What (Not) to Wear as a Political Actor

In a recent article one of my favourite fashion writers, Robin Givhan (WP), reflects upon the sartorial codes of the civil rights movements of the 1960s. It has been 50 years since Martin Luther King organised the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ and gave perhaps his most moving address, ‘I’ve been to the mountain top’ (excerpt), seemingly anticipating what would happen the next day. On 4 April 1968, tragically, King was assassinated in Memphis TN.

Givhan focuses on the way MLK and his allies and followers dressed in their marches in the American South and compares and contrasts their style to the ‘uniforms’ worn by the Black Panthers in the northern cities of the USA. She notes the neat and conservative, in a sense ‘bourgeois’ vestiary code employed by the former group and the more military-inspired code of the latter group.

About MLK and his associates she writes,

They were not fighting to escape the system; they were working to become fully integrated into it. […]

These upright men, women and children countered the narrative that black people were subpar exotics by dressing with man-next-door polish. Their message, tactics and style were precisely detailed. […]

The civil rights warriors did not dress in battle gear. In adhering to their philosophy of nonviolence, their style was conciliatory rather than confrontational. These were not clothes for a fight but clothes for a gentlemanly — or ladylike — negotiation.

And about the Black Panthers,

The Black Panthers were not conciliatory in their methods. Their dress didn’t suggest a desire to assimilate or fit in. Instead, their berets and leather jackets, tunics, dashikis, Afros and heavy beards were pointedly outside the realm of suburban conventions, flower-child mysticism and churchgoing decorum.

Thee ‘strikingly different fashion postures, from the suited-up members of a movement that had been nurtured in the black church [in the South] to the black-leather-clad Black Panthers who mostly worked from urban storefronts [in the North]’, their fashion choices reflected and reinforced their respective approaches to political agency.

‘Their clothes not only identified their approach, they were also essential to it. Southern blacks were negotiating for rights. Those in the North were fighting for power’.

W425-30(LBJ library via Wikimedia Commons)

BlackPanthers(Screenshot, National Archives)

As Givhan notes, this sartorial formality, in which a particular uniform dress code becomes part of the constitution of political agency, is very much absent today. ‘Today, fashion is less adept at delineating between insiders and outsiders, between the establishment and the rebels. Everyone wears jeans and T-shirts, sneakers with their suits’. And pointing to the ‘March for Our Lives’ (which I discussed in a previous entry), she points to fashion as a way to empower the individual. ‘Fashion still has the capacity to agitate, but as an independent act of aesthetic defiance’. In my entry, I briefly discussed the appearance of Emma González in her torn jeans, camouflage jacket and close-shaven head. And I maintain that this is one of the images that define the agency of the students that organised this march. But there is another angle to the story that Givhan alludes to in her very last paragraph. ‘The inequities were obvious in 1968. Modern fashion has made room for all the tribes. But that is not to say that they are equal’.

So I am wondering: to what extent has fashion become ideological? To what extent does it produce an individuality that is supposed to be at the centre of our creativity and agency, yet at the same time deprives us of these capacities and thereby masks persistent differences in power and privilege? Politics, or the Political, to employ a broader concept, is about the social and collective realm, not the individual one. The Political structures and determines the lives of collective identities, such as women, students, African-Americans, immigrants, and so on. The ‘uniform’ vestiary codes of MLK of the Black Panthers recognise the need to form a recognisable collective identity that constitutes the possibility of political agency. According to Givhan, for MLK and his associates, the desire for integration and equal rights was expressed in wearing the suits of the society that had rejected them so far; for the Black Panthers, their uniforms set them apart from a society that was to be challenged in a different, antagonistic way.

