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Vicky Kavanagh on fashion’s close connection with politics through the ages.


Those who don’t “get” fashion, find it easy to deride its place in our society among mutters of it simply being a commercial machine that preys on susceptible consumers. There’s a commercial aspect of fashion; like any commodity, it needs a form of financial revenue. But the impact of fashion goes beyond the pages of a glossy magazine. It has a long and steady relationship with politics.

Throughout the course of history, fashion has played a powerful role in driving political and social change. The Romans and the Greeks used fashion as a means of displaying their stature within society; the colour purple was only worn by those of royal blood. The Victorians intrinsically linked fashion with morality; the shock of a lady exposing any more than an ankle is not a myth. During The Tudor period, while Anne Boleyn was on the rise, the style of Spanish dressing that had been popular under Queen Katherine swiftly disappeared in favour of the French style which Boleyn favoured; a sign of a change in the wind.  Fashion is not just an aesthetic object; it brands and describes the construct of a particular time period.

The 18th century Duchess of Devonshire used the attention she grabbed through her fashion and beauty to help her political friends. During the 1784 Westminster election, she manned the Hastings station in her attention-grabbing outfits. People came out simply to view this famous and much-talked about character. When they got there and were able to see how magnetic she was in person, well… Georginia knew that wherever she went in an ostentatious outfit, she was sure to grab attention – that of the public and of the media. She manipulated that interest in to political support for her friends and allies.

In 1904, George Washington Plunkitt, a member of the Democratic party, spoke about the ”Dangers of the Dress Suit in Politics” in New York City. His argument was that politicians needed to be aware and careful of the clothes they choose to wear. Garments of luxurious quality would send the wrong message to voters; many of whom were the “common man”. Too much of an interest in high-quality clothes and the display of such would send a message of vanity; a politician would be considered “out-of-touch”. In effect, a Senator’s fashion choice could have a direct impact on his success or failure.

The 1920s flapper style of the Jazz era demonstrated the freedom that men and women craved. They had lived through a World War; they didn’t want to be conformed or told how to act. The choice of drop-waist dresses, bobbed hair, abandonment of corsets and heavy make-up women chose was a physical demonstration of this. For men, they rid themselves of three-piece suits and bland colours. Both genders embraced jazz music, smoking and drinking – despite Prohibition still being in effect. They were telling the world that they were not going to live by social norms that had been constructed; the fashion and style of this time mirrors the experimentation that was prevalent throughout American society.

When expression and creativity was repressed due to the 1929 Wall Street Crash and then the Second World War that followed, this was also reflected in fashion. There were other domineering factors at hand; material was limited, embellishments were seen as inappropriate and in all honesty, many didn’t feel like giving much thought to their outfits. But even this lack of participation demonstrates the political and social backdrop of the world at that time.

After World War 2, it was difficult for those who had survived. Rationing remained in place despite the end of the war. The men who returned home resumed the occupations they had before the war; which had been replaced by women while they had been fighting. But women had no interest in simply returning to the dormant, unsung roles that they had inhabited in the 30s. As the economic situation of many improved during the 50s, rumblings of women’s liberation began. It’s not that such a thing was a new concept – Pankhurst, Sheehy-Skeffington, etc – but it hadn’t been conducted on a global, mass scale before. Throughout the 50s, woman began to become more daring with their dress. Knee-length was now acceptable; luxurious materials and brocade became synonymous with the era. But it was during the 60s that things really exploded.

Not to be too America-centric, but it really is a focal point when looking at this issue. The 60s saw, at the time, America’s youngest President, who was also a Catholic. African-American’s became increasingly vocal about the prejudice they were experiencing. The first man landed on the moon. Women began to experiment with jobs outside of the typical expectations for a female worker.

Politically and socially, the world was changing. It was full of possibilities; a breakdown in conventions, expectations and limitations. For women, this was reflected through their clothes.

The clothes we wear send a message about the kind of person we are; in days gone by, a woman’s chastity and manner were directly linked to her fashion. But during the 60s, women viewed conformity as the enemy. They were people in their own rights and expressed this through their clothes; they wore trousers, showy prints and embraced their female form.

After the initial shine and hope of the 60s wore-off, over the other side of the pond, punk exploded on to the London scene. The music and fashion of the 1970s was filled with aggression; at governments, at institutions, at life in general. The Sex Pistols became the soundtrack of a generation and Vivienne Westwood and Gianni Versace became the tailors.

Choosing to don one’s self in ripped tartan, held together with safety pins, Doc Martens, body piercings and an angry snarl wasn’t a choice made because Vogue said it was in. It was an individual message to wider society; a means of saying “I align myself with the beliefs of the connotations of this apparel”. You were a punk. And being a punk meant more than your clothes; it impacted your political feelings and social desires.

Here in 2012, rumours abound that Anna Wintour, Editor of American Vogue, could potentially accept an Ambassadorial role to Britain, the most prestigious position in the US Foreign Services, if Obama is re-elected. She’s been responsible for hundreds and thousands of dollars in donations to his campaign and wields immense societal influence. An intelligent, sharp woman, she’s manned the Vogue mantel since the 80s; not an easy position. While it hasn’t been confirmed that this is on the cards, Wintour has stepped up her political involvement in Obama’s campaign and she is expected to help him campaign on his home-turf of Chicago. Like the Duchess of Devonshire, people will surely turn out to see the infamous Editor in the flesh. It might be three centuries later, but fashion and politics still have a symbiotic relationship.


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