Dressed to Express: Fashion’s Role as a Political Medium

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election and subsequent inauguration as president, unprecedented numbers of his opponents took to the streets of major cities throughout the country in bold displays of resistance. While the actual protests like the Women’s March lasted for only a few hours, their spirits are memorialized, both literally and figuratively, in the clothing, signs, hats, and buttons that were featured in some of the march’s most iconic images.

According to conventional wisdom, religion and politics are “off-limits,” not to be discussed in anything but the most intimate settings. As young people today enter an age of political consciousness, though, they seem to take a different approach, sharing stances with those they’ve just met, posting their opinions on social media, and wearing them unapologetically on their bodies.Traditionally, politics and fashion have been understood as entirely separate domains, with fashion often stereotyped as an unserious pursuit. Recently, though, bright and motivated designers — the majority of whom are women — have begun to question this separation of the worlds of fashion and of politics, instead envisioning their intersection as a potentially powerful way to engage and extend excitement about politics among young adults.

Pamela Bell is one such designer. After co-founding Kate Spade, she went on to create Prinkshop, “a cause-centric community that designs and makes t-shirts, notebooks, and totes… [featuring] issues ranging from sex trafficking to education, homelessness, and marriage equality.” Speaking with the HPR about her products and the power of fashion as a medium for political statements, Bell explained that when politics becomes a fashion statement, “the individual becomes the billboard, becomes an advertisement for what [they] believe in, so [they’re] projecting out instead of being projected at.” Wearing political clothing can be a source of community and connection, too. “It’s almost like a club,” Bell explained. “When you’re wearing [this clothing], you’re shouting out what you believe, and you’ll see other people that will respond—someone might smile at you as they walk past, for instance, seeming to say ‘I’m with you.’”

And while political fashion can appeal to many generations, young people in particular seem to be embracing this form of activism. Millennials, who are more socially conscious and more liberal than their older counterparts were at the same age, are bridging fashion and politics, using their clothing to express their beliefs and to demonstrate their commitment to social causes. From calls for racial and gender equality to endorsements of political candidates, political clothing allows young adults to brand themselves based on their beliefs. And as political polarization grows more intense than it has ever been in recent history, especially among those who are most politically engaged, constituents of both parties have developed a growing preference for “ideological silos,” communities filled with people who share and confirm their views. Unsurprisingly, young people who first begin to develop their opinions in these homogeneous communities, and who are thus less likely to regularly engage with those who disagree, are more unapologetic and bold in their presentation of their views.

Bell, in fact, remembers the positivity with which young people in particular initially responded to her products, sharing her belief that younger generations are “proud of things that they care about, and want to show the world what they’re invested in.” A welcome change from the seemingly endless supply of apparel with meaningless words and sayings, political fashion can offer an opportunity to bridge the personal and political for those first coming to political consciousness. In a sense, Bell believes shirts like the ones she sells serve as a sort of “gateway to getting involved—people wear them, and think, ‘wow, I’m an activist,’ just by speaking out about what they believe in, and then they begin to take the next steps, asking how else they can get involved.”

Of course, it’s not as though fashion was entirely apolitical until Trump became president—Bell remembers strong anti-animal cruelty sentiments when she first began her career in fashion, as well as an intense effort to combat human rights violations in clothing factories in places like India, China, and Vietnam. Still, while the fashion world may have traditionally been somewhat politically-minded, what is unprecedented is how intensely political fashion has become.

It’s no coincidence that fashion grew more political precisely when Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever nominated by one of the two major parties for the United States presidency. Bell remembers this trend actually beginning during the 2008 election, when “a lot of female designers decided to stand next to Clinton,” describing this moment as a “turning point.” In the 2016 election, some political fashion was blatant—Clinton supporters proudly donned products declaring their “Nasty Woman” status, while major designers including Michael Kors, Tory Burch, and Diane von Furstenberg kicked off New York Fashion week at fashion show fundraiser for Clinton. Other political statements involving clothing were more subtle—women, including Clinton herself, showed up at the polls on November 8, for instance, clad in all-white in an homage to the history of the women’s suffrage movement, which many had hoped would culminate with the election of the first-ever female president. Referencing and celebrating Clinton’s most iconic clothing choices, furthermore, Pantsuit Nation emerged during the 2016 election as an online community of millions of Clinton supporters dedicated to political activism and engagement.

In coming months and years, as resistance to the Trump presidency and political activism among young liberals grows even more intense, political expression through fashion will likely continue to expand. Ultimately, fashion offers young people, and young women in particular, a unique opportunity to boldly and unapologetically declare their political stances. This ability is particularly crucial now because, as a Prinkshop shirt so aptly states, “the personal is political.”  

Image Credit: Flickr/Mobilus in Mobili

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