Yet fashion today reflects and contributes to the (neo-liberal) individualisation of late-modern Western society. We are expected to express our own interests and needs, act on our own behalves and express our identity in our own creative manners. Yet oddly enough, as modern individuals, we seem incapable of living up to this liberal ideal. As Andrew Hill analyses in his sardonic essay ‘People Dress so Badly Nowadays: Fashion and Late Modernity’ (in C. Breward and C.Evans [eds.], Fashion and Modernity, Berg 2005) ‘sartorial expressiveness, richness and heterogeneity’ are blatantly absent even from the streets of London, one of the world’s foremost fashion metropoles.

Oxford_Street_December_2006(Copyright Ysangkok via Wikimedia Commons)

As he observed on a grey November day on Oxford Street, ‘the people were dressed in highly similar clothes, with the same preponderance of plain, dark colours, and the same mixture of unremarkable casual wear’. Looking at the image above, one can easily agree with him; with the only specks of colour provided by London busses and traffic lights. And I can certainly claim that I already know what I shall encounter in Washington, DC during the summer there, above all when it comes to male dress code: T shirts declaring an allegiance to a brand, sports team, or alma mater, khaki cargo shorts and sneakers/trainers or, worse, flip-flops.

 Fashion, Hill argues, has become individualised and thus made ‘casual’, worn for comfort and convenience. It does not signify any social norms or standards and thus dissociates itself from any social or political cause. Casual fashion, he writes,

relates to much more than what people wear. We can see it as a process changing social relations across Western societies. Older hierarchies, rituals, and formalities have been marginalised as people have turned from them to embrace a casual, laissez-faire attitude to sociality […]

Durkheim identified this version of loss of meaning as an anomie afflicting modern societies – a state of meaninglessness, directionless and pointlessness. If anything goes, does anything really matter?

Arguably, fashion reflects, and via its visualisation realises and contributes to, this casualisation and individualisation of late-modern Western society (as Margaret Thatcher once claimed: ‘there is no such thing as society’) that undermines the political agency of social collectives and their ability to address systemic and structural differentials of power and privilege.

Lest I be misunderstood: my critique of Liberalism does not place me in the camp of ‘Republicans’ in the USA, or ‘Tories’ in the UK. Far from it. The uses and abuses of the term ‘liberal’ have very effectively masked the neo-liberal ideology both political parties have subscribed to since the 1980s. Also, in no way does my critique of the anomie of modern Western society mean that I wax nostalgically about, say, the 1950s, when social norms and hierarchies were well established, and men and women dress according to the socially approved sartorial codes of the day. I whole-heartedly support the progress that ‘women’s liberation movement’, the civil rights struggle of the African-American community, the protests of the LGBT community and others have made since then. My point is precisely this: how can we sustain the political agency of these (and emergent) communities in the age of neo-liberal individualisation? And can fashion contribute to the formation of collective social identities that re-ignite a struggle against ever more rigid social norms and standards, above all in the USA? Does wearing a ‘pussy-hat’ or donning the Handmaid dress do this, or do these sartorial items construct a community only ‘for the occasion’, for that demonstration or march? What sartorial code could create a community beyond the ephemeral experience of a march or a demonstration? How do we signify a progressive political programme, be it for women’s rights, or for students, literally marching and fighting for their lives? How can we mobilise sartorial codes that create communities that are more than the sum of their individual parts?

That this is still possible and politically relevant is demonstrated by neo-Nazis and alt-right groups, who have chosen Polo shirts as their new collective uniforms.

Charlottesville(Copyright Anthony Crider via Wikimedia Commons)

The purpose of this strategy is fairly clear: to normalise right-wing ideology and make it dis\appear in the cultural mainstream. Sartorial competence seems more relevant than ever in today’s political contestations. Progressive groups, I’d argue, must not cede this to their enemies.

How to Fashion a Monarchy: Signifying a Popular Future or an Imperialist Past?

Well, the dress was everything and more. It did transform an American actress into a British duchess, and it became an object of acclamation for the crowds present at Windsor or watching from afar on TV sets around the world. As explained on royal.uk, the gown was designed by Clare Wraight Keller, the artistic director of the House of Givenchy from Birmingham, UK.

