The Politics of Fashion: An Exploration of Clothing’s Complex Role as the Fabric of our Socio-Political Existence

Photo: NDZ/STAR MAX/IPx 2021 9/13/21 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion. (New York)


By Sarah Ben Tkhayet


Appearance — perception of oneself and others — is a governing concept that undeniably is at the center of human existence. With this, fashion comes into play, emerging as a useful and powerful tool that allows us to have more control over these appearances that inform our  understanding of gender, race and class — all factors that dictate much of our social interactions. Because of this, fashion also appears to be a tool that can restrict us, causing us to conform to preconfigured façades. 


How does fashion’s complex nature translate on a more macrocosmic scale? In considering these questions, fashion’s macrocosmic ambivalence emerges. Fashion materializes as a facilitator of popular expression and driver of social progress, as well as an important element of stagnation that both upholds and creates vehicles of oppression. 


How is fashion’s macrocosmic ambivalence evident in the real world? How does it exert its influence on relationships that span regions, countries or even continents? How does it transcend the social sphere to engrain itself into the very fabric of politics, economics and everything in between? And why do these questions even matter? 


These questions obviously bring in a large scope of themes within the field of politics. However, in the interest of providing a more productive and in-depth analysis of fashion’s influence on politics, only specific illustrative instances were chosen to focus on. Professor Jane Lynch, who teaches the Yale course ‘In Ordinary Fashion,’ provided key guidance about the political phenomena that are crucial to this conversation, and for which the link between fashion and politics is strong and clear. 


The scope of fashion’s role as a tool for freedom is narrowed down to its use in: colonial movements which have defined history and revolutionized peoples’ way of protesting, the feminist movement that changed fashion from something that had been used to oppress women into a emancipatory tool, and in the Civil Rights Movement that utilized fashion to affirm the Black community’s humanity and deserving of equality. 


On the other hand, fashion’s unfortunate restrictive quality has been narrowed down to a couple of both diverse and major themes. These include: the issue of fast fashion and climate change, the question of the link between cultural expression and fashion as it is posed by accusations of cultural appropriation, the risk of performativity that inevitably emerges with the use of fashion for public political expression and finally, high fashion and its ability to maintain class divisions. 


Fashion: a tool for freedom

Clothing & Colonialism: the use of fabric for revolt, the affirmation of a national identity, and ultimately, emancipation


When talking about clothing in a colonial context, Professor Lynch told The Globalist that “there is a way in which [clothing] homogenizes, objectifies and also freezes in time a representation of a particular person.” She highlighted clothing’s potential restrictive nature: “it presents [individuals] in the context of a colonial gaze which doesn’t allow for self-representation or diverse ways of being.” However, simultaneously, victims of colonialism have been able to “wear or use clothing as a way to challenge and self-represent both socially and politically.” The reality of fashion’s potential to act as this tool for emancipation from colonialism was illustrated in both colonial Algeria and colonial India.


French Algeria & the use of hijab 


France’s presence in Algeria was long, impactful and riddled with tension. The French entered Algeria in 1830 and engaged in settler-colonialism. During its rule over the North African territory, France implemented changing laws called the “indigénat.” While Algeria had been recognised as a part of France, Algerian Muslims were still not considered French citizens unless they renounced their culture and religion to adopt a French identity. This entailed abandoning their Muslim faith and Arabic language to adopt the Christian religion and learn to converse in French. From an Orientalist point of view, the French were thought to be liberating a population from their “barbaric,” outdated practices in order to implement new, better, more civilized ones. 


Professor Jennifer Sessions explained this in her text Colonizing Revolutionary Politics: “If the French occupation was defined as a mission civilisatrice, Algerians’ resistance to it could be taken as evidence they were “peoples whose character, religion, and customs energetically rejected the civilized order.” This exacerbated tensions between the French settlers and Algerian natives, ultimately culminating in the Algerian War of Independence.


It was during this war that the aforementioned cultural clashes took on a new dimension and expanded into the world of clothing. The veil or hijab became widely recognized as a symbol for the culture and religion of those fighting for independence. It became a symbol of resistance to French presence and all that that presence entailed. Female fighters wore the veil as a reclamation of their identity in the face of growing Algerian erasure. 


