The Beautiful & The Damning: What Does Meaningful Protest Fashion Look Like?
Virtue signalling has its pros and cons in the realm of the glamorous and gussied-up
As the international fashion industry navigates the impact of the pandemic — decimating jobs and revenues and instilling an addiction to tracksuits in millions of people that could spell the death of trends — along came the 2021 Met Gala.
This annual parade of fashionistas in their finery — known as “fashion’s Oscars” — is, in theory, a fundraising benefit for New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Guests theme their outfits to the Costume Institute’s pretentiously titled exhibitions (this year: In America: An Anthology of Fashion) and spend lavishly for the chance to show off. Tickets to last month’s extravaganza were $30,000 apiece and tables from $200,000 to $300,000. It is meant to be the creme de la creme of fashion.
This year, though? An event that was inaugurated in 1948 to promote America’s nascent fashion industry has turned it into a joke. The millions around the world who tuned in for some escapist glamour were met with frocky horrors, protest ballgowns and woolly posturing so vapid it made Love Island look like Davos.
Kim Kardashian dressed head-to-toe in a black jersey one-piece that covered her face? Exploding headwear galore? The message was categorically go large or go home.
If what we wear is a reflection of where we are — with the Met Gala at the pinnacle — society today must be chaotic, confused and regressing into a disturbed childhood. Many are revelling in the meltdown. Others feel profoundly uneasy.
When I asked a Gen Z-er — you really need to be young to appreciate some of this stuff — why they thought Kardashian’s Balenciaga outfit (the Taliban must be delighted to see their female empowerment tactics being taken up by Western celebrities) was “owning it” these days, they explained that, “Kim used to be so tacky and naked at every opportunity and now she’s completely covered.”
It’s possible, I suppose, that Kim might have been making some crypto reference to a famous portrait of Mona Eltahawy, the feminist Egyptian-American journalist, who in 2012, to illustrate a feature she’d written about Arab men, posed for the cover of a magazine naked but for a black trompe-l’oeil chador painted on to her body. Inside ran the provocative headline, “Yes. They hate us. It must be said.”
Was this a newly awakened Kim coming out in sympathy with Eltahawy against women being tortured in their daily lives by repressive regimes? Or maybe she was railing against the West’s objectification of women’s bodies — which she has done so much to titillate. Or perhaps she’s just an incorrigible exhibitionist. No wonder her outfit is tipped to be the hot Halloween costume for 2021 — but then so many outfits there looked like Halloween prototypes.
Increasingly though, these days, it’s hard to tell the difference between someone with an acute awareness of social injustice and a fashion influencer. Each has borrowed the other’s tactics (social media means narcissism is one of the fastest, most effective ways to send your message viral) — and, for that matter, clothes.
Witness the American Democrat politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who attended this year’s ball wearing a gown with the words “Tax the Rich” daubed across it (cue accusations of rampant hypocrisy), turning her into an international meme.
Perhaps AOC was channelling Katharine Hamnett, who did the same thing nearly 40 years ago when she wore one of her own oversized T-shirts emblazoned with the anti-nuclear slogan “58 per cent don’t want Pershing” to meet Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Judging by the hoo-hah around AOC, protest dressing hasn’t lost its snap, crackle or its pop.
Finding itself subject to some heavy finger-pointing for trashing the environment and trampling over workers’ rights for the cheapest, fastest deal, the fashion industry is scrambling to jump on the bandwagon. Just look at the scrabble to get Malala Yousafzai to a Vogue party, or to sign up Amanda Gorman, the activist poet, or book the hijab-wearing model Halima Aden for catwalk shows.
Everything is about identity — or the politics of identity. The clamour of models and influencers fighting to make themselves heard on everything from equal pay to the Palestine-Israel conflict is enough to make you reach for the mute button.
Where does that leave the rest of us? One takeaway is that megaphone dressing is back. In a manner not seen since the 1980s, signalling your intentions — virtuous or not — through your clothes is the way to dress. And the biggest brands have joined in.
In 2017, Dior T-shirts were emblazoned with the message that “We Should All Be Feminists” — the title of an essay by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is a regular on the house’s front row — although they cost a not very sisterly £580 [$113] each. Still, the message has filtered down to the high street. Arguably the knock-offs introduced some girls to feminism — or at least to the idea that the cause could be fashionable.
Not all the posturing is a waste of time. Who, apart from the fur industry, doesn’t welcome fashion’s belated volte-face on fur? Alexander McQueen used to revel in using skins and horns that would shock your average animal lover. Compare this with Demna Gvasalia, creative director at Balenciaga, telling me recently that he can’t imagine ever using fur, or even feathers. “That kind of embellishment just feels so old-fashioned.”
Last month, Gvasalia’s boss, Francois-Henri Pinault, who runs the Kering Group which owns many fashion houses, including Gucci and Balenciaga, declared, “Fur has no place in luxury.” (Leather, though, is back big time — the fashion industry can only deal with one challenge to its belief system at a time.)
Back to the Met Gala, there is still perplexity. Was Kim K actually just sticking two massive, bejewelled fingers up at the event? After all, she was not invited until 2013. This was an elite event at which, allegedly, Anna Wintour, its host, vetted every guest and every outfit.
The inference was that the Met Gala was not for the likes of Kim. Then she married Kanye West, became part of an unstoppable celebrity power couple and featured on the cover of Wintour’s own Vogue, triggering an outpouring of protests from readers about slipping standards.
Eight years on, those howls look suspiciously like the last vestiges of a Nancy Mitford-esque snobbery that’s now taboo in a world that has belatedly thrown its arms around Kim and her ilk. It’s amusing, because snobbery is the reason fashion exists. Medieval sumptuary laws banned the lower classes from wearing certain colours and fabrics — essentially a way to highlight class differences; a sartorial prompt, if they needed one, to the lower orders to stay in their wretched place.