True to the heritage of the house, the pure lines of the dress are achieved using six meticulously placed seams. The focus of the dress is the graphic open bateau neckline that gracefully frames the shoulders and emphasises the slender sculpted waist. The lines of the dress extend towards the back where the train flows in soft round folds cushioned by an underskirt in triple silk organza. The slim three-quarter sleeves add a note of refined modernity.

‘Givenchy’ is of course a signifier for a trans-Atlantic relationship that refers to Hollywood elegance that draws on European refined designs. It references the simple elegance of Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – and, even more apropos, a wedding dress in Funny Face. The choice of a Givenchy wedding dress acknowledges Meghan Markle’s own Hollywood past and translates it into the sublime glamour she injected so successfully into the staid rituals of the British monarchy. I shall not comment here on the other African-American elements that made the ceremony thoroughly enjoyable and unpredictable; after all, this blog is about the politics of fashion.

As my favourite fashion writers agree, the dress served one purpose only: to introduce Meghan Markle and her extraordinary personality to the British monarchy and to the British people. While Kate Middleton recognised the historicity of the monarchy by indexing Victorian elements of style with her (still fab) Alexander McQueen dress, Markle’s dress referenced only herself, her presence in the present. Writes Vanessa Friedman (NYT),

It was not a Cinderella choice, not one that spoke of fantasy or old-fashioned fairy tales, but one that placed the woman proudly front and center. It underscored Ms. Markle’s own independence by divesting her of frippery, while also respecting tradition and keeping her covered up.

Her walk down the aisle, unaccompanied for most of it, only added to the sublime effect. Prince Harry was right, she looked amazing. Even in the official pictures released by Kensington Palace, she stands out, in the centre, and as the centre of the Royal Family, an ‘antibody’ to the slow decay and descent into irrelevance of the latter.


DduLuGpU0AEyexk(Kensington Palace via @kensingtonroyal)

So this then is the politics of the Duchess of Sussex’ fashion choices: to provide a sartorial element that supports the popular acclamation of the monarchy and its apparently willingness to include a rather unconventional personality (I shall write more about acclamation in a future blog entry). Not everything is about the dress, but it certainly amplified her message and provided a focus for popular approval. It was apparently a very personal choice in cooperation with Ms Waight Keller, so we can safely assume that it expressed a very consciously chosen message. I look forward to reviewing the Duchess’s future sartorial choices, hoping she will escape some of the dodgy choice of the Duchess of Cambridge.

If I sound like a fan boy here, well, that’s because I am. This was simply an amazing sartorial performance as part of an even more stunning ceremony. I live in both the USA and the UK, and I admit to a certain level of glee to see African-American culture and sartorial ‘fabness’ injected into the rigidly codified and regulated British traditions. Perhaps the jazzed-up Britishness was best presented by Amal Clooney, a Lebanese-British barrister, married to a Hollywood actor (he cleaned up nicely too) and dressed in a gorgeous saffron-coloured dress by Stella McCartney. I am not the biggest fan of Ms McCartney’ designs, but this dress, together with the fascinator, was stunning.

Amal Clooney(rhubarbginn)

Alas, I would be remiss not to mention the dissident voices that address the politics of Ms Markle’s sartorial performance from a very different angle. Rather than acclamation, these voices offer a post-colonial critique of the symbols used in the dress. The latter are explained in the official statement of Kensington Palace:

Ms. Markle expressed the wish of having all 53 countries of the Commonwealth with her on her journey through the ceremony. Ms. Waight Keller designed a veil representing the distinctive flora of each Commonwealth country united in one spectacular floral composition.

The Commonwealth family of nations – of which Her Majesty The Queen is Head –will be a central part of Prince Harry’s and Ms. Markle’s official work following   His Royal Highness’s appointment as Commonwealth Youth Ambassador. Ms. Markle wanted to express her gratitude for the opportunity to support the work of the Commonwealth by incorporating references to its members into the design of her wedding dress.

