The Intertwining of Fashion, Society and Politics
Updated: Feb 23
Since when is fashion directly related to political expression and societal revolutions? We’d say, since always. Right from the inception of fashion, it has, in many ways, been influenced by societal and political affairs. Not only has fashion served to be a medium of expression for certain statements and revolutionary movements but also impacted by the on-goings at a particular time and place.
Source : Cerqueira on Unsplash So yes, the intertwining of fashion, society, and politics had been introduced to one another and made to mingle long ago, and they still continue to stay together. Remember the Purdah systems in India and the many phases of ancient fashion in the country? They were all the result of societal changes, weren’t they? And, the same is practised today in the form of headgears and other covers in many religions and lands.
Not just that but today, since the time fashion became its own industry, the ramp and designs have also become a mode of free expression. Right from designers like Alexander McQueen to Ashish Gupta, they’ve used their profession of fashion to make societal statements. Similarly, when in 2016, Hilary Clinton started her pantsuit frenzy in the US, it was soon adopted on the runways, red carpet, and then amongst the masses.
This was also followed by similar movements on the runway like when designers like Prabul Gurung featured T-shirts with proclamations like ‘Nevertheless, She Persisted’ and ‘The Future is Female.’ The ‘Me Too' movement also fostered some massive modes of activism in the fashion industry. One iconic instance was in 2018 when on the Golden Globes red carpet, celebrities showed up in all-black ensembles as a sign of solidarity to speak up against sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.
In short, one thing brings a change in another and the cycle continues. The intertwining of fashion has given the power to speak volumes without words to influential designers. On that note, here are some key examples of times or movements that indicate how strongly fashion, society, and politics are intertwined.
As already established before, fashion designers throughout history have taken social and political issues to the ramp through their sartorial art. One classic instance is of high-end designer Alexander McQueen's runway movement that was iconic yet controversial. The designer took to the ramp in Autumn Winter’ 95 with her models battered and bruised as a cry against the ‘ethnic cleansing’ AKA the ‘rape’ of by the British forces in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The models stepped on the runway wearing rags and tatters of lace and tartan with forlorn expressions and confronting bruises. The show became one of the most controversial shows in the fashion industry with its raw and undeterred message. Later in the year 1998, the designer also went on to serve as a guest editor of the Fashion-Able issue of Dazed, where the cover spoke of inclusivity by featuring models with physical disabilities.
Source: Nick Fewingson Unsplash Nylon Scarcity Post World War
Did you know that the clothing material nylon, was invented in 1935 by Wallace Carothers? And, four years later in 1939, the World Fair was introduced to nylon stockings, which soon became a regular part of fashion. In that year, about 4 million nylon stockings were sold on a daily basis! Evidently, they were a rage. But, then came World War 2, where the resources needed for this clothing were diverted towards making parachutes for the purpose of war.
This created a major scarcity for these stockings in the market, leading to a black-market supply and the emergence of Glamor Hose, where the trend of painting one's legs came into being. This involved women painting their legs with gravy browning and finishing it with a line at the back using an eye-liner for the seam. This replaced the nylon stockings for the masses during that time. But, in the year 1945, they were back in the market, eventually leading to the Nylon Riots, which ended in 1946. This part of the history is another proof of how the social and political climate can easily affect the fashion industry strongly.
In simple words, utilitarian clothing is basically a fashion style that is inspired by military men. Because it is inspired by the multipurpose attire of the army, it is heavy on comfort and functionality. But, this stream of fashion is also the result of some socio-political movements. Back in 1942, when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed out some regulations, one of them meant restrictions on clothing and materials. This led to the conservation of fabrics in every form, making hemlines shorter, banning fabric-heavy items like pleated skirts, lined skirts, culottes, etc, and rejection of trimmings like hoods and pockets.
This is what paved the way for utilitarian fashion to enter the trend and market. This was during wartime, which meant that women were participating in the war effort in many ways. So naturally, there was a lot of military influence in that time’s fashion as well. Suits for women were also being made with masculine details like cinched waists, broad padded shoulders, and structured collars. This was a concrete step towards equality for women at that time too. So, this not only marked a fashion revolution but also a societal one.
Since ancient times, the purdah system has been prevalent in one way or another. It was born out of the patriarchal values and beliefs regarding women’s roles. Back then, women were believed to be protected from other men’s eyes and in some cases, they were simply restricted from free movement and life. So yes, this is another instance where social affairs and beliefs meddled with the fashion of that time.
Ideally, the purdah system was introduced to humankind first by the Persians and it was later embraced by the Muslims back in the 7th century AD. And, they are the ones who are believed to have introduced the system in India. However, at the same time, according to Satish Chandra, the renowned scholar, it was brought into the country by the Delhi Sultanate long before the Muslims introduced it.
It was first adopted by the northern rulers of India like amongst Rajputs as a way to protect their women from being kidnapped by foreign invaders. It is also said that the Arabian women used to cover themselves with a cloth in order to shield themselves from severe weather conditions. Slowly, this practice began being accepted and adopted by the entire Hindu culture, where new brides were required to cover their heads with a pallu or dupatta with the rest of the house members.
By the 15th century, the purdah AKA ghoonghat became the honour of the women of the houses in Rajasthan and other northern parts of the country. Even in the present times, the purdah system continues to thrive in many parts of India, especially in rural cultures. Today, the dupatta or ghoonghat is also a staple for brides on their wedding day, where it is more of a fashion symbol than a cultural one.
Source: Joeyy Lee on Unsplash The Final Takeaway
Evidently, fashion is not just a simple byproduct of the need for human's creative manifestation. It is the intangible mix of decades of different cultures, social phases, movements, political affairs and phenomena. The intertwining of fashion reveals a much deeper message when untangled. It still continues to be largely influenced by the unrelated affairs of the world, where it is often used as a mode of expression of all kinds. So, as you see, fashion is more than just garments and designs. It is a loud and impactful instrument of voice, thoughts, opinions and social & political agendas too.