gap Inc. launched the ‘Wear Your Pride’ collection, with H&M not far behind with its first ever ‘Cohesive Collection’ dedicated to support the LGBTQ community. Other major names that were soon to join the movement were Kenneth Cole with the Pride Kam Sneakers, J Crew’s ‘Love First’ collection, Tommy Hilfiger’s inclusion of rainbow colours in their logo and Speedo’s rainbow swimwear collection. Nike, Levi’s, American Apparel, and Adidas joined the community too.

Body positivity was another notion that took the industry by a storm. Instigated by the fixation of brands and designers over the ‘slim, sleek and tall’ figure, the inclusive fashion regime set out to embrace sizes, heights and colours that were true to the customer. The NY Fashion Week runways of 2017 saw the most diverse representation on the stage with models of diverse colour, plus size, non-binary models, and over the age of 50 too.

Nike launched the plus size collection for sportswear, e-retailers like ASOS and Modcloth introduced their plus-size lines while urging other brands on their website to avoid Photoshop on pictures. Michael Kors showed its first ever body positive collection with Ashley Graham as the showstopper. Street inspired brands Forever 21 introduced plus-size denim line 12×12 and shook the internet with instrumental campaigns.

Influence of Fashion, Power of the Ramps

Fashion has a trickledown theory- what we see on the magazines, red carpets, and runways ‘trickles’ down to the ready-to-wear mass production lines. The latest example of such strides taken in fashion are the Me-too and Times Up movement. Several actors and actresses urged each other to wear the colour black in the name of the Me-too movement when actresses wore black as a statement of feminist solidarity against sexual harassment in the workplace. This led to Victoria Beckham and Prabal Gurung standing up against sexual harassment through their shows and consequent fashion lines. The ramp starts it, the hangers follow it and then the consumer understands it.

A staple fashion statement or a radical fashion practice, an outfit can mean both, or either for the wearer. This is the time when several political issues are banging on our doors, vibrating with the possibility of change and it is a crime to be apolitical. Social media has made the consumer stay abreast with what the globe is revolving around. Thus, the utilization of fashion to make a difference is exactly what the industry should opt for. It has two-way benefits- the involvement of the consumer in something bigger and the subsequent profits that are ensured for the retailers.

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