In Frantz Fanon’s Algeria Unveiled, he explained that the hijab also had a more literal use in teaching Algerian women “how to carry a rather heavy object dangerous to handle under the veil and still give the impression of having one’s hands free.” Indeed, female freedom fighters in the National Liberation Front used their “haiks” (North African wrap used by women to practice modesty) to conceal their weapons or classified documents. Evidently, this diminished French power, causing France to view the hijab as yet another token of the backward, barbaric quality of Algerian civilization and culture. Therefore the French used their supposed goal of liberating these women from their oppressive culture to justify an extensive use of violence that was only amplified during the war. 


The hijab’s status as a powerful symbol of popular upheaval and a threat to French authority was solidified by the public unveiling ceremonies which were frequently organized during the war in 1958, mostly by the French army. According to Neil McMaster’s book Burning the Veil: The Algerian War and the ’emancipation’ of Muslim Women, during these ceremonies, Algerian women removed their “haiks” or they would have them removed by European women. The “haiks” would then be burned or thrown to the ground. Oftentimes, in an attempt to model popular opinion, speeches in support of the French and their project in Algeria would follow the ceremonies. These addresses would emphasize the emancipatory quality of the previous act and the role it had in freeing Muslim Algerian women. Sometimes, organizers would go as far as to recruit poor women from high schools and pressure them with threats to their safety in order to coerce them into participating. Therefore, most, if not all, of the time, the women involved were not present out of their own free will. 


Clothing & Indian independence: an industry’s role in the building of  national identity


Much like in Algeria, India’s 200-year-long history under British rule featured famous instances of popular upheaval and conflict. It has marked history books because of its enduring fight for emancipation from colonialism. More specifically, Gandhi and his legacy of non-violence and self-discipline are crucial identifying elements of India’s colonial period. However, the two-fold fundamental role of clothing and textiles as important tools in the Indian struggle for independence are often overlooked. 


Firstly, and more clearly, cloth was an economic product, as explained by Dr. Susan S. Bean in her work on fabric and Indian independence. In Gandhi and Khadi, the Fabric of Indian Independence, Dr. Bean holds that cloth was a tool for “economic nationalism.” Dr. Bean details the long, important history of Indian cotton pre-British colonialism and its undeniable popularity. However, once colonial rule was established, England secured supplies of raw cotton from India and utilized its advanced spinning, weaving and dyeing machinery to start producing cheap cotton textiles. 


Through this, England was not only able to surpass India in the cotton market, but India also went from being the world’s greatest exporter of cloth to instead exporting raw cotton and importing cloth. Dadabhai Naoroji, the main proponent of economic nationalism, believes that there is a direct causal link between these two facts and thereby blames British rule for India’s economic decline. This is when the idea of swadeshi (the promotion of indigenous products) emerged. Because English cloth was synonymous with English domination, Indian cloth became synonymous with Indian liberation. Continued support for Indian products, particularly textile or clothing-related products, became a core component of Indian economic nationalism. This support was shown, amongst other things, through the boycotting of English products, like how in 1896 the people of Dacca boycotted Manchester cloth. 


However, clothing also served as a medium of communication, and as mentioned in the introduction to this section, acted as a social marker. Costume rapidly became a central consideration for Gandhi and the movement as a whole. As he switched between different types of costume and experimented with different public images, Gandhi was unsatisfied by many of the dress options because they “indicated region, class and religion” while his goal was to call for the “unity of all Indians […] rich and poor, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim.” For Gandhi, his way of dressing was a non-verbal communicator of his political agenda and goals for India. Ultimately choosing to dress himself in a white khadi, Gandhi embraced the “purity and simplicity” of the garment and favored hand-made khadis, often opposing the mechanization of the weaving process.


Fashion & Feminism in the United States: The 4 Waves of Feminism 


Another form of emancipation that has been facilitated by fashion is the feminist movement, advocating for the equality between men and women. Fashion has traditionally been interpreted as a vehicle for the expression of femininity and these two concepts have been intertwined for a majority of feminism’s long history. For Professor Lynch, during every wave of feminism, fashion served a nuanced role and proved to be a crucial tool in the movement’s fight to gain both attention and legitimacy.


