Politics or Fashion?

Going through the photos of the Met Exhibition once more, I came across the following one. Marianne Franklin wrote a fantastic chapter on ‘What (Not) to Wear’ in the book, a critical discussion of how different countries in Europe try to legislate against wearing headscarves and niqabs in public.

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© Andreas Behnke

So I am wondering: would it be illegal to wear these items of high fashion (designed by Dolce & Gabbana, no less) in these countries? How does one decide whether a particular garment is a statement of religion, or a fashion statement? And is there really a line between these?

On the Fashion of Religion and the Religion of Fashion

The thud with which the VOGUE September Issue landed on my desk some days ago provided a gentle reminder that I have yet to write about the current exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. And after finally finishing what could at least be considered a first draft of a paper for a conference on Baudrillard next week in Oxford, it seems opportune to finally put some of my impressions and some ideas that emerged in discussions with other fashionistas onto this blog’s pages.

First and foremost, the exhibition is spectacular, up there with China Through the Looking Glass of 2015, and a welcome return to form after two rather underwhelming fashion exhibitions during the last two years. If you have the opportunity, do go see it, it’s worth your time.

What, then, does the show tell us about the role fashion plays in religion, and, perhaps more interestingly and challenging, what role does religion play in fashion? With regard to the first question, the exhibition refers to Andrew Greeley’s concept of the ‘Catholic Imagination’. As the blurb of his book describes it,

Continue reading “On the Fashion of Religion and the Religion of Fashion”

Of Ostriches and Pythons (and some pinstripes for good measure)

Is there still anybody who is not convinced that fashion matters in politics? The trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in a Federal Court in Alexandria, VA should certainly convince any political observer that such wilful ignorance is no longer justified. Indeed, it is now clearly relevant to the law too, with the prosecution describing in great detail his sartorial choices and expenditure – a cool $1.3 million in six years – in order to make their case against him. Regrettably, the presiding judge seems to be rather averse to the argument, proudly (I do still hope jokingly) proclaiming his vestiary ignorance beyond Men’s Wearhouse and its $199.99 suit sales (price correct at time of writing, no endorsement intended). Good thing that federal judges wear robes…

I trust we have all seen by now the $15.000 ostrich skin jacket and the $18.000 python leather jacket.

 

Ostrich2

python-coat-alan-couture

All images from Special Counsel’s Office

They are in a sense just the highlights of a rather peculiar sartorial arsenal that includes quite boxy plaid and pinstripe suits, reminiscent of what characters wore in The Sopranos. (And by the way, these photos tell me that the FBI agents or whoever took these photos does not care about fashion all that much. It’s a rather sad way to present evidence of an allegedly debauched life-style).

wardrobe

The critical assessment and frequent condemnation of sartorial choices and strategies have of course been a long-standing part of political discourse, and, as one might expect, mostly directed at women. When First Lady Michelle Obama during a vacation in 2009 disembarked from a helicopter in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers/trainers, fashionistas went into red alert mode. As summarised by Robin Givhan, ‘the first lady can’t be – nor should she be – just like everyone else. Hers is a life of responsibilities and privileges. She gets the fancy jet. She has to dress for the ride’. More dramatically, in 2012 the wives of the UK and German UN ambassadors launched an internet-based petition on Change.org in which they tried to shame Asma al-Assad, the wife of the Syrian president, into a more active role in ending the civil war in Syria. Clearly, to no avail… Male politicians and leaders have usually been exempted from such critical review of their sartorial strategies. The link between sartorial signifier and political signified – disrespect for the office, moral corruption – are not as firmly established here. But significantly, exceptions apply: UK Prime Minister Tony Blair wearing jeans just a bit too tight, President Obama in a tan suit in 2014, and of course the (in)famous take-down of Donald Trump by Robin Givhan. So the ‘sartorial deconstruction’ of Paul Manafort further amplifies this trend. We might say that these gentlemen ‘mispronounced’ a sartorial seme, or meaning-carrying entity, while still referring to its recognisable vocabulary. A dodgy suit colour, a jacket a size too big, a tie much too long, are still recognisable as familiar transgressions of the Washington sartorial code. What sets Mr Manafort apart is his use of the wrong sartorial vocabulary. Whatever he tried to signify with python leather and ostrich skin does not fit with the sartorially quite conservative Washington power crowd. But the focus on his idiosyncratic fashion choices makes it possible to ‘exoticise’ (apropos python and ostrich) and thereby ostracise him from a culture of which he as a lobbyist was an all too typical member.

