Weaponising Fashion

A while ago, (social) media were abuzz with the news that Cambridge Analytica (CA), the notorious data mining company that illegally trawled some 50 million Facebook user profiles for political manipulation purposes in the 2016 USA presidential elections (although a first story appeared earlier about CA’s involvement in the Senate campaign by Ted Cruz) also ‘weaponised’ fashion as part of its campaign. CA apparently collected ‘likes’ that referred to fashion brands and design houses on the unsuspecting users’ Facebook pages and recorded responses like these.

Screenshot 2019-02-04 at 19.14.54

I presume that this is supposed to correspond, from left to right, to a ‘conservative – moderate – liberal’ orientation…

The data that CA gathered from Facebook accounts was mapped unto an OCEAN personality profile measuring the subjects’ respective Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. As Christopher Wylie, CA’s ‘director of research’ claims in his presentation at Business of Fashion’s annual VOICES meeting, fashion correlates strongly with these personality characteristics. More specifically, some brands correlate strongly with ‘liberal’ characteristics such as Openness and Extraversion, other brands point to a more conservative personality, characterised by Conscientiousness and Agreeableness.

Screenshot 2019-01-30 at 21.56.22

For Wylie, ‘fashion is a good entry point to people’s identity’, because we choose what to wear on a daily basis, and brands and styles reflect and reveal personal identities. All this makes it possible, he claims, to weaponise fashion as part of a systematic manipulation of the US electorate, to ‘re-segregate society’ and to lock people into their respective information ghettos. Customised information feeds lead to a ‘hyper-personalisation’ of society, in which people are manipulated according to their psychological profiles (of which their fashion preferences are a part). From a social science perspective it is interesting to note that this process of hyper-personalisation already begins with a methodological choice in which ‘culture’ and by extension fashion is defined as the distribution of attitudes among people. In other words, the very social nature of fashion is erased and reduced to an indicator attached to a target individual. The political ends here define the scientific means.

Continue reading “Weaponising Fashion”

The Visuality of Power Re-Visited

I have written about the in\visibility of power and the role of women before an extended holiday break. Now, after the Golden Globes and the opening of the 116thCongress and a couple of interesting debates on social media, which both produced some interesting ‘visuals’, it seems a good idea to visit that topic one more time.

I found the Golden Globes red carpet last December to be fairly predictable and ‘unpolitical’. The latter, however, is an interesting point in itself. A year ago, most actors wore black in support of the ‘Times Up’ movement. This sartorial choice was supposed to indicate a critical distance from fashion and its alleged ‘objectification’ of women. This year, the same women in their vast majority pretty much returned to conventional fashion choices, leading some fashion commentators to wonder what relevance fashion can have as part of political protest and resistance (As Robin Givhan observed, there were a few smatterings of politics here and there). Certainly, seeing one black dress after another made a powerful statement of women’s solidarity and commitment to the cause of fighting for gender equality and against sexual harassment. Yet at the same time, as I argued in an interview with a LA Times journalist, and in a subsequent blog entry,

given fashion’s inherent logic of constant change, how ‘sustainable’ is this sartorial strategy of muting colours and voices? I think this is what I referred to with the argument that fashion can only incite and act as a catalyst. This is not to be underestimated, but we should not expect fashion to be a reliable and steady ally of social causes. Next show, next runway, next fashion.

Political protest is little more than an element in the constantly ever-changing grammar of high fashion. Last year’s sartorial ideas and interventions are just that: so last year. Of course this does not mean that fashion is irrelevant to politics – there are a few blog entries here that should undermine that argument. And perhaps even the routine Golden Globes 2019 brought a harbinger of things to come and men adapting a more fashion-conscious attitude, perhaps as part of a long overdue re-definition of masculinity.

Continue reading “The Visuality of Power Re-Visited”

Female Politicians and the In\Visibility of Power

Few things excite the mind of fashionistas as much as the way female politicians dress. Should they care, do they care, about their sartorial experiences? Does women’s power reside in being ‘invisible’ in terms of fashion choices, or does a well-chosen sartorial strategy give them ‘visibility’, and thereby ‘relatability’, sympathy, attention, perhaps even agency?

Recently, two articles dealt with this question in an interesting fashion, apparently coming to opposed conclusions. Carmen Böker’s essay in the German weekly Die Zeit offers the intriguing argument that German chancellor Angela Merkel’s power is reflected in her sartorial invisibility, in her ability to make people stop judging her by her clothing. The German audience knows what to expect from her, and she always delivers: a pantsuit, combining black trousers and jackets in different colours. In Böker’s words, such dress code ‘rather eliminates than emphasises the body, containing it hermetically so that it is no longer perceived as such’. Her ‘signature silhouette’ is always recognisable: ‘as iconic as the shape of the pedestrian traffic-light figure (Ampelmännchen)’.

