Opium for the People? Fashion as the Escape from Politics

In a recent tweet, my favourite fashionista Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, relates that Gucci’s sales are up 35% the last quarter. Her response: ‘That’s a lot of glittery eccentricity’, and a link to her 25 September article on the Paris runways of Dior and Gucci. Her review of these shows is generally very positive (and at least in the case of Dior I tend to agree. Gucci … not so much).

I hadn’t paid much attention to the article when it came out; I read it as another competent piece by one of the pre-eminent fashion writers about two shows by well-known fashion houses and their fairly new fashion directors. Re-reading the article raised some issues for me, though. Firstly, the idea that fashion ‘is about taking a moment to shut out the noise and listen to the quiet’ is for someone like me who is interested in the interstices between politics and fashion, an endorsement of fashion as an aestheticised escape from politics. Alas, nothing escapes politics (just like nothing escapes fashion), and to endorse fashion as an escape path from politics in these days seems a rather problematic proposition.

It gets worse.

After reviewing both runways very approvingly, Givhan concludes that ‘fashion has the ability to help us inhabit our body in a manner of our choosing’. Firstly, in this day and age, this is clearly a political statement and throws us back into the thick of political contestation from which fashion was supposed to extricate us, and secondly, given the recent reports about the Trump administration’s plans to legally define transgender identity out of existence, it is a naïve and ill-informed statement. Dressing the way you want will not protect you from having your legal rights and protections stripped away by this vicious administration.

As an academic, I readily admit that Politics has yet to fully acknowledge the relevance of Fashion for our field, despite a proudly proclaimed ‘Aesthetic Turn’ (after all, that’s what the book seeks to remedy!). Sometimes, however, the ignorance of Fashion about Politics, about the way power shapes our identities and interests, is even more disconcerting. Fashion is neither an escape from politics, nor a force to prevent its most problematic aspects. Precisely what role it plays in politics has yet to be fully discussed.

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