When is fashion activism more than a trend?

Image Description: Amanda Gorman at Biden’s inauguration

On the 20thJanuary 2021, people all over the world rejoiced as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46thPresident of the United States and Kamala Harris became the first ever black, South-Asian and female vice-president. Another, subtler piece of history was made during the ceremony as Amanda Gorman performed her poem “The Hill We Climb”, becoming the youngest-ever inaugural poet. Gorman garnered much-deserved attention with her beaming confidence, striking words, powerful delivery – and with a piece of jewellery.

The jewellery in question was a gold ring which, Gorman later explained on Twitter, was gifted to her by Oprah Winfrey and depicted a caged bird to symbolize the late poet, Maya Angelou, the first black and female poet to perform at a US presidential inauguration. The ring thereby became a symbol not only of Angelou but, as Gorman herself wrote, ‘the women who have climbed my hills before.’

Gorman’s ring is not the first piece of fashion to act both aesthetically and symbolically. In the 1960s, Mary Quant’s loud, super-short miniskirts materialised (literally) women’s sexual liberation; in the same decade, black berets became synonymous with the Black Panther movement and indeed made a more recent appearance on model Adwoa Aboah’s head for the front cover of British Vogue. In 2019 Lady Hale’s spider brooch became a surprising news story, as the press shifted their attention away from the Supreme Court’s verdict on Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament and towards what could Hale’s brooch possibly mean?! While Hale insisted that the brooch had no symbolic significance, social media speculated whether it carried a hidden political statement, some tending towards the idea of “web-weaving” and the item later came to symbolise the rule of law and anti-Brexit campaigns. Without saying a single word, Hale – like Gorman – had said a thousand.

Fashion can go further in its role as symbol by both popularizing socio-economic campaigns and acting as a source of monetary profit for charities associated with the cause. The student-run charity SolidariTee, for instance, raises awareness of the refugee crisis by encouraging students to wear (and consequently publicise) their distinctive and eco-friendly t-shirts while also raising money for charities supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Referring back to Hale’s infamous brooch, embroidery firm Balcony Shirts in Uxbridge – which is, rather fittingly, Johnson’s constituency – raised over £15,000 for the homelessness charity Shelter by selling t-shirts with the design of the iconic spider. Fashion, therefore, is not merely a passive visual symbol but an active one which effectively raises awareness and incites actual social or economic change.

It is important to bear in mind that fashion is a commodity, and part of an industry that ultimately aims to profit.

We should, however, be careful with fashion-orientated activism: there is a marked difference between fashion items that actively empower the group they claim to support and pieces that appear political simply to encourage larger profits for the retailer. Take the 2014 collaboration between the high street brand Whistles, feminist campaign group The Fawcett Society and Elle magazine which sold the popular “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” shirts, photographed on figures such as Ed Miliband and Emma Watson. There were two issues with this campaign: first, it was made to “celebrate” the mission of empowering women, but it was not clear if profits were actually going to charities supporting the women they claimed to empower. Yet the most glaring issue was the fact that the shirts were made in a Mauritian sweatshop paying their workers 62p an hour in prison-like conditions – the majority of whom were in fact women.

It is important to bear in mind that fashion is a commodity, and part of an industry that ultimately aims to profit. This is where we turn to ‘commodity activism’ where companies incorporate political movements as part of their branding with the sole aim of increasing sales rather than supporting a cause. As consumers, we must be aware of where our fashion is sourced and, of course, who our money is profiting. For example, purchasing a “Feminism” top from ASOS is not an effective political act since it does not empower women, but only profits ASOS executives while possibly exploiting women and girls who make the items.

Fashion does not, therefore, need to be loud to be symbolic. Kamala Harris’s outfit at the inauguration showcased fashion labels Pyer Moss, Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson, all headed by black designers. This is a far more effective way of promoting social causes than modelling a mass-produced slogan shirt that largely benefits rich, white CEOs and their shareholders.

2021’s inauguration demonstrated that our outfit choices can indeed be a political symbol – whether it be a bold display such as Lady Gaga’s dove-and-olive-branch brooch, a subtler but politically-active statement such as Harris’s label choices, or a personal tribute to the battles won by those who fought before us such as Gorman’s ring. We must, however, be careful that fashion does not come to symbolise empty words. Movements which fight for the rights of the oppressed are not trends, and nor should the clothing that claims to support them be. The most powerful symbol is one that does not merely represent a movement but is actively part of it until the end.

Photo credit: Amanda Gorman via Facebook