Six hundred years later that legislation found an echo in the disdainful way the sales assistants in an upmarket boutique on Rodeo Drive treated Julia Roberts’s sex worker character in Pretty Woman. Big mistake.
Even for those not cowed by fashion’s inherent snootiness (think of the key words that swirl around fashion: exclusive; invitation-only; front row; limited edition), it has always been, for many people, about getting “dressed up” in something current. Whether that was a suit, a “statement” dress, a ballgown, designer jeans or a vintage coat depended on the individual’s interpretation. Universally, the act of participating in fashion was fundamentally about being visible.
But that’s another thing that changed during the pandemic, as millions of us realised that getting dressed in your favourite clothes — the act of making the best of yourself — can be a private pleasure, no less valid even if no one is looking.
That shift dislodged something else in our brains — the idea that you had to be thin and waspy to be accepted by fashion. Everyone being confined at home in front of their mirrors and smartphones turned out to be one of the greatest fashion levellers in centuries.
While trends have gone into suspended animation, the great democratisation amped up the idea that no one need be excluded from loving clothes — or indeed, from being in the business. The fashion industry has jumped in with both feet.
At New York Fashion Week last month, from high street to haute couture, in campaigns, on billboards and guest lists, the previously excluded — plus-sizes, ethnic minorities, differently abled and all — were not just finally in the room where it happens, they were at the table and hosting. Shows cast their “models” from the street.
When I recently went to see Han Chong, the designer behind the hugely popular London-based label Self-Portrait, I discovered he’d moved on from the pretty, ladylike dresses that made his name to body-con. “A few years ago that might have been financially risky,” he mused, “because only skinny girls thought they could wear that kind of thing. But now there’s a general assumption that anyone can wear anything.”
And indeed should. Instagram is filled with the prettily dressed trilling about how oppressed fashion used to make them feel and how empowered they now are to wear what they like.
It has been a long time coming. In reality, designers are often surprisingly conservative and the tumult of social change has blindsided them.
Last year, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Zimmermann, the Australian brand beloved by affluent wannabe bohos, had its internal directions to front-facing sales staff on what they could and couldn’t wear (braids were out) leaked on an Instagram feed called Diet Prada. Its customers were subsequently ridiculed by Diet Prada’s followers, denounced as “Karens” — a pejorative term for entitled, often middle-aged white women.
Originally conceived as a compellingly nerdy record of the fashion industry’s many acts of plagiarism, Diet Prada’s role in politicising the industry deserves its own chapter. Set up anonymously in 2015 by two backroom designers, Diet Prada had already evolved into a whistleblower for all kinds of fashion industry employment and inequality transgressions by 2019.
But the Black Lives Matter protests pushed it into overt vigilantism. No brand was safe.
At the apex of the entire fashion edifice, Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue, came in for criticism for the way it had, over decades, excluded minorities and the economically and socially disadvantaged, not just from the pages of its publications but also from its payroll. The legendary Wintour, once untouchable, had ordure hurled at her for months on end.
The ripple effect continues. The old guard are, slowly, being toppled from their gilt chairs as, one by one, glossy fashion magazines are downsized or disappeared. The magazines’ cosy relationships with brands and their self-appointed roles as custodians of taste have been disrupted by millions of individual Instagrammers and TikTok-ers who have their own ideas about what’s covetable.
When the pandemic brought the curtain down on the whole spectacle of live fashion shows, the biggest trauma for the fashion industry was how little the world at large noticed. Even before the pandemic, the catwalk — once the apogee of a designer’s creativity — had largely lost the power to shock. Plenty of shows had become downright boring or had nothing to do with what most people actually wear — or want to wear.
Post-Covid, brands are grappling with the new paradigm. “The idea of watching a model walk round a room just seems so … irrelevant,” the designer Roland Mouret told me shortly before London Fashion Week kicked off last month. But without a show, some brands feel they don’t properly exist.
These existential doubts are uncomfortable enough. If what were once thought of as immutable notions of glamour, elegance, desirability and style no longer count for anything, then what is fashion? Even the word “flattering” is contentious because it implies a garment is slimming — and slim is no longer to be viewed as the ultimate goal. So where does that leave us?
Confused, largely because trends, those much-derided, often artificial cues triggered by the fashion industry to get us to buy, buy, buy, are still in hibernation. And rolling our eyes, because we’ve begun to see through much of the green-washing and woke-washing deployed by celebrities and the fashion machine. We’re frustrated too because the supposedly radical new ways look suspiciously like the old ways.
But if we use this as an opportunity to expunge some pointless limitations, this could turn out to be a liberating sartorial moment for all of us.
David Tourniaire-Beauciel, the designer behind Balenciaga’s trend-setting Triple S sneaker, has recently launched a direct-to-consumer line, Shoes 53045 (the numbers spell “shoes” upside down). The thick, platform bubble-soled shoes are, inevitably, extreme. But they’re also comfortable — a concept once sneered at by the haute designer fraternity.
“Before, there was this French proverb saying you need to suffer to be beautiful. Now, it’s over, we want to be comfortable,” says Tourniaire-Beauciel.
Wearing what we like, renting what we fancy, consuming better, expressing ourselves … sure, there may be turmoil in the fashion world (and at the same time, stagnation, particularly among the big brands that derive most of their billions from perfumes) and nobody denies it’s messy, but mess can be a fertile breeding ground. What comes next may be fashion’s reinvention.
Heaven knows it needs one.
The Daily Telegraph
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