Nineteenth century first wave feminism took on the big challenge of dismantling the popular belief of women’s inherent inferiority to men with the specific goal of obtaining suffrage. Despite the movement’s political focus, feminist activists recognized that the oppression of women was also fuelled by existing social hierarchies, some of which relied on clothing and fashion. Indeed, the expectation at the time was that women would wear corsets and other uncomfortable heavy dress in order to conform. 


Thus, when feminist Amelia Bloomer advocated for bloomers — comfortable long bulb shaped pants — it rapidly became an important visual symbol for the movement. Bloomers were a challenge to the social norm and a fashion statement all in one. They marked the beginning of fashion’s dual function within the feminist movement.


Fashion’s political function only became stronger in the 20th century, as comfortable turned into androgynous through Coco Chanel’s influence. Chanel popularized pants, which were up until then a strictly masculine garment. While this influence originated in the early 20th century, at the same time as the rise of flapper culture, it continued on gaining traction in the 1940s during the Second World War. Women (left behind by their husbands who went to war) engaged in traditionally masculine tasks like office work and their fashion reflected that, featuring Chanel-inspired masculine and structured silhouettes. However, soon thereafter the men returned from war and the feminist movement experienced some backsliding, but not before the 1960s came about to reignite the movement.


In fact, the 60s second wave feminism marked a fundamental shift from women adopting traditional masculine styles, to women looking to embrace their femininity through fashion. This took the form of shorter length outfits, particularly the miniskirt. Having been considered indecent and vulgar, the feminist movement took this clothing item and turned it into a symbol of feminine freedom and rebellion from traditional expectations of what a woman should dress like.


These two different aforementioned uses of fashion — both to reclaim women’s ability to embrace the masculine and feminine — coexist in feminism’s third and fourth waves, that span from the 1990s until now. Conversation around women’s dress features far more voices nowadays and remains largely polarized primarily between proponents of more traditional feminine dress and advocates for modern, liberated expressions of femininity. Nonetheless, the work that the feminist movement has done with fashion has allowed an important transformation of fashion from a socially restrictive tool to one that is used by women to express their personal understanding of what it means to be a woman. 


Fashion in the Civil Rights Movement: the fight for legitimacy & the expression of group identity 


Activists in the Civil Rights Movement saw similar potential for fashion to be a tool that would allow for a more rapid advancement towards their movement’s goal by allowing them to obtain the legitimacy they lacked because of the racist stereotypes and biases that operated against them. In particular, like Dr. Abeena L. Mhoon explains in her article Dressing for Freedom, several accounts of iconic civil rights activist Rosa Parks describe her as being “impeccably dressed in tailored clothing.” This was not a coincidence, but rather an active effort to dismantle racist perceptions of African-Americans as “unprofessional.” Interestingly, Black organizers looked to conform to social norms of dress while looking to dismantle all of the social, political and economic norms that kept them oppressed. Like Dr. Mhoon skillfully explains, as they were “arrayed in subtle conservative apparel, they aggressively revolutionized the nation’s existing order.” 


The same trend continued and was further amplified in the churches where these organizers regularly met. Vera Swann, a civil rights organizer and one of the first African-American Presbyterian missionaries assigned outside of Africa explained the rules of dress as they apply in church. For her, it’s key to “be comfortable but still look good”. More specifically, she explains that: “for a meeting with an organization or face-to-face with whites, we dressed.” This included only dresses or skirts for women, no pants allowed. However, the ability to adapt was also key for these activists. Because of this, once they started traveling and meeting in more informal spaces, their outfits began to reflect that. When activists like Ira Stolhman traveled to Alabama to talk to workers, she wore work clothes. 


On the other hand, some Black civil rights activists embraced the incorporation of cultural elements from their African heritage into their everyday fashion. The Black Panthers in particular were known for their choice to opt for natural hair styles like the Afro or cultural dress. They affirmed their individuality and freedom through their choice of fashion. Dr. Mhoon explains that adherents to this line of thought were younger activists who felt freer, caring less about how others may perceive them. According to Mary Vargas in her paper Fashion Statement or Political Statement they also took inspiration from French resistance in WW2 for their iconic black berets, reclaiming them as symbols of militancy. Coupled with black leather jackets, pants and gloves, the Black Panthers had created a uniform so powerful that it sent a clear political message through an entirely non-verbal medium.


