On the morning of the Women’s March in London, my Instagram feed was littered with images of angry, colourful and often hilarious signs about Trump, Theresa May and ‘Pussy Grabbing Back.’ At the march, women of all ages, sizes and nationalities alongside men and children walked holding these signs from the Mall to Trafalgar Square. I was there too marching with friends because we wanted to use our right to march and demand equality for all. The sense of unity of almost 100,000 people marching in sync and the feeling of empowerment that came with it, was totally inspiring. However, there were also some moments when I felt slightly uncomfortable. It had, like most things do nowadays, stemmed from social media. You see amongst the images of people adding the finishing touches to their placards, there were also some posts from certain ‘influencers’ questioning what they should wear to the march, ‘A marching outfit is hard to choose,’ quipped one. Not exactly how I imagine Emmeline Pankhurst prepped the night before. Then when it came to march itself, many seemed to see it as ‘content,’ rocking up to pose with a hand-drawn sign, uploading it to Instagram with a couple of hashtags about girl power and then when the march failed to kick off on time they sloped away - its lateness interfering with the rest of their content plans.
Fast forward a few weeks to New York Fashion Week and an online style publication ran an article about ‘Dressing for the Resistance’ with editors explaining how they were going to use bright colours and bold prints to channel the theme. With fashion often being slagged off for being frivolous this wasn’t exactly helping the cause, and I wondered if such behaviour was helpful to the actual political cause either?
The combination of fashion and politics was a hot topic on the NYFW runways too. Prabal Gurung sent models out in t-shirts emblazoned with slogans including: ‘The Future Is Female’ and ‘I Am An Immigrant.’ Public School trolled Trump’s campaign, tweaking a red baseball cap to read: ‘Make America New York’ Jonathan Simkhai took his bow in a black sweatshirt that read “Feminist AF while front-of-house workers at Moschino sported t-shirt captioned with: ‘Our Voice Is The Only Thing That Will Protect Us,’ while the backs of the t-shirts listed every Senate representative’s phone number.
Unsurprisingly, such events only upped the street style political slogan frenzy with several of the most powerful digital influencers including Bryan Boy and Aimee Song coming together to pose post-Prabal wearing his resistance t-shirts fresh off the runway. Writing about the photos on her blog Song Of Style said: ‘This is one of the things I love about my job. I am so passionate about social justice, and when something is wrong I always speak out. It gives me a lot of hope that so many other designers, influencers, and other figures in the fashion industry are using their power and influence to spread positivity and enact change!’ The blogger also posed in Eachother’s: ‘No Walls Between Us’ biker jacket which she captioned with the following message: ‘I’m so thankful of the position I’m in, so I want to make sure to use my voice to inspire positive change. We just all need to get along!’ So far, great, but when the next paragraph explains how the colours of the jacket matched her Mulberry bag and took her distressed designer jeans to ‘a whole new level of cool,’ you’ve got to ask how much is such a post raising political awareness and how much is simply courting street style photographers? Is this simply turning activism into fashtivism? Is this why knock-offs of Dior’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ t-shirts are selling on Etsy for £12? It’s a tricky subject, on one hand it can seem obvious but on the other when someone has over one million followers looking at their feed daily, you have to think does it really matter, it’s still spreading a message and surely that’s better than nothing? The Guardian columnist Zoe Williams believes so: ‘I don’t know if I really care if it’s part self -fashioning because it always is. I don’t take against it as much as some people do but I do understand it. However, I think we’ve got to stop policing each other. For example it’s not for me to say the minimum amount of feminism you have to have before you turn up as a feminist.’
Photographer Adam Katz Sinding who runs the website Le 21ème and travels to each fashion week every season to capture all the big streetstyle names says: ‘I like the idea of people using every avenue to promote these important causes. I remember seeing Shiona Turini wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirt a few seasons ago and thought it was really great. That being said, if this becomes a platform for many causes it could dilute the individual actions. I suppose I am ‘pro’ to this movement, however, I think that the wearer should use discretion in order to not make the cause look too ‘fun’ in the context of fashion. I feel that many of the causes represented are very serious and need to be represented in a serious manner.’
Influencer and model Doina Ciobanu is more wary of its impact explaining: ‘Making a statement can sometimes be cool and give us that false sense of doing something - so I get why people do this. But it's all-reminiscent of Kony 2012; no matter how many people liked and shared that campaign the warlord is still at large and people are still murdered. While I'm sure that some wore these statement tees in the hope of fame and exposure, I'm more concerned that people with good intent won't have the impact they think they are. I think people need to understand the importance and responsibility that comes with those kind of messages. Coming from a country where you can end up in prison by spreading a strong liberal message has made me understand its meaning and burden. Unfortunately wearing a tee isn't enough to improve the culture and political landscape.’
At London fashion week, the acts of protest on the runway were much more subtle than New York but the acts of inclusivity we witnessed still spoke volumes. Kicking off proceedings was Dame Natalie Massenet who at the launch of LFW said designers would show the world that the industry stands for: ‘inclusivity, unity and humanity’ and that ‘London fashion week is a brilliant example of the diversity of this city.’ She also referenced the: ‘Seismic political changes’ in the UK, US and throughout Europe and urged designers to be bold in business in times of upheaval. With the fashion industry made up of mainly people Trump and his followers have issues with – women, different nationalities and sexualities – plus with huge concerns over how Brexit is going to effect the industry worth £28 billion to the British economy each year and one that creates 880,000 jobs - designers sent a clear message through the medium of casting down their runways. Teatum Jones’ used disabled models alongside a soundtrack featuring an extract from Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes. At Ashish models in Mexican wrestler makeup wore glitter encrusted looks with messages including ‘Unity in Diversity’ and ‘Love Sees No Colour,’ while Gareth Pugh held a deeply unsettling show featuring a relentless soundtrack of Donald Trump chanting: ‘Build that wall’ spliced with snippets of Hendrix, Queen and Nirvana while models with bug eyes, officer hats and jangling key chains marched around the deserted building site setting. The show notes read: ‘This evening’s Gareth Pugh show presents an austere vision of a world on the precipice of anarchy.’
Speaking backstage after her show which featured older models including 70 year old Jan de Villeneuve and 73 year old Benedetta Barzini, Simone Rocha said: ‘I work very closely with my mother and I’ve always had a very inclusive idea of femininity. Be that old or young, fat or thin, so people can relate to it. I wanted to reflect that in the casting this time and how it looks on all different types of women.’ Different types of women was also the theme at Osman, where in his show notes the designer spoke about how he wanted to celebrate the many women that wear his clothes: ‘Women of ages, of all religions – and of none – and all their different kinds of beauty.’ Ben Grimes, Casting Director of the show, explained to InStyle: ‘This casting is not done to make waves, it’s just done because it makes total sense in Osman’s world.’ Using friends of the designer plus street casting, Grimes created a line-up that seemed to tick every box – tall, petite, thin, curvy, young and old. ‘It’s nice to be able to see a wider range of women in a traditional fashion show setting,’ she added. Street casting was also used at Marques’Almeida. ‘It is something we have being doing for a couple of seasons,’ the design duo said post-show. Our collection is made for real girls so it makes sense. It has come full circle too as they now inspire us. For us it’s instinctive, but if there was a time to do it, it is now.’ The word ‘Time’ is key when it comes to the fashion industry; after all, it’s built