If we cut through the snark, there is actually an interesting argument about the role of visibility, fashion and politics here. It suggests that visibility amounts to exposure, inviting the sometimes critical, sometimes derogatory gaze from both men and women. Merkel has clearly escapes this form of publicity by standardising and ‘dulling down’ her sartorial choices. But does this actually mean that she has become ‘invisible’? Does power really reside in this?

Screenshot 2018-11-26 at 22.14.53

There is something ironic about an essay that forwards this argument but includes a visual introduction of 42 images of chancellor Merkel wearing jackets of literally all the colours of the rainbow. Clearly, choices, however limited, are made by her. Secondly, the argument about her sartorial invisibility is based on five pages (print-out) of keen analysis of a very competent fashion writer, discussing the basic structure of Ms Merkel’s pantsuits, their effect on her physical appearance, citing the assessment of the fashion system of her pantsuits as ‘semi-fashionable’, and approvingly contrasting her fashion choices to other female and male German politicians as offering a distinctive ‘look’. Both female and male politicians, Böker suggests, have to find their own recognisable and appropriate style that escapes the public’s snarky criticism. If, as suggested, Angela Merkel is indeed a role model for this, the surely her personal style is anything but invisible. Much like her reign, people have simply come to accept it.

Which leads me to Robin Givhan’s WaPo article on Stacey Abrams, the Democratic contender for the governorship in Georgia. Regrettably, she did not win the election, but this does not distract from the main argument that Ms Abrams fashion choices were part of a political strategy: to make herself, and to make the unseen people in Georgia visible. In Ms Abrams’ words: ‘In our Georgia, no one would be unseen’. As Givhan notes, ‘Appearance is political’. Indeed, as I argue in The International Politics of Fashion, being visible is a central element of being political, never more so than in our thoroughly ‘mediated’ political reality.

Stacey_Abrams_2012
Source: Barbara Jordan Forum 2012

It’s a pity Ms Abrams lost the gubernatorial elections; her Republican opponent is a lousy dresser.

Will the next US President carry a handbag?

Vanessa Friedman recently published an interesting piece in the New York Times on fashion, power and the next US President, or as she calls her, ‘The First Female President’. What will her sartorial code, her ‘fashion diplomacy’ be? This was in fact one of the topics that came up after my presentation at ISA-Northeast in Baltimore last Friday. I ventured a few thoughts about the tightrope that Madam President would have to walk between the conservative demands of the office and the reservoir for creativity that fashion offers to women. It was a very good panel and a productive discussion. Many thanks to Rose Shinko for her brilliant comments on my very rough paper.

Friedman takes a different tack by focusing on Robin Wight’s dress code as President Claire Underwood in the last season of House of Cards.

p15818372_b_v8_aa
(c) Netflix

The analysis of President Underwood’s wardrobe is excellent in typical Friedman fashion.

Imagine the classic corporate suit and tie spliced with the style of a World War II Women’s Army Corps member, and topped by a dash of Helmut Newton perversity, and you’ll get the idea. Who needs shoulder pads when your seams are cut on a knife’s edge?

French cuffs with special cufflinks and Louboutin heels complete the power female look, as does the very absence of one item usually associated with female public figures: the handbag. In the words of one of the shows wardrobe experts: ‘I thought: “Claire is not carrying a bag. She has people for that. She’s president”’.

On the face of it, this is a compelling argument, and perhaps we should expect that along with the shift from ‘First Lady’ to ‘Madam President’ we shall witness a shift towards less feminine styles. But I remain sceptical about how far Friedman’s argument that Claire Underwood provides a ‘a pretty convincing take on how the first Madam President might present herself’ carries. Given the twisted and dark plotline of House of Cards with the new president still playing a central role in the depicted machinations of power, what female president would want to ‘look like Claire Underwood’? The above characterisation suggests that her style will look in hindsight as an idiosyncratic than representative style.

Secondly, as Daniel Conway’s chapter in The International Politics of Fashion demonstrates, in the right hands, handbags can be political weapons. The former British Prime Margaret Thatcher used hers to emphasise her abrasive style in European Community negotiations. Writes Conway, ‘Such was the power of her dress, one element became a universal metaphor for political and diplomatic behaviour: ‘to handbag’ or to receive a ‘handbagging’ (Oxford English Dictionary: 1993)’. And apparently, she was quite selective in her taste: her increasing desire to appear at least as royal as the Queen is also revealed in her choice of Aspreys bags – the same manufacturer Her Majesty preferred.

The one bag the next President will not have to carry is the ‘nuclear football’.