In one way it is good to see that male politicians and operatives are increasingly held accountable for their fashion choices, something female politicians have been experienced for so long. So let’s demand the same care and competence that female politicians put into their daily sartorial choices from their fellow male colleagues! There are books aplenty which teach men the basics of the male sartorial code. Suit jackets should not be quite as long as the shirt sleeve underneath, and a tie should not dangle below the belt. And no striped shirt with a striped jacket. Very basic, very simple rules. All that is required is some attention.

On the other hand, fashion here again becomes ‘ideological’ in that the focus on the peculiarities of his wardrobe masks and distracts from the fact that Mr Manafort was a typical Washington insider and anything but ‘exotic’. As a Washington Post article’s headline recently stated, ‘America is Swarming with Paul Manaforts’. We should not let his miserable fashion choices distract us from that.

The End of Fashion Diplomacy?

Well, that went fast. Having just formulated a sophisticated theory of fashion diplomacy, I am now told that it is already over. Melania Trump’s sartorial performance accompanying her husband on his, err, whirlwind trip through Europe has garnered rather puzzled responses from the fashionistas crowd. My two favourite writers significantly disagree on the reasons for this though. For Robin Givhan, there are some messages discernible: a Calvin Klein dress for a NATO event in Brussels (an American brand guided by a Belgian fashion director, Raf Simons)

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(Copyright White House, public domain)

and for the UK a dress by the London-based designer Roland Mouret, a brand now favoured by the Duchess of Sussex, formerly known as Megan Markle.

London Pic

(Copyright White House, public domain)

This is all nice and well, but her interpretations feel a bit forced, and most so when a rather uninspired cocktail dress by the Lebanese designer Elie Saab ‘could well serve as a reminder of the global nature of fashion, creativity and style’. Virtually any dress can do that today.What makes Givhan’s argument more interesting is her caustic judgement that whatever Ms Trump is trying to express via her vestiary choices does not matter anymore. After the bizarre fashion faux-pas with the ‘I Don’t Really Care. Do U?’ jacket some while ago, that message not overrides and erases any other one. In Givhan’s words,

Can there be fashion diplomacy after detonating the nuclear option? After the crude fashion equivalent of throwing up the middle finger?

It is an intriguing argument, but it seems to suggest that somehow one garment, one event, can cancel the meaning production of subsequent garments at different events. From a semiotic point of view, I would maintain that the intentions of the author are much less relevant than the text itself. So while we will never know why Ms Trump wore that peculiar jacket, it nonetheless led to a proliferation of interpretations and meanings which entered the political discourse and became rather productive in terms of producing counter-slogans and ironic memes. Similarly, Ms Trump does not control the meaning of her dress choices in Europe, not even negatively. In other words, she cannot cancel or contain the meaning of what Barthes called ‘the written garment’, i.e., the texts produced about the dresses she wears. The dresses spoke ‘for themselves’, according to the code applied by different fashion observers and writers (More on this in a hopefully soon forthcoming chapter on Reading the Signs of Fashion).

That the search for meaning in Ms Trump’s recent sartorial choices might nonetheless be futile in terms of fashion diplomacy is argued by Vanessa Friedman. For her, Ms Trump’s ‘wardrobe goes mute’. ‘The clothes were elegant, but bland. They were notable largely for what they were not’. Rather than conjuring up some meaning in her dress code in order to declare its inefficacy, Friedman attributes the underwhelming sartorial performance to Ms Trump’s conscious, yet for her mysterious, decisions. In her words,

Yet it was for the Texas trip that Mrs. Trump chose a garment that didn’t just speak louder than words, but involved actual words, and in Europe that she has reduced her wardrobe to an almost imperceptible whisper. It’s a head-scratching inversion, and yet more evidence that while her husband may treat his job like a reality TV series, Mrs. Trump has made hers into a mystery. This is just the latest episode.

It is easy enough to agree with the ‘reality TV’ argument above. I actually think there is more to it than the offhand comments usually made in this context. But this latest episode of The Apprentice President still invites some further analysis. From a political science perspective, what these interpretations suggest is a growing sentiment that Ms Trump has privatised her role as First Lady and no longer supplements (her husband’s) power with glory. Both Givhan and Friedman agree that this form of symbolic supplement has disappeared. And perhaps then that was the meaning of ‘I Don’t Really Care’: her new understanding of her role in the White House. By denying her husband the symbolic glory that First Ladies are expected to provide on state visits and state diners, she sartorially and symbolically accentuates the misery of the Trump administration, its crude fascination with material power, its obsession with creating conflicts and the absence of any diplomatic courtesy as is usually expected amongst allies and sovereign equals. Whether this really registers with the President is hard to know, though.

So ultimately, there still is a fashion diplomacy in operation here, even if held in abeyance. Sartorial code always produces a message, even via an absence of style. Now that she has made that statement, it remains to be seen where Ms Trump is taking her message from here. As for Fashion Diplomacy, we should be allowed to hope that it is only suspended.

