Run(a)way–Fashion and Politics
March 10 2022
Fashion has the unique ability to signify the times, social class, struggle and history on our very bodies. Whether we do our research to understand the messaging, it is something to be read like the headlines on our phones. Books, articles, essays have all been published, backed by centuries of research and data that outline the political motives of specific trends. There have been many statements like "Tax the Rich" reading on the trails of ball gowns. Something so obvious painted onto our clothing cannot be missed, but the element of surprise is fleeting. Then, there are productions that make us take to our seats, awaiting whatever play moments away from center stage.
Across the world, Fashion Week sets a predestined, bi-annual spotlight on whatever rests in the designer's mind. A chaotic buzz grips the necks of the Big Four: Paris, London, Milan and New York. Whether or not in participation, guests and locals alike are subjected to see what must be seen. It is the opportune moment to nonverbally discuss the global crises and criticisms at hand. Fashion is politics, this we know. Whether discussing the ethics of how and where it is made, the conditions in which it is made, or the price we pay, we may lose consciousness. Still, Runway as performance art has a lasting place for those determined to give this medium more.
Although unintentionally, the first show to speak volumes about the separation of the poor and elite was the 1989 presentation of Martin Margiela SS90. This evening was an explosion and is widely regarded as one of Runway's most iconic shows. It took place in Paris's 20th arrondissement, a location to reflect the deconstructed collection was the first visible act of distant worlds. But Martin Margiela, in all of his awareness, was not exploiting the emigrated locals where the show would take place. They decided early on that their involvement was crucial to the production's success and overall meaning. Being a house that often rejected fashion's traditional glamor, this night was one night where the absence of these communities would have genuinely been missed. From the children's erupting laughter while weaving through and tripping models, to the unassigned seating that was open to the public, fashion's elites were forced to coexist if they wanted in. And because Margiela was as mysterious as he was revolutionary, everyone wanted in.
This concept of using the runway as a cultural stage was quickly popularized. A personal favorite of mine (for the messaging) took place a decade later; the SS98 Burka presentation by Hussein Chalayan. This became a historical moment, especially in fashion, that can now mark the ongoing war on Muslim women and their coverings worldwide. The juxtaposition of ivory-skinned European women sauntering down the runway at first wholly nude except for the boregheh (mask worn by Bandari women) slowly grew to a full-on burka by each passing model. This challenged the idea of what we consider 'free'. A misogynistic diction takes the stand that one's liberation rests in their nudity, implicating a much more sinister message. "It was about defining your space structurally and graphically," said Chalayan to The New York Times (1998). "It was supposed to illustrate a particular kind of position. This was about the cultural loss of self." Head coverings are still a topic of debate, both in politics and fashion, with no end in sight. If any veil is being pulled away to expose, it's the polarizing response to which women receive praise versus the women facing scrutiny. Over twenty years later, society has not progressed, only making matters worse.
Fashion as a means of global perspective is an innumerable event. Today, peace of mind only seems achievable by going off the radar. The problem, though, with avoiding the world is that it keeps spinning. "Explicit Beauty" was the name of Walter Van Beirendonck's FW15 show, where he had much to unpack (as per usual). Many frustrations were expressed through beautifully embroidered phallic symbols or ones that hung around the neck to be seen. Walter was hopeful the world would become more tolerant of all the varying lifestyles in his youth, but as he aged, it was a sad realization to see the opposite. The first model to strut was draped in a plastic tunic that pleaded "Stop Terrorizing Our World." This was in response to the vandalizing of American artist Paul McCarthy's butt-plug-shaped Christmas tree the year prior at Place Vendôme. The attack on artistic expression is a grave offense to Walter, but so is every misdeed against humanity, and he condemns them all equally. So when his 15 minutes approach, we are always unmasked to his world, animating a dynamic connection between us all.
Most recently, and poignantly, Demna Gvasalia, the VETEMENTS founder and now Balenciaga creative director, gave us a very thought-provoking and emotive Balenciaga Fall 2022 runway taking on climate change and the Russian-Ukrainian war. While he's not the first designer to speak to conflict and the refugee crisis, his show came with a very personal letter expressing his own trauma and the need for fashion to come together and resist war. Demna wrote openly, "... when the same thing happened in my home country, and I became a forever refugee. Forever because that's something that stays in you. The fear, the desperation, the realization that no one wants you. But I also realized what really matters in life, the most important things, like life itself and human love and compassion."
His demonstration of resilience came in the form of an Arctic wasteland where the audience was seated outside the globular stage, looking in on a people being forced to plod through a heavy storm. Sometimes we as an audience can't begin to understand or feel what we should, at the news of others' pain and suffering. Forming an idea of relativity can be an impossible task, but (performance) art becomes a sort of cure in this way, drawing out our admiration and support, our longing for beauty's preservation.
And so it remains. So long as the planet and humanity are both part beautiful, part under siege, Runway will have many stories to tell. When Vivian alleged in Oscar Wilde’s essay The Decay of Lying that life imitates art far more than art imitates life, I couldn't be sure I followed his scent. It's not that a poet convinced me how beautiful the sunrise was; I found the dawn beautiful from the first time I saw it. I did, however, agree with the sentiment that life's self-conscious aim was to find expression and that art offered beautiful forms to realize that energy. Runway as performance art, as a political and commentating weapon, does exactly this.
Text by Shahrnaz Javid