The Frontline of Identity Politics: Vanessa Friedman talks Fashion


Our understanding of fashion resides in metaphors, is anchored in abstractions. Fashion is an art, fashion is a language. But when fashion embodies so many different worldviews, when it is used constantly and tactfully on public and private platforms, when it becomes a stratagem of business, ethics, politics, identity—you can lose sight of it. Because at its most basic, fashion is clothes.

Vanessa Friedman, the Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic for The New York Times, is not someone who lets Fashion run away from her.

Friedman writes the articles that you like, share, save, bookmark, post, and then discuss. Deftly, astutely, intelligently, she interprets what’s on the runway, what it does and does not look like for a woman to be empowered. She decodes the clothing choices of Michelle Obama, not just as bullet points on an agenda, but as historically-defined choices that converged with the rise of social media. She sees what we see, but explains it so much better.

Refreshingly, her view of fashion is strictly grounded. She doesn’t ordain fashion; it’s a symbol. And that’s it (mostly). If my questions were couture, her answers were ready-to-wear. Her ideas shrug on easily and realistically, she doesn’t overstate. So, as much as this is an interview about the power of fashion and the minds that critique it, it’s about evidence, objects versus the people who use them, and the separation between the active and the symbolic.

How would you describe your role as Fashion Critic?

There are two parts: there is the straightforward criticism related to what you see on the runways during fashion week, where your role is to analyse and interpret. To contextualise what you’re seeing in terms of designer, brand history, aesthetic, and the larger questions of women’s roles—where women are at that point in time and what designers are trying to say about where women are, whether it’s relevant or not relevant. Then I think you also have a role, which involves interpreting how dress is used more generally by people in the public eye to communicate issues of identity for the greater world.

You’ve previously expressed that fashion writing was not your original goal, and that you don’t see yourself as an insider. How has observing the fashion industry moulded your perception of it?

I studied history as an undergrad, and I was very interested in working in the realm of culture, and I fell into fashion kind of by accident. But the more I did it, the more I realised that clothing has become, in a very visual world, the frontline of identity politics and communication. And that is true for everybody. Ostensibly, if you’re a fashion critic, you can write about almost anything you want: you can write about politics, business, Hollywood, sports. Everybody is using clothing in their sphere to say something about their clothes and their politics and their place in the world. That makes it an incredibly rich subject to think about.

It’s kind of the ultimate meeting ground.

It is, it is. It kind of always was to a certain extent, but it has become ever more so because our means of communication has become, thanks to social media, ever more immediate, visual, and accessible to a wide set of people that it was not accessible to before.

That was actually going to be my next question—I think people are, more than ever, paying attention to the politics of fashion. Do you think it’s because of social media that that’s the case?

Harold Koda, who used to be the Costume Institute Curator at the Met, once told me that the decibel level was measurably and meaningfully higher at a costume show than in any of the other exhibits in the museum, and I think that’s reflective of the fact that everyone there is legitimately allowed to have an opinion about clothing. Everyone gets dressed, whereas high art or modern art or classical music, they think they need some kind of educational background to express an opinion on it. With clothing, they don’t. So everyone is a critic, everyone has a thought, everyone makes a choice and that has become very clear, once blogging and the Internet started.

If we consider fashion as a language, do you think there’s anything that fashion can tell us that verbal and written language can’t?

I don’t think it’s that fashion tells us something that written language can’t, I think that it’s a shared language in a way that written language is not. I mean, Dior is Dior is Dior, wherever you go. Punk is punk is punk. Whereas if you’re writing a treatise in English, someone in China has to read English to understand it.

It’s also a much faster means of communication. It’s immediate. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in Blink: you see someone, you make a judgment, and that judgment is based on how they look. People make judgments about Theresa May about her clothing; they don’t necessarily read her position papers. That’s arguably the reason we got into this situation right now. So it’s not that clothing has replaced the written word, it’s that clothing is a much more immediate way of communicating.

As you’ve alluded, fashion has particularly blown up in light of the recent political situation. What do you think clothing means for the Western world at this particular moment?

If we’re talking vis-à-vis Trump, I think clothing is just another lightning rod for the multitudinous emotions that are swirling around this president. I don’t think people are actually reacting to fashion per se. It’s just another thing that they can attach their feelings to. Clearly Kellyanne Conway broke the law when she endorsed Ivanka’s clothing line. That’s an ethical issue. But I think what’s interesting about this presidency is that it’s really the first time that we’ve had a president who considers himself a brand and has an entire family of individual brands. It raises a question of what branding means, as applied to individuals.