Dress to Empress (pun alert!)

With the Football World Cup behind us (and I admit I watched most of the games), it’s time again for some fashion-related reflexions. With regard to the Cup, one thing that I found interesting from a sartorial point of view was the insignias on the teams’ uniforms to indicate their nationalities. Many teams used the badge of their respective national football associations, but a few seemed to prefer more politically charged symbols. One that caught my attention (its size made it rather hard to miss) was the Russian insignia which consisted solely of the Russian Imperial double eagle. No mentioning of the Russian Football Association at all.

russia

The Association itself also includes a rather large double eagle in its emblem, perched on top of a football in the colours of the Russian Federation, which is framed below bythe associations Russian name:Российский Футбольный Cоюз.

There are some interesting politically charged semiotics in play here. The team clearly represents more than its national federation; instead, it plays for a particular, ‘imperial’ notion of Russia, as promulgated and supported by the Putin regime. The imperial double eagle is also displayed on the Presidential Standard and on the Flag of the Russian Armed Forces. Its use in the emblem of the Russian сборнаяat the World Cup therefore symbolically links the team with the militarized and fairly aggressive nationalist project of the Russian President.

How far this transfer of official symbols of the Russia state has gone can perhaps be appreciated when looking at the social media images posted by Alina Kabayeva after a TV appearance in which she opened a children’s festival. Ms Kabayeva, a former Olympic athlete, is rumoured to be President Putin’s paramour.

Alina1

Alina2

The conflation of symbols of state authority (and authoritarian rule) and fashion is indeed stunning here, albeit not in a very flattering way. I leave it to the gentle reader to decide whether this dress warrants attention beyond its nationalistic tackiness. But this sartorial strategy, i.e., to transfer state symbols into day-to-day life also echoes earlier developments in Russia. As I wrote in the Introduction of The International Politics of Fashion,

in the wake of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula (which itself was interesting for its use of ‘little green man’, i.e., combatants wearing unmarked green ‘uniforms’), the Russian Ministry of Defence teamed up with Leonid Alexeev, a Russian fashion designer, to create a new clothing line called “Army of Russia” which is ‘inspired by the “Crimean spring”’ (Noack 2015). In the words of the designer, ‘I do not sew army uniforms, but I can help make the army attractive to people. This is my personal form of patriotism’. And Vladimir Pavlov, the general director of the military supply shop voentorg, reveals the defence ministry’s motivation behind this fashion strategy, stating that the collection is designed for people ‘leading an active lifestyle and sharing military values — patriotism, camaraderie and mobility’ (Beard 2015).

It would be interesting to see if other authoritarian regimes have used sartorial strategies like these to normalise and aestheticise their rule. That is to say, not be creating national uniforms, but rather by investing day-to-day dress codes (including sports uniforms) with the emblems of state power. But perhaps it would be equally interesting to investigate what Michael Billig called some time ago ‘Banal Nationalism‘ in Western societies too, where baseball caps, T-Shirt and other sartorial items constantly produce and reproduce a symbolic and ambiguous discourse on national identity. Nationalism, he writes, ‘must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times’. And placing a Union Jack or a Stars and Stripes (or, more noxiously, a Stars and Bars) onto clothes seems in a way a similar move to the one in contemporary sartorial Russia. Perhaps the slightly more ostentatious use of state symbols in Russia points to a less banal nationalism, though?

In the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette

As the attentive reader of my chapter in The Politics of Fashion: Being Fab in a Dangerous World will remember, I concluded by stating that fashion as a symbolic form of modern sovereignty still operates in the shadow of Marie-Antoinette. Masculinised power requires feminised glory, usually provided by First Ladies. Their ‘fashion diplomacy’ provides focal points for acclamation and, when it fails, accusation, respectively supporting or diminishing the legitimacy of the respective administration.

The recent debate about Melanie Trump’s peculiar wardrobe choice for her trip to a children detention centre in Texas illustrates this point in a powerful fashion. Both traditional and social media went into overdrive trying to divine what the ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?’ graffiti on the back of her Zara jacket could possibly mean. Given the purpose of the trip – to demonstrate some compassion for children taken away from their parents as part of an inhumane ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards allegedly ‘illegal immigrants’ – the statement understandably led to some cognitive dissonance for many journalists, pundits, social media writers and fashionistas. The case is in a sense even more interesting than Michelle Obama’s fashion faux-pas in August 2009 when images of Mrs Obama emerged during a vacation that showed her descending from Air Force One wearing shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. As Robin Givhan reminded her, ‘ultimately, the first lady can’t be — nor should she be — just like everyone else. Hers is a life of responsibilities and privileges. She gets the fancy jet. She has to dress for the ride’. That event was clearly a sartorial blunder, acknowledged as such by Mrs Obama later on BET. Mrs Trump’s choice on the other hand seems to be more conscious and purposeful – but what purpose, what message precisely are we to read here? The most disingenuous answer was offered by her spokesperson: ‘It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message’. This is of course true, as many noted, there is nothing ‘hidden’ about the message scrawled across the back of the jacket. Moreover, other circumstantial evidence suggests that the First Lady deployed her sartorial message with some level of intention: wearing the jacket on a humid and warm day and allowing photographers onto the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews where she took off and landed suggested to a number of observers that the dissemination of this message was not an accident.

