Politics on the fashion runway

Mrs Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for United States president in July in a Ralph Lauren pantsuit.
Mrs Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for United States president in July in a Ralph Lauren pantsuit.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

It was the year politics took over people's closets and clothes went beyond products to become positions.

From the moment in February when Beyonce strode onto the field at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, for the Super Bowl 50 half-time show followed by backup dancers in outfits that paid homage to the Black Panthers, to perform Formation, a song that was called the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was clear "fashion statement" was going to take on a whole new meaning this year.

No longer was it enough to tell others what you believed. You had to show them too. And the simplest, most powerful and public way to do that was via what you wore.

Once upon a time, "political dress" meant the dress of the political class. This year, it became a term donned by everyone - and damned by some. Practically every month.

In April, Ms Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for women's rights, fired the first salvo at what became the fashion lightning rod of the summer: the Burkini. She scolded designers from Marks & Spencer to Dolce & Gabbana for catering to the Muslim market by offering full-body swimsuits and high-fashion hijabs, accusing them of "promoting women's bodies being locked up" to bolster their coffers.

Soon, Pierre Berge, the outspoken co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, stepped into the fray. A particular item of dress had become a symbol of the debate over the balance between enlightenment values and civil society and whether freedom includes the freedom to wear whatever you want.

By August, the issue had gone global and viral. Islamic women increasingly demanded they be accorded equal respect and treatment when it came to their clothing choices. The fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammad, became the first Olympic athlete to compete for the United States while wearing a hijab. Then, Anniesa Hasibuan, an Indonesian, became the first designer to pair a hijab with every look of her show during New York Fashion Week. Conde Nast International started Vogue Arabia.

In May, in a nod to the opening of Cuba, Karl Lagerfeld took the Chanel Cruise show to Havana, becoming the first brand to stage a show in the country.

In June, British designers began to publicly declare their anti-Brexit stance using the London menswear shows as their soapbox. One designer, Daniel W. Fletcher, not only staged a sit-in outside the official show site, but also dressed his protesters in "stay" hoodies and T-shirts, and the Sibling designers, Sid Bryan and Cozette McCreery, likewise wore slogan T-shirts to take their post-collection bows.

In July, a photo became a national symbol when a woman in a flowing sundress faced down police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a protest over the killing of Alton Sterling. The visceral visual contrast between the Louisiana State Police troopers' black riot gear and her graceful, non-revolutionary summer frock crystallised the fault lines developing around the country.

That month also saw the election of Ms Theresa May, who became Britain's second woman prime minister, causing a torrent of stories about her fanciful footwear, which she said was a tactical "icebreaker" in high-level meetings.

And it was when Mrs Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for president in July. Standing on stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Mrs Clinton made history as the first woman to become a major party nominee for president. In case you missed the import, her white Ralph Lauren pantsuit underscored the message. It squared the circle first drawn by suffragists in 1913 when they adopted white as one of their signature colours.

By September, there was no holding back: The look of autumn was the look of the American election. New York Fashion Week kicked off the day with a benefit for Mrs Clinton featuring a runway show in which Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, was a host.

Ms Wintour wore a dress designed by Jason Wu, featuring a mosaic of the states in varying shades of blue. Opening Ceremony recast its presentation as a "pageant of the people", featuring not only models in shirtdresses and bomber jackets, but also actresses Natasha Lyonne and Whoopi Goldberg talking electoral issues - both accessorised by Rock the Vote volunteers.

In Paris, fashion designer Stella McCartney splashed female empowerment and anti-fur slogans such as "Thanks Girls" and "No Leather" over her lace and cotton loungewear.

In October, the "pantsuit power" flash mob of 170 dancers took the streets in New York's Union Square wearing a rainbow of pantsuits to demonstrate their support of Mrs Clinton.

On Nov 8, those women who intended to vote for the first woman president adopted both sartorial stratagems and went to the polls in pantsuits or white or both to cast their votes. You did not even need to see the boxes they checked on their ballots to know where they were coming from.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2016, with the headline 'Politics on the fashion runway'. Print Edition | Subscribe