There is a different interpretation available, one that points straight to the role of violence, power and exploitation in the history of current political order. Writes Aparna Kapadia,

Missing in the commentary was what seems to be an obvious point– the arrogant representation of 53 Commonwealth countries is a celebration of colonial rule. Another reminder, if one was needed, that the true reckoning of the unfortunate history of colonialism in Britain is far away. It is important to restate what that was – a violent period of centuries when the hapless Commonwealth, nearly 25% of the world, suffered under an extractive alien power’s rule.

Significantly, to celebrate a hand-made garment in praise of the Commonwealth raised some issues in India.

When India was a colony of England, Indian weavers saw a downturn in their business. The Calico Acts of the early 1700s effectively banned the import of most cotton textiles into England, many of which came from India.

And further,

From this time, until India’s Independence in 1947, the Indian artisan and weaver’s livelihood and skills were systematically destroyed. It was no accident then that Gandhi chose the charkha, the Indian weavers’ basic cotton-spinning tool, as the symbol of India’s struggle for independence.

Kapadia’s article resonated in India via social media. And it does raise an interesting and deeply problematic point. What happens when we re-appropriate and aestheticise violent pasts for the sake of contemporary acclamation and legitimation?

For a number of reasons, mostly related to the inability to speak for ‘the Other’  I am in no position to offer a conclusive answer here. From a critical theoretical perspective from within Political Science I would point to the continuous and ubiquitous presence of structures of power, violence and exploitation, of which colonial domination is but one, albeit a historically crucial and central one. Does that history dominate and determine the present and the future? Is India still a ‘former British colony’? Or has enough time past, as some commentators suggest, to declare another form of independence?

Again, I am in no position to offer even a tentative answer to these questions. But I note with some delight that Ms Markle’s fashion choices opened up, if inadvertently, a space for critical reflection on the problematic colonial past of this peculiar country. The fact that she, as a ‘mixed race person’ does this representing the subaltern voice in American culture adds yet another fascinating twist to the politics of fashion.

P.S. The person I admired the most in the ceremony was neither ‘royal’ nor ‘Hollywood’. Yet the Oscar de la Renta dress she wore was beautifully emphasising her regal and dignified personality.


Love and Marriage in the House of Windsor

Tomorrow is finally the day that many Royalists and Fashionistas have been looking forward to: the marriage of Henry Mountbatten-Windsor and Ms Rachel Meghan Markle, better known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

I find the media frenzy surrounding the event interesting in its own right; perhaps it is a case of escapism in these troubled times, a bit of a romantic fairy tale of a prince and a fair maid that finally find each other (and in the process turn a rake into a Prince Charming) and will live happily ever after in the glaring spotlight of the media.

There is a bit more to this story, of course. Ms Markle is American, divorced, and above all ‘bi-racial’ (an awkward term that suggests some discontinuity within her personality), that is to say, she is the daughter of a ‘Caucasian’ father and an African-American mother. What this means to her and how it defined her life she put into an eloquent essay published in Elle magazine in 2015. As Harry’s bride and future member of the Royal Family, her ‘racial’ identity becomes a socio-political signifier that refers to a recognition of racial identities in a British society that to this day has evaded, avoided, and sometimes flat-out denied racism as a problem in the UK.

I admit I am looking forward to the broadcast which I shall have the pleasure of watching in the presence of my mother – a fashionista in her own right. I expect some interesting comments.

Here is what I am interested in: how will Ms Markle’s wedding dress compare to Sarah Burton’s stroke of genius of Katherine Middleton’s wedding dress in 2011 that combined a McQueen touch for Victorian Goth with a modern aesthetics? It combined the relevance of  the monarchy’s tradition with its current role in UK society. Will Ms Markle’s dress signify the ‘difference’ that her ‘racial’ identity makes?

