Revolution In The Name Of Fashion: The Universal Platform For Race, Culture, Ideologies, And Rights
My first recollections of style are the denim purses my mother would make out of old jeans. She’d salvage decrepit jeans too small to fit us, rescue abandoned pants from the thresholds of the Goodwill. My mother, the magician, with her distinct blend of designer labels and thrift store finds, would pillage through flea markets and Salvation Armies. She’d find the most unique items—items that can’t be mimicked—and turn herself into a canvas. She still does. My dad still does too. They told me, maybe not with words, the importance their fashion had to their identity. They showed me the way their outfits would say things about them that they couldn’t quite explain. They, with their very distinct styles, explained to me that fashion, for many, is a right of expression. It is powerful. It is defiant. Steeped in culture and dripping with creativity, fashion is an agent of self-exploration, a pathway to the formation of identity, personality, and self-creation. It can be revolutionary. It can be political. It can be neither. The role fashion plays for minority groups, however, always tends to be a bit more profound.
The relevance of fashion on different ethnic groups, for example, rests on the implications it has on their culture. In some ways these implications are radicalized: think Afros in the 70s. They were not just a cute hair trend, although many of them were indeed fabulous ‘fros. They were a rejection of the normalized attack on Black hair. They were a denouncement of the idea that only straight hair was attractive. They were demonized, and in certain capacities still are, but that is no surprise.
Black fashion and style are often normalized within the culture yet demonized externally. To be Black in the United States is one thing, but to be Black and straying from the approved norms is something altogether different. To be Black and living unapologetically—dressing unapologetically—is an entirely different beast.
This phenomenon replicates itself across borders of race, gender, and sexuality. Other racial and ethnic minorities battle this. Members of the LGBTQ+ community battle this. Women battle this. Imagine the war that occurs when these all intersect. The ability to have self-agency in an oppressive society is a fight that many struggle to win. The idea that you must perform in a certain manner, act in a certain manner, dress in a certain manner, to keep your life is not some fantastical theory. It’s real life. This notion that to win the fight one must conform becomes a stunning reality when many people are stripped of the rights of their body simply for expressing themselves. Women are constantly harassed for claiming their body and their style of dress as theirs. They are met with harsh epithets, groped, tormented. LGBTQ+ individuals are murdered for dressing how they want. For being who they want. Black and Brown people in all capacities are met with stereotypes and brutalities. And despite this, despite the obvious instances of racism, sexism, and homophobia (and the intersections of them), the advice always rests back on conformity:
If you weren’t dressed like that, maybe it wouldn’t have happened.”
“Dress more conservatively.”
“Stop being so flamboyant.”
“Pull up your pants.”
“Not because that’s how you want to dress, but because it’s what you must do to survive.”
Self-expression through the lens of fashion then becomes dangerous. It can become a loaded gun handed directly to the killer. This creation of self, rests on a thin line between empowerment and danger. It can feed, and it can starve. Conformity can come easy; why become an intentional target? But that’s what’s so captivating about the rejection of it. Despite the endless possible outcomes, people are taking their agency into their own hands. In some instances, it may not even be a deliberate act of defiance—people just like to dress the way they dress. But, in a world where being unapologetically yourself is constantly questioned, ridiculed, and demonized, owning yourself, owning your identity, becomes increasingly political. Self-identity and expression become even more revolutionary. Self-creation becomes even more radical.
Designers also have expressed a very particular extension of this. Entire collections have been used to spark political debate and insight on a grand scale. They extend their identity and political ideologies to sets and outfits, sending their audience on politicalized excursions. Pyer Moss, for example, addressed police brutality last year during New York Fashion Week. In addition to playing devastating footage of unarmed Black men being killed, his designs were riddled with symbolic blood and “I Can’t Breathe” phrases—a particularly controversial topic in New York, where the I Can’t Breathe movement started in reaction to the killing of Eric Garner.
This designer also stirred the pot with his next collection: a statement on mental health, complete with pins that looked like medication and a suicide note in the hand of one of the models. Another case of designers exercising their political rights took place during Italy’s Fashion Week when refugees were cast as the models in response to Italy’s current refugee crisis. These designers, naturally, are faced with much critique, but their bold social critiques are important to note. As fashion week draws near, it’s important to analyze the statements these designers create with their art. These carefully crafted statements, whether we agree with them or not, will be amplified across social media and news outlets—immortalized declarations for all to see.
To allow your identity to unfold on your terms is monumental. It is not an easy task; many people are forced into different characters out of sheer necessity. But it should never be lost on us that while it may seem trivial in some respects, fashion tells us a great deal about ourselves. It can show it on a micro-level, as seen through the personal style of individuals, or on a macro-level, with the likes of fashion designers and their social and political critiques. On any level, it is clear that fashion is a crucial element to our society. It melts into our communities, colors our cultures. It stands as a testament to our very existence, in many ways, reminding us that we matter. How we choose to express ourselves matters; how we choose to identify ourselves matters; how we choose to experience the world matters; and more than anything, how we choose for the world to experience us matters.