The_nuclear_football

For that task, she can rely on a military aide-de-camp. Apparently, this is usually a male person. Perhaps under the next US President, it will be a female officer?

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.

‘… but words will never hurt me’? Fashion and the Normalisation of Slights and Slurs

I came across an interesting article about a new campaign by Diesel called ‘Haute Couture’. The idea behind ‘Hate Couture’ seems to be that if we wear clothes that display and constantly confront us with hateful phrases or slurs we shall become less sensitive to, or upset by, this hate speech. As Diesel states IT, ‘the more hate you wear, the less you care’.

The apparel Diesel tries to push this way is in fact rather banal. There are shirts and sweaters with large Diesel labels, partly covered with stickers that proclaim that the brand it ‘IS DEAD’ or ‘NOT COOL ANYMORE’ (I agreed with that some 20 years ago). Other stickers proclaim ‘INFAME’ (I had to wiki that; apparently, it’s an archaic version of ‘defame’). For the more daring, a ‘FUCK YOU IMPOSTER’ label is available, and for those seeking inspiration from Nicki Minaj, a jeans jacket with ‘THE BAD GUY’ is available, and Barbie Ferreira, a ‘curvy model’ and representative of the Body Positivity movement endorses a black top with ‘FAT’ printed repeatedly over it.

Now, the fight against racial, gendered, homophobic and other language is of course to be commended. The idea of normalising slurs by making them part of everyday fashion and thereby ‘taking the sting’ out of them is on the face of it at least an interesting idea. It seems to resonate with the idea of revalorising and re-appropriating denigrating and insulting terms of such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ to turn them into positive affirmations of a previously discriminated identity. There is some resonance here with the ‘slut walks’ of 2011 when women in different cities all over the world took to the streets wearing bras, panties, stockings and other items of sexualised undergarments, attempting to re-claiming the term ‘slut’ from men for whom this term was a central element in their chauvinistic vocabulary. Whether the participants and supporters of these walks succeeded in this is perhaps still a matter of discussion, but it was certainly a valiant effort.

Does the Diesel campaign fit in here? Firstly, of course we should be sceptical that a million-dollar fashion company endorses a social cause in order to boost its own sales. Secondly, slapping some stickers or labels onto sweaters, tops, t-shirts or jackets itself does not make for the most compelling fashion. Frankly, I find the clothes on offer rather banal and its attempted ‘vulgarity’ trite. But that’s just me…

More crucially, what does this campaign really do? What does it actually normalise? What do the claims that that Diesel ‘is dead’ or that it ‘is no longer cool’ do for our social conscience? That Nicki Minaj shills a ‘BAD BOY’ jacket does not seem to expand the space for articulations of still continuously discriminated identities. And I am still not sure what ‘Infame’ is supposed to tell me.

There is one remarkable and quite disturbing item, though, that sticks out, and that in a sense demonstrates the deeply problematic nature of this campaign. That is a £350 satin bomber jacket (also displayed in the YouTube video above) with ‘all over print’, as the Diesel Internet shop explains. That print is ‘FAGGOT’. Can we really claim that displaying this term, all to commonly used by homophobes, can be ‘defused’ by putting it on a ‘fashionable’ jacket? Can we really expect that this campaign makes us care less about this slur, or that it can be re-appropriated by gay men and turned into an affirmative expression of their identity? When Nicki Minaj plays with the expression ‘BAD BOY’, or Barbie Ferreira mocks ‘FAT” as a truly idiotic label for her appearance, that is all well and good. I just suspect that ‘FAGGOT’ is truly in a different category of words, and displaying it prominently on garments will do little to lessen its demeaning connotations.

On Fashion and Political Acclamation (wonk alert)

I am currently working on a paper to be presented at the ISA-Northeast (that’s the International Studies Association; in short, a lot of Political Scientists) in Baltimore, MD in a few weeks’ time. I am trying to find a new take on what the notion of ‘The Politics of Fashion’ can mean and what kind of research it enables.

By focusing on ‘acclamation’ I am picking up a lively and rather recent debate in Politics/Political Science about processes of legitimising democratic political systems that go beyond the rule of law, rational and objective bureaucracies and, with regard to the populace, regular free elections in which we choose our leaders. The argument forwarded by political theorists and philosophers is that we need to pay attention to mechanisms and processes that go beyond the ‘rational-juridical’ legitimation of political order. Public events such as demonstrations, rituals and spectacles, media events and Twitter storms are all ways through which an affective orientation towards politics and political leaders is expressed. The media of course play a massive role in this in terms of reporting on, and interpreting, events, amplifying and sometimes muting such public displays of acclamation or accusation.

Continue reading “On Fashion and Political Acclamation (wonk alert)”