Fashion’s Role in Power & Politics

For centuries, fashion has been used to symbolically convey or challenge power. Whether signifying social class, economic status, and moral standards, or simply communicating meanings from pop culture trite to seriously political, fashion has played a key role in forming, questioning, and reinforcing the power of social dynamics. From baroquely decorated garments worn by 17th Century European royalty to the understated uniforms worn by prisoners, and from black hoodies to hot pink knit hats, moments in history have been defined by the force of certain garments.

This relationship between fashion and the notion of 'power,’ is incredibly multifaceted, determined by factors such as culture, geography and history. It is also the focus of Power Mode: Force of Fashion, a new exhibit that opened this week at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology Museum.

“The word ‘power’ gets thrown around a lot in relation to fashion,” explained Emma McClendon, FIT’s associate curator and the exhibition’s organizer, “but we often do not stop to ask what we actually mean by ‘power.” To explore this subject, Power Mode was organized into five categories of clothing that are generally considered as powerful: military uniforms, suits, status dressing, resistance clothing, and sex attire. More of an insightful curatorial exploration than a comprehensive overview, the five sections highlighted the correlation between dressing and power, combining object analysis, theory, and history. “The objects and themes on view are not the only examples of fashion that can be interpreted as powerful,” said McClendon. “Instead, the exhibition is a curatorial experiment that aims to grapple with a theoretical question through tangible objects. It may inevitably raise more questions. However, my hope is that the show will challenge visitors to think more deeply about the social meanings inherent in their clothing.”

Given the agitated socio-political times we live in, the exhibit’s focus feels relevant, especially ahead of the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections. In fact, the timing of the exhibition’s concept began taking shape during the aftermath of the 2016 elections, when Donald Trump became president of the United States. As new movements have formed around the Climate Change crisis or feminist and LGBTQ rights, resistance and protest dressing has progressively become an expected element of the cultural zeitgeist. As political awareness amplifies in reaction to Brexit, the resurgence of alt-right activism, or the demise of Democratic systems, protesters from all walks of life – nationalists, advocates of social justice, supremacists, feminists, and human right activists – dress up to express their political mindsets. This has also spilled onto the runways with political antics, surfacing left and right for continuous seasons. White bandanas popping up at Prabal Gurung, Phillip Lim and Tommy Hilfiger as symbols of inclusion; catchy political slogan-emblazoned pieces by the likes of Public School, Opening Ceremony, Christian Siriano, and R13; Black Panther aesthetics being ‘borrowed’ by Dior; pink pussy hats at Missoni; you name it, politics has pretty much become a recurrent and effective theme during fashion week.

Some of the most compelling pieces displayed at Power Mode are politically charged. A majority of the items curated for the exhibit - over 50 in total - were pulled from the museum’s permanent collection and are being shown to the public for the first time. Some of the most recognizable designers featured in the exhibition include Virgil Abloh, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior's Maria Grazie Chiuri, Thom Browne, Jean Paul Gaultier, Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, Karl Lagerfeld, and Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia. Other objects include the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter t-shirts, formal-wear from the 18th century, a Burberry military-like uniform look, as well as ‘Make American Great Again’ caps and pussy hats.

One of the pieces that stood out is the Fall 2018 ensemble by Kerby Jean-Raymond Pyer Moss, which served as the main graphic for the show and - along with by Demna Gvasalia’s DHL T-shirt for Vetements - was acquired specifically for this exhibition.

“For the Pyer Moss ensemble Jean-Raymond was inspired by the legacy of 19th-century black cowboys who have largely been whitewashed out of history in favor of images like the Marlboro Man—a bastion of white American masculinity,” said McClendon. “The look fuses “cowboy” details like chaps, yoked tops, and wide brimmed hats with a t-shirt, track suit, and sneakers. The loaded slogan “AS USA AS U” appears across the shirt and hat. Typically, there is a tension between fashion and protest clothing because “fashion” is dismissed as surface-level appropriation and commercialization. I love this look because it shows how in Jean-Raymond’s work, fashion and the runway become a vehicle for protest.”

The pieces were not organized chronologically or by gender; past and present coexisted side by side, as did men’s and women’s garments. "Clothing is intimately tied to gender,” stated McClendon when probed about the choice, “and gender has always been a key factor in social power dynamics. The way power plays out in fashion objects does differ between men and women, but this difference is usually relative—men define their sartorial power by differentiating what they wear from women’s clothing, and then women, in turn, co-opt items of menswear to convey power and authority. Interestingly, within this dynamic, it is the women who are always striving for the power of men’s clothing. Men have not traditionally appropriated details from women’s clothing to signal power."

This tradition is finally being disrupted by a wave of up-and-coming designers such as Christopher John Rogers, Grace Wales Bonner, Alejandro Gómez Palomo, and Bianca Saunders. If we’re finally at a point when menswear can finally present a new and more vulnerable perspective on masculinity, then maybe there is hope for some of the socio-political issues touched on by Power Mode. In the meantime, one of the core questions ultimately remains: can fashion’s power foster change as much as it capitalizes on it?

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