Lest I be misunderstood, my interest is of course strictly academic While I shall indulge in the frivolity of royal spectacle and spectacular fashion, this event feeds into a nascent project on Power and Glory, building on Giorgio Agamben’s work on The Kingdom and the Glory.



Governance, the argument goes, requires and refers to an excess of aesthetics for its legitimation. So maybe the spectacle at Windsor tomorrow should be understood as a moment creating space for ‘public acclamation’ for the monarchy and thus for the legitimacy of the British governmental system.

But yes, above all: what dress will Meghan Markle wear…

On Wearing A Qipao to the Prom

A recent Twitter storm brought back to the headlines the issue of how we relate to the culture of others. At the centre of this virtual melee was Ms Kezia Daum, a high school student from Salt Lake City, UT, who decided to wear a Chinese red cheongsam dress (also known as a qipao) she found in a vintage shop, to her high school prom in April of this year.


What happened next is perhaps all too predictable today: a barrage of criticisms, attacks and condemnations, all accusing her of ‘cultural appropriation’. Daum, who is not Chinese, the argument goes, is banned from wearing this dress, as doing so allegedly insults the cultural sensitivities of Chinese people. Accusations of ‘consumerism’ blend with those of ‘colonial attitude’ to create a rather toxic discourse about fashion, culture and vaguely formulated ideas about authenticity.

Continue reading “On Wearing A Qipao to the Prom”

First Monday in May

It’s that time of year again for the annual Met Gala, or as it is more formally known, The Costume Institute Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Gala centres on the theme of the year’s respective Fashion Show; this year, it’s Heavenly Bodies (see below).

Vogue’s slide show of the event seems to be the most extensive one (although it misses Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon’s channelling of Zoolander).

There are lots of crosses, cardinal capes, halos and tiaras (with Rhianna and Sarah Jessica Parker taking the crown (pun intended), a few angelic outfits, and some guests that didn’t seem to have gotten the memo (Jaden Smith apparently showed up at the wrong event).

I shall write more about the exhibition once I had a chance to see it. For now, I admit quite liking the Gala’s red carpet, at its best moments, it nicely deconstructed Catholicism dogma by prioritising its aesthetic over its dogmatic elements. Perhaps the exhibition is able to turn the tables on fashion and reveal the dogmatic elements behind its aesthetic plays.

Forthcoming: Heavenly Bodies


After two rather underwhelming exhibitions at the Met, this promises to be another ‘must see’ event for fashionistas. The promotional video leaves me unimpressed, though. There is more to explore than what Andrew Bolton mentions here: what do the catholic signifiers refer to? Do they make fashion ‘sacred’? Or does the ‘fashioning’ of Catholicism make religion profane, perhaps even commodifies it? But perhaps this will be addressed in the catalogue after all. The exhibition on China in the Looking Glass three years ago gives me hope that Bolton will be able to tease out the philosophical and political aspects of this exceedingly fascinating relationship. Only a few more days to go until the Grand Opening and the Gala. I wonder what all the stars will wear on the red carpet.

Fashion Diplomacy Returns to Washington, DC

Being the only scholar to have developed a full theory of Fashion Diplomacy in The International Politics of Fashion (see right), I would be remiss not to write an entry about the recent state dinner, Melania Trump and the return of fashion diplomacy to the nation’s capital, Washington, DC.

