By Eve Gardiner, Contributor at SOUL
It is often said that nothing can exist in a vacuum and that everything is susceptible to external forces – Fashion is no different. The fashion industry is dynamic and reflective of society in its present position and can be used as a powerful component for change. You can either use fashion as an escapist tool or you can relate it to the world today: I choose the latter. The United States of America in 2017 is an entirely different nation than it was a few years prior. We have come off the back of one of the most divisive election campaigns in modern history which has stirred an unwelcome uprising from the depths of a slump so low that even George W. Bush has condemned it.
The American Dream is a principle which states that everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work. It is this principle that draws thousands of immigrants to the US every year in search of a better life. Raf Simons, the new Creative Director of Calvin Klein, is one of these immigrants; Melania Trump, the First Lady of the United States, is another. In his first collection for the brand, the Belgian Simons reimagined many iconic pieces of American style such as: cowboy boots and sheriff's uniforms, a healthy dose of denim, and suiting that harks back to yuppies on Wall Street. Despite the nostalgic vibe, there was a foreboding feeling that the America of today isn’t quite as positive. Simons’ SS18 collection lacked optimism, showing the dark side of the American Dream. The set featured deconstructed pom-poms hanging from the ceiling (what could be more American than a cheerleader?) and axes referencing horror movie The Shining, created by artist Sterling Ruby. A variety of clothes had mid-century silhouettes pointing to the Hitchcockian blondes who faced great trauma. Photographs from Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series were printed on garments. Heavy use of vinyl and PVC, especially in elbow length gloves, contrasted with soft dresses that looked almost dipped in blood. It all had a sinister approach to the new nation that Simons calls home. His representation of America, although not entirely literal, is intriguing because of the fact that he is ultimately an outsider looking in.
Whilst Simons’ approach to commenting on America has been more nuanced, some designers have been boldly outspoken. Think back to the Public School show for the FW17 season: models walked down the runway wearing baseball caps emblazoned with the message “Make America New York”, which proceeded to go viral shortly afterwards. The caps were fighting talk, a direct response to and almost parody of, Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats which he continues to peddle online. After the show, the Public School designers said that the hats were a message about the inclusive nature of New York, given that the city is a melting pot of cultures and often the first stop for immigrants making their way to the US. New York City has long represented hope and opportunity for generations of immigrants who saw the Statue of Liberty as a true symbol of freedom. In the same season, the CFDA distributed pins etched with the slogan “Fashion Stands With Planned Parenthood” in response to Trump’s threatened cuts to the non-profit organization which provides birth control and reproductive health screenings (amongst many other services) to women in need. Many designers also showed t-shirts with feminist slogans and hats with cat ears (as re-popularized at the Women’s March), both of which styles have trickled down into fast-fashion stores.
Another designer who has been vocal about his feelings towards the current administration is Prabal Gurung. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president last year and designed a t-shirt for her campaign. He highlighted his feminist leanings back in SS17 when he presented pieces painted with quotes from the speeches of Susan B. Anthony and others. For FW17, reeling on the disappointing result of the election, Gurung ended his show with a finale of slogan t-shirts - “The Future is Female”, “Love is Love”, “We Will Not Be Silenced” - that made models tear up with emotion and secured a spot on every attendees Instagram. His message was heard loud and clear: Trump’s America is not for everyone. Prabal Gurung is also notable for his quest towards diversity. In a nation where not being white can literally get you killed, Gurung is committed to presenting a cast of models of various different races and ethnicities each season. It seems, too, as if New York as a city is comfortable with pushing for diversity and representation on the runway. The trend of whitewashed casts of bare-faced, barely-pubescent girls is finally on the outs. The Fashion Spot’s Diversity Report showed that 36.9% of the NYFW castings were for models of color, with at least two non-white models being used in every single show. There were also 31 transgender or non-binary models cast in 29 shows throughout the week.
One of Trump’s most controversial policies is the “Muslim ban”, which places travel restrictions on individuals from certain Muslim-majority countries. Apart from this being a human rights issue, Trump’s ban is not logically sound. The fashion industry responded to this policy in a variety of different ways. W Magazine gathered a group of 81 prominent fashion figures who are all immigrants to the US to make the statement “I am an immigrant” and stand in solidarity with refugees who were harmed by the ban. Not exactly life-changing, but the campaign had good intentions. Marc Jacobs, a designer who has often been accused of cultural appropriation in the past, actually had one of the most diverse shows of the SS18 season with over half of the models cast being models of color. Jacobs sent models down the runway in bright, happy colors, with bold and dazzling prints and an overall exotic mood. It was almost like Yves Saint Laurent’s vibrant tributes to Marrakech. It felt glamorous and escapist and also like a soft response to Trump’s narrow and insular America. Why? Because each model walking down the runway wore a headscarf or a turban. Some even called it his “hijab” collection. Marc Jacobs may have thought the headscarves that he designed were just a reference to the shimmering silver turban which he dressed Kate Moss in for the Met Gala in 2009, but in this climate they can be interpreted as so much more.
Marc Jacobs is notable for the fact that he is an American designer who has said outright that he will not dress Melania Trump. The aforementioned Prabal Gurung is another, as are Tom Ford, Phillip Lim, and Christian Siriano. Some designers have done the opposite and said that they would dress Mrs Trump out of respect for the institution of the First Lady and what that means to America, but if this administration does not respect the American people then why do they automatically deserve our utmost respect? Coretta Scott King once said: “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”. After 8 years of having an African American president, it was easy to think that the US had made progress that it couldn’t come back from, but Mrs King’s quote reminds us that the pursuit for change and inclusion is an incessant daily fight. Fashion’s role in society is to show the world in its current state and to either echo its sentiments or counteract it. We are in a period of retrograde. Fashion is pushing back against the hateful division presented by the current administration as the industry is more accepting and inclusive than ever. Instead of saying the fashion industry is just frivolous or poisonous to young minds (a claim that is often made, especially in regards to body diversity), encourage people to look to fashion as an ideal of how the world would look if we were all a little more accepting.