Financial systems have always been fragile. Barry Eichengreen

The Fabric of our Society

Today, fashion is a mass-produced commodity. This makes us forget that what we wear used to be a political statement – and could once again be an instrument of change.

“La mode, c’est le miroir de l’histoire.” -  Louis XIV

On the 29th of January, 1971, one hundred and eighty of the most exclusive names in high fashion, the press, and Paris’ circle of socialites gathered at la rue Spontini to witness the unveiling of Yves Saint Laurent’s long-awaited spring-summer collection: “La Libération”. They were neither prepared for, nor happy with what they saw:​

“Short dresses, platform shoes, square shoulders, and exaggerated makeup,” a tribute to the occupied Paris of the 1940s, to a decade of deprivation and national humiliation the French just wanted to forget and Saint Laurent dared to find elegant:

“What do I want? To shock people, to force them to think. […] Young people, they don’t have any memories.”
– Yves Saint Laurent

They had come for a dress, they got a scandal. A little entertainment, they got a reminder of a gruesome history and the role they played in it. It was one fashion statement. Critics called the collection “hideous”, to which Saint Laurent shrugged. He knew it wasn’t their eyes, but their conscience that was shocked.

Jeans against the divide

Of course, that was not the first high-heeled excursion fashion made into the realm of the social and political. Centuries earlier, in the revolutionary France of 1789, the leftist, pro-labor idealists discarded the frilly, silky fashion of the aristocracy for simpler styles. They called themselves les sans-culottes, and culottes were the least of the things they got rid of: feudalism, the monarchy, the political role of the church, Marie Antoinette’s head… A while later, the Russian proletariat also idealized aprons and rough cotton dresses during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution brought down Imperial Russia and heralded communism.

On the other side of the globe, blue jeans were used as a symbol of resistance against the social and gender divides of 40s, 50s, and 60s America. Punk opposed the pre-packaged, mass-produced lifestyle dictated by capitalism, and later the Hip Hop shoelace-less sneakers drew attention to the plight of African American inmates in a political and economic system that still discriminated against them.

George Bernard Shaw once said: “A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.” We think of fashion in terms of trends. But before the trends, there were statements.

Fashion can not be unseen

German social critic and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann wrote: “The apolitical does not exist. Everything is politics.” What you wear is a reflection of your identity, and identity extremely political. Fashion is perhaps the first and foremost expression of political, ideological, and social convictions, for the simple fact that it cannot be quieted or unseen. If fashion were an art movement, it would be realism:​

When Edouard Manet first showcased his famous Olympia in the 1865 Paris Salon, the crude, hard-lined naked prostitute was the last thing the public wanted to see. The artist replied that it was simply a reflection of a truth he saw. In that sense, fashion, too, is a reflection of a political and social reality, whether or not we want to see it.

Image a different statement

So what is the political and social reality of our day? A mass-produced “fast” fashion; cheap products and a short shelf life for a democratized society whose economy runs on constant consumption. A globalized, socialist fashion; trans-national brands blurring cultural and religious distinctions by dictating what is cool and what is not. An obsession with labels, a definition by labels; those appropriated and, worse, those attributed.

The political and social reality of our day is a dichotomy between a jihadism that shrouds women in black veils, robes, and gloves in Mali a secularism that sends schoolgirls home for wearing long black skirts in France. Between thousand dollar dresses at philanthropic events in the United States sweatshop workers who make them at 1.48 dollars an hour in Thailand, 69 cents in the Philippines, and 67 cents in China a generation of insecure, overfed girls trying to squeeze into ever-tighter dresses, and emaciated, photoshopped anorexics modeling them on billboards.

Karl Lagerfeld said: “Fashion is a language that creates itself in clothes to interpret reality.”

Imagine then, just imagine, a fashion that interpreted a different kind of reality. One in which beauty was healthy, trends were ethical, quality was consistent, and diversity was encouraged. Imagine a fashion that reflected freedom of identity, freedom of expression, freedom of choice. Freedom from judgment, freedom from oppression, freedom from hate.

Now that would be a statement.

This post was originally published here on the author’s blog, Aristotle at Afternoon Tea.

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