The basic argument in my chapter on Marie-Antoinette and Michelle Obama states that since the former’s reign, it is the task of the ‘queen’ or ‘first lady’ to provide splendour and glory for sovereign power, and that Ms Obama’s fashion diplomacy gave a sartorial expression to the particular ‘imperial sovereignty’ (a concept I borrow with due apologies from Hardt and Negri) of the USA. Ms Obama had a particular predilection for wearing gowns at state dinners that were created by ‘hyphenated American’ designers, i.e., designers born in the country honoured at the dinner, but living and working in the USA to realise their full creative potential. If I may quote myself: ‘the creativity and talent of foreign national is rightfully appropriated by the USA, as this move is the condition under which [their] potential can be fulfilled in a globalized (fashion) world’. The culture, aesthetics and traditions of the designers’ countries of origin therefore become but reservoirs or portfolios to be fully realised by a New York-based fashion industry that turns their designs into globally recognisable products. This, my argument goes, is a sartorial expression of the character of US sovereignty that is inclusive and expansive rather than exclusive and limiting. ‘Wearing gowns by other country-American designers symbolizes and authenticates the inclusion and absorption of their spaces of origin into the globalizing American space’.

The one significant exception to this fashion policy was the red silk organza dress by the fashion house of Alexander McQueen that Ms Obama wore for the Chinese state dinner in January 2011. China, this fashion diplomacy suggested, cannot be absorbed by the US; it defines its own increasingly significant role in the global fashion industry as well as in global politics.

Barack_and_Michelle_Obama_welcome_President_Hu_Jintao_of_China,_2011Copyright: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

I mention this here because in a sense, Melania Trump’s fashion choice for the recent state dinner honouring France (wearing ‘a Chanel haute couture gown with black Chantilly lace, … hand-painted with silver and embroidered with crystals and sequins’) repeated this move: France will not be absorbed into US space; culturally at least, France remains a power to be recognised and honoured.

State_Dinner_-_The_Official_State_Visit_of_France_(26832278157) Copyright: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

There is an also an interesting difference here: Ms Obama wore the gown of an English designer for a Chinese state dinner, emphasising the globalisation of the fashion industry, while Ms Trump articulated a more ‘direct’ signifier: Chanel as an expression of French haute couture. Perhaps it symbolised the ‘special relationship’ between France and the USA that the current president mentioned during the state visit. I am not quite sure how to interpret that, any suggestions are welcome.

And then there was of course The Hat.

Arrival_Ceremony_-_The_Official_State_Visit_of_France_(41699693771) Copyright: The White House via Wikimedia Commons

A lot has been made of it by the crowd of fashion writers, hungry for a rebirth of White House sartorial spectacle ever since Michelle Obama left the White House. It was ‘a diva crown. A grand gesture of independence. A church hat. The Lord is my shepherd. Deliver us from evil. Amen’.

What is interesting in the context of my theory of fashion diplomacy is that the hat was commissioned by Hervé Pierre, the French-American designer of her inauguration gown. Here, then, Ms Trump repeats Ms Obama’s fashion diplomacy, if in a more limited fashion: the pencil skirt and jacket were designed by one of the most recognisable American designers, Michael Kors.

But back to The Hat… Channelling Beyoncé? Or Michelle Obama via Beyoncé? Or perhaps it reflected the way a former model deals with and processes her current position as First Lady. Writes Givhan,

the first lady sometimes appears to be dressing for a fashion-shoot version of the event — a kind of heightened reality of an already rather surreal circumstance. But there is also the sense that she is stubbornly and confidently dressing up and refusing to relax into today’s accepted decorum.

But then there is the colour of The Hat and the jacket and pencil skirt: a bright white. This, perhaps is the most dramatic statement, whether intentional or not: Ms Trump’s desire to present herself as pure and untainted by the ‘swamp’ her husband and current president is creating. In Vanessa Friedman’s words,

she has something of a history of using white suits to send what seem like fairly pointed messages; see her decision to wear white — associated with women’s rights in the form of the suffragist movement, as well as Hillary Clinton — to her husband’s first State of the Union address, which happened to be her first high-profile appearance with him after the Stormy Daniels scandal broke.

So the personal becomes the political, delivering a sartorial condemnation of inappropriate conduct that indeed, as suggested above, has religious undertones. And this of course adds yet another layer to the fascinating topic of ‘fashion diplomacy’.