Fashion’s limits: its role in society’s stagnation and in the upholding of hierarchies


Despite the aforementioned undeniable truths about the power and potential for change that fashion holds, it is impossible to ignore some of the regressive roles that fashion adopts both as an industry and as a tool for communication and perception. Criticism of the fashion industry’s large environmental cost has left little room to discuss other equally important debates and issues. The choice to focus on these more “peripheral” conversations, in hopes of providing new, productive analysis, has guided the sections below. 


The debate around Cultural Appropriation: between Empowerment & Erasure


Cultural appropriation is a concept and term that refers to the adoption of cultural or traditional elements from a minority group by a majority group with clear insensitivity or malicious intent. The latter part of that definition is key. The phenomenon I am referring to is specific and not all uses of the term online are merited or accurate. Like Maggie Strauss explains in her New York Times Op-Ed, on the scale of history “the adoption of certain practices from one culture to the next” is obviously productive and favorable. Adoptions of certain cultural traditions by non-members in a respectful and positive manner are key to human progress. 


Accusations of cultural appropriation that have emerged recently, especially post-2010, and have been directed at a large variety of social actors, from fashion designers and artists to entire communities of people, for exploiting or stereotyping certain cultural traditions. Fashion appears as a medium for cultural insensitivity and disrespect. The ability to culturally appropriate is a direct result of fashion’s inherent use for cultural expression. Because fashion is a tool that has been historically used by different groups to affirm their identities, fashion can also be turned around and used in a way that deforms those cultural expressions. Cultural appropriation of Black culture in particular has especially taken center stage in American internet politics given the long history of cultural insensitivity directed against core elements of Black culture. For instance, this insensitivity is reflected in the socially-accepted idea that natural and culturally significant African-American hairstyles like Afros and Dreadlocks are “unprofessional” or “inappropriate” to wear in professional environments. However, those same styles when sported by majority white models in the 2017 Marc Jacobs fashion are fashion-forward, artistic and stylish. 

Here lies the main issue that critics of cultural appropriation often point to and that cultural appropriation non-believers refuse to acknowledge: the double standard that clearly emerges. The wearing of culturally significant styles by individuals who are not part of that culture would not be considered problematic by some if it weren’t for the historical and continued disrespect for those styles by a significant social majority.  


Furthermore, unfortunately, more often than not, these minority cultural styles are not adopted in educated ways, but rather, in ways that display sheer disregard and disinterest for the history and depth that come with those cultural elements. 


Choosing to dress a model in a feather headpiece and lingerie for the 2017 Victoria’s Secret show that occurred in November, during Thanksgiving, is tone-deaf and inconsiderate. How much research would have been needed in order to avoid this faux pas? The intention matters, and in the event of a clear lack of consideration, criticism from the appropriate community is bound to emerge. Fashion’s double edge sword becomes evident through this, its capacity for impact when in the hands of the wrong people turns into a tool for cultural insensitivity. 


Fashion as an enabler of performative politics

As extensively shown in previous sections, fashion can undeniably take on a political dimension on the scale of a community. But how productive is this same political function when it is utilized on an individual level? More specifically, when a celebrity or public figure chooses to make a political statement through their dress? The example of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s “Tax the Rich” dress that she wore at the 2019 Met Gala is perfect to analyze this question.


Following the publication of photos of AOC at the Met Gala, the Internet broke into debate much like it has in the past, polarized as ever between those who deemed her fashion choice merely performative and largely unproductive and those who saw the choice of clothing as a clever and powerful way to challenge the capitalist status quo. Generally, both sides recognized the obvious contrast between the statement and the environment in which it was made. The Met Gala operates as an annual nexus for New York high society, leaders of the fashion industry and celebrity actors and singers — an obvious concentration of wealth. The first strains of both criticism and praise were directly related to the setting in which AOC made her statement. Critics claimed it was hypocritical of AOC to attend and enjoy an elitist event given her clear anti-elitist, anti-capitalist agenda. Others saw this as even more powerful, describing AOC as bold and unflinching, holding on to her values despite how uncomfortable it might have been for her to do that in the presence of the very people she was fighting against. 