Continue reading “In the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette”

The Nature of Fashion/ The Fashion of Nature

The V&A in London is hosting an exhibition these days entitled Fashion from Nature. If you are living within the Greater London area and care about the relationship between the most ‘artificial’ and the most ‘genuine’ realm of human experience, you should definitely make some time for it, it is a really interesting show. It focuses on two distinct themes: the way the modern fashion industry has exploited and destroyed the natural environment through its production processes, and the way nature has served as an inspiration to fashion and its designs through the ages. Both themes are dealt with in a competent fashion, although given the visual nature of the displays, the latter was presented in a more captivating way, while the discussion of the environmental costs of the Fashion System was mostly confined to the explanatory tablets that accompanied the displays. Between visual and textual, in fashion, the former usually wins.

Continue reading “The Nature of Fashion/ The Fashion of Nature”

On the Power of Sartorial Signs

This is an image published on the Twitter account of … let’s go with ‘the President of the United States’.

KKW

As any picture, it tells a story, yet precisely what this story is about is, as always, a matter of interpretation. An interpretation that in this case revolves around the knowledge and understanding of sartorial code and signifiers. To be able to read and interpret the latter provides a very different meaning of this image than an interpretation that misses code and signification.

An example of the latter reading is provided by Libby Torres of ‘The Daily Beast’. For her, the image expresses that ‘Kim Kardashian got played by Trump’, that her attempt to discuss one of the most egregious cases of mandatory sentences in the US justice system simply turned into a photo-op for ‘the President of the United States’. Ms Kardashian-West’s purpose for the visit to the White House was to ask for a pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time non-violent drug offender serving a life sentence. A worthy cause, if ever there was one.

For Torres, the meeting becomes a ‘sly publicity stunt’ for ‘the President of the United States’, ‘in the end she was nothing more than a prop in Trump’s ongoing efforts to get A-list celebrities to endorse him’. Most of the media reported on the meeting with similar disdain, frequently playing on Ms Kardashian-West’s first name and its similarity to the last name of the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Sometimes clever, more often sexist and dumb, as it was to be expected from the relevant media.

Let’s have another, closer, and more careful look at the picture and what Ms Kardashian-West is wearing in the photo. It requires a bit of enlargement and some knowledge of fashion houses, but what becomes visible is part of the brand name ‘VETEMENTS’ stitched across her crotch, just above the top of the desk.

Enlargement

 

What does this brand name signify? As Morwenna Ferrier explains in The Guardian,

Vetements is a hip fashion collective, overseen by Demna Gvasalia, a Georgian designer who is well known within the industry for creating meme-friendly clothes at surprisingly high prices, heavily imbued with irony.

And for VOGUE, ‘Part of the genius of Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements is its appropriation and refinement of mass culture into tongue-in-cheek garments’.

So Vetements is for all intent and purpose a fashion house the products of which play with and undermine the hierarchy between high and low culture. It thereby denies any recognition of authorities that depends on such hierarchy – among them, the authority of ‘the President of the United States’, who himself has done much to undermine the authority of the office he holds.

For Ferrier, therefore, wearing Vetements becomes a moment of ironic resistance, a gesture that subtly and sublimely denies ‘the President of the United States’ what he seeks to gain from this photo op. ‘Once you’ve seen [the words across her trousers], the joke lands squarely on Trump – it is, arguably, the sartorial equivalent of doing bunny ears behind his head’.

The point here is not to settle the question which interpretation is correct or more plausible. Rather, I would like to point out that proficiency in sartorial code – on the part of those producing the relevant signifiers as well as on the part of those expected to competently read them – would expand our space for political action. And perhaps we would acknowledge the possibility that in this image, the hierarchy of cultural competence is reversed, and that the ‘gleeful, cunning grin’ betrays nothing but ignorance of its wearer. In Ferrier’s words, ‘Only Kardashian-West could use a meeting at the White House to trump Trump. And judging by his face, he had no idea what was going on next to him’.

 

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.

DduLpyHVMAAPvP1

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.

Mother