In that way, do you think that fashion is a responder to culture or is it a more active driver of culture?

Fashion’s role is to reflect back the way things are going, so it provides those visual cues to identity. It doesn’t really shape; it doesn’t drive the wind. What it does is reflect it back in a different form, so it changes with the prevailing socio-political, cultural trends, but it doesn’t create those trends. Punk dressing came out of much broader feelings of disillusionment, rebellion. It didn’t create that. You know, same with Grunge. Grunge was an expression of bigger feelings and identity. It didn’t create that identity.

Even fast fashion is reacting to other trends in humanity.

Fast fashion, I think, is copying in a more accessible way. Fast fashion—I don’t want to be mean about this—is not creating a new expression of identity. It’s simply another version of one that has been created by either kids on the street or designers on the runway. It’s in the middle of those two places. It makes it broadly accessible to a general public, which is a good thing.

But don’t you think it’s about the need for instant gratification, as much as it’s about clothing?

I actually think fast fashion created the need for instant gratification. In that sense, it made it possible. I don’t think it necessarily responded to it, as part of our perfect storm of increasing collections, information. Everything comes rolling up together.

Something I often think about in history is that we’re dealing with the same issues, but just in a different shape. To what extent do you think gender, fashion, and power function differently today than they did in the past?

I think people have always used fashion to express gender and power. Certainly Queen Elizabeth I did, royalty always has. You can go all the way back to Egyptian civilisations and before that. Fashion was always used to show these things to the masses. It was part of the theatre of power. And I think the difference may be now that it’s accessible to everybody, in a way that it wasn’t centuries ago. People are more conscious of it now than they were before and more willing to admit it—though not everyone will.

In one article, you explained how, throughout the election process, Hillary was beginning to dress more and more like the typical male candidate. Do you think there’s a way that a woman can “dress for success”?

Effectively, Hillary wanted to take clothing off of the table and so she bored everyone to stop them from talking about it, which is a completely legitimate tactic. I think there has been a general loosening up of what is expected of women in positions of power and in terms of how they’re expected to dress. I think that, up to five years ago, it was still about dressing like a man in bright colours, and that was partly how to not be available as a source of conversation and to desexualise the whole thing.

Increasingly, women are unwilling to accept that, which I think is a very good thing, whether it’s Michelle Obama, who almost never wore a suit or Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina or Theresa May to a certain extent, or even Mrs Clinton, when she had the nomination. They were dressing in much more overtly female ways—and unapologetically. I think we have sort of reached a slight breaking point with the need to be afraid of looking like a woman, and that’s positive.

In terms of the Women’s March and pussy hats, do you think clothing is an effective tool of protest?

Clothing has always been a symbol of protest. Clothing is a symbol. It’s semiology. Since the Vietnam War it has been a symbol of protest. So yes, it indicates membership in a group, it shows solidarity, you can immediately identify someone that’s part of a cause. It’s a very visual symbol of what is happening, how big it is, what it stands for.

In all this talk of symbolism, how have these ideas influenced your own relationship to your clothes?

[Laughs] It has made me more aware of my own choices. To be fair, you can’t really sit around judging other people’s choices, without thinking about the ones you make. I like to wear clothes that are less immediately identifiable by brand or season. Mostly because of my job. I don’t like looking partisan. Then, I have a whole host of practical considerations in terms of comfort. I think that clothes work when you don’t have to think about them after you put them on. Also clothes that don’t call attention to themselves. When I’m interviewing or talking to someone, I would rather not have them thinking about what I’m wearing. And I like things that pack. So it hasn’t dramatically changed, but it has made me think about it more. But I don’t have a gigantic wardrobe, so I don’t have to think about it that much.

Finally: since this is a student newspaper, do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?

A great thing about journalism is that you’ve effectively found a way to be in school your whole life. It’s a very overt process of learning. I think the biggest thing is to learn as much as you can about not just the areas that you think you’re interested in, but everything. The more you understand about how the world fits together, the richer your reporting on any one subject will be. It’s like anything: you don’t have to know the answers, but you have to know who to ask the questions to.


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