AOC’s status as a politician also often took center stage in these conversations. For many, this status expunged AOC from being described as engaging in performative politics, given that that would mean that she would not be following up with concrete political actions that are compatible with the same political agenda. However, AOC has been a very vocal advocate for higher taxes and the implementation of left leaning policies like the Green New Deal. The core of the criticism against her falls apart following this realization. However, critics have held that despite this, AOC’s decision to wear the dress remains unproductive. Ella Henry of the Bowdoin Orient holds this opinion, citing the fact that the dress served as ammunition for the opposite side of the political spectrum to mock AOC. Indeed, among other things they compared her dress to a “paper bag from Chick-fil-A,” turning her into an Internet joke. 


Furthermore, more generally, people have expressed valuing tangible political change over simple statements. This comment is inscribed within a larger debate on the place of fashion in politics. “Clothing and fashion have been, in some ways, taken less seriously, seen as a frivolous topic, or a topic only to be discussed in women’s magazines,” explained Professor Lynch. This lack of faith in the power for change that fashion holds, despite sometimes being merited, clearly functions as a brake on more positive perceptions of fashion’s presence in politics. This realization is central to a proper understanding of popular accusations of performative activism. The arena in which these accusations are being made and received also matters, the development of the Internet as a means for communication has transformed fashion from being something that is perceived by one’s immediate entourage to something that “can be presented on social media and instantly available globally” as explained by Professor Lynch. 


High fashion & the world of authenticity & forgery: the politics of the “fake”


While fashion’s role as a communicative tool should not be underestimated, interest in fashion as an industry and the negative mechanisms that are inextricably linked to it is also needed for a complete understanding of the link that operates between fashion and politics. 


The development of high fashion brands has shown the potential for clothing to adopt varying degrees of value. This value is given according to a number of factors: the quality of the fabrics, where the item was made, and perhaps the most powerful, what the tag on it says. Particularly because of the latter factor, value appears to be a fabricated idea most of the time based very loosely on the former criteria. Dr. Lynch elaborates on this by explaining how the “made in Italy” tag has acquired significant symbolic value. She remarks that for a lot of the garments donning this tag, a good portion of the production process occurs in places like China. 


The legal regulations surrounding the ability of these firms to use this tag open up the conversation on the production of authenticity and how specific fashion houses are “rooted in a long, long history that ties to genealogy and a sense of place.” Through this emerges the question of what makes something “real,” and consequently, what makes something “fake?” And why are these questions important? How do these concepts impact our understanding of society and culture? 


Dr. Magdalena Craciun’s paper “Rethinking fakes, authenticating selves” focuses on answering these questions through an ethnographic lens. By choosing to look at Turkish fake designer sellers, Dr .Craciun talked to two merchants Kerim and Mustafa. It became rapidly clear that these sellers faced the challenge of constantly having to fight against popular belief that “the legitimate commodity has an author while pirated product does not have one”. Having been banished to the sidelines of society for participating in an industry usually not out of choice but rather necessity, people like Kerim seek to legitimize “through … honesty and professionalism against the common assumptions that dealing in fake brands does not necessitate personal and professional investment” or that his only goal is to “cheat his customers.”  He also made a valid argument about the value of clothing being in “experience” and “workmanship” rather than “genealogy.” 


Through several other examples, Dr. Craciun draws a direct line between selling fakes and “anxiety over the integrity and credibility of one’s existence.” She makes a rather psychological argument that engaging with the fake items industry is something that can be detrimental to the person in question. Fashion, therefore, has the faculty to mold self-identification and self-perception, giving it power on an individual scale. 


Thus, fashion and clothing’s incredibly multifaceted relationships with the world of politics appear to be a key component in our understanding of the interactions that occur within communities of people. 


Professor Lynch urges more interest in the topic. “You can think about clothing and fashion as intersecting with almost every discipline. From political science to thinking about biological sciences: what are the kinds of fibers, such as cotton, that are used in these textiles? There’s so much to explore here.” 


Fashion is not without substance, it’s not only about enjoyment. It governs the everyday world of appearance, and its influence is without bounds — whether it be used for good or bad. 

Sarah Ben Tkhayet is a first-year in Timothy Dwight College and can be reached at