Exploring Fashion Activism: Past, Present & Future.
Fashion activism is a form of socio-political engagement that holds the power to bring about positive changes in society, the economy, politics, and the environment. It emphasizes the role of fashion designers in actively utilizing their skills to enhance and transform existing social, political, economic, and environmental circumstances.
Let us recall one of the most iconic moments of fashion. In the cold war era, the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher joined hands with the superpower United States and decided to station US missiles in Britain to target enemy countries. However, most Britishers were against this sort of aggressive military stand. Still, the iron lady, Margaret Thatcher, ignored the people’s voice. Katherine Hammett, a UK-based fashion designer, took this political issue differently. She used the moment when she came face-to-face with Thatcher at the London Fashion Week reception hosted by the British Prime Minister herself. The brave designer creatively revealed her self-designed oversized Tee emblazoned with the words ‘58 Per Cent Do Not Want Perishing’.
It meant that 58 per cent of the Britishers did not agree with the aggressive military stance of Margaret Thatcher. The photograph went viral and became a big statement of the anti-war movement of the world. (D Mello, 2017) Apart from this activity, Hamnett became world famous with her invention of T-shirts with political slogans and activism related to organic cotton and ethical fashion business. She focused on an environment-friendly, sustainable, ethical fashion value chain for her products before sustainability became the buzzword in the fashion industry. Later Hamnett was voted as Britain’s favourite designer by the readers of Cosmopolitan in 1996 and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2011 for her service to the fashion industry.
Fashion Activism from History to Modern Times
Fashion activism is a socio-political activity that has the potential to influence society, economy, politics and environment positively. It is more regenerative as fashion designers become active in using their skills to improve and change current social, political, economic and environmental conditions. When we think about fashion activism, the first name that comes to our mind is that of Mahatma Gandhi, his activation of khadi and self-empowerment through developing India’s own indigenous fabrics and discarding the British factory-made apparel.
Similarly in 1943, the Mexican American community dealt with the social exclusion of the community in the US and riots in Los Angeles by wearing a Zoot suit, oversized coat, and a wide-brimmed hat. It gave Mexican American youth a sense of group feeling and a powerful cultural identifier. Throughout the Black freedom struggle, black women activists created a form of dressing and processed hairstyles with denim garments. In 1996, black politics got rejuvenated through the formation of the Black Panther Party, and the style statements of the members. It included hairstyles constituted of afros and cornrows and attire like bell bottoms, tapered pants and miniskirts. Their iconic looks with resistance and power for the black community inspired many people across the globe for many years. To show her solidarity towards the Black Life Matters movement, famous American singer Beyonce, in one of her 2016 shows, dressed her dancers in attire inspired by the dresses of the Black Panther Party.
After the 2013 Rana Plaza incident in Bangladesh, Fashion Revolution, a globally networked organisation, has been working as a conscience of the global fashion industry. The 2017 ‘Man’s London Fashion Week’ presented several designers, through their collections, who expressed their political views on Brexit and Donald Trump. In Spring Summer 2014 Fashion Week in Paris, provocative designer Rick Owens explained the concept of body diversity and brought up an inspiring notion of “we are beautiful in our way”. Another designer Lucy Orta integrates clothing design with human distress as she designed Refugee Suit, which can be zipped together to form a tent.
Famous designer Stella McCartney’s strong views on animal rights and sustainability steered her company to source and develop eco-friendly products and created a distinctive brand positioning in the fashion world. Designer Vivienne Westwood provocatively voiced her opinions on climate change, distress of climate migration and many more issues and collaborated with various groups such as Environmental Justice Foundation. Global luxury group Kering’s focus on Environmental Profit and Loss Accounts, Patagonia’s funding of environmental activists across the world, Louis Vuitton’s freedom to its top management to talk freely on racism and misogyny related issues, and recruitment of non-conformist African descent designer Virgil Abloh as artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear ready-to-wear line are a few examples of big brands and their activism at global levels.
Fashion Activism in Post Independent India
Indian fashion activism in the post-Independence era is mainly associated with craft revival, women empowerment and livelihood generation. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Pupul Jayakar and Ela Bhatt led the show. Later on, Laila Tyabji (Dastkar), Jaya Jaitley and Ritu Kumar contributed immensely to the same cause. Now we have fashion designers like Uma Prajapati (Upasana Studio), Kriti Tula (Dudeledge), Odisha’s designers Lipsa Hembram (Galang & Gabaan) and Pankaja Sethi who question and provide meaningful solutions to the emerging issues in modern India like sea pollution, cotton farmers’ distress, waste management, preservation of tribal art and livelihoods. Even fashion institutes like the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Bhubaneswar under the thought leadership of Dr. Binaya Bhushan Jena raised a viral campaign on ‘sustainable fashion’ that got attention and recommendation from the Indian Parliament. The institute showcases 11 natural fibre yielding plants and 62 dye-yielding plants in the campus to sensitise and promote the ‘Farm to Fashion’ concept for integrating sustainability into the total fashion value chain.
Fashion Activism and Gen Z
India’s fashion activism has a bright future with Gen Z. Fashion activist Aishwarya Sharma (founder of Figuramoda), whose content focuses on how fashion can be used for social impact and awareness, climate change and women’s rights, was the only Indian digital influencer and activist invited to the prestigious platform COP 27 (UN Climate Change Conference) held in November 2022 in Egypt. Aditi Mayer, another sustainable fashion activist of Gen Z with 52,000 Instagram followers, used her platform for a deeper conversation on fashion through the lens of sustainability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status, Indian agrarian crisis, colonialism and many more issues. Aditi envisions, “What will change the future of fashion is the trifecta of consumers’ education, building workers’ power and corporate accountability/aided by government regulations.” We have enough reasons to hope that fashion activism will hover in the right direction to bring positive changes in the fashion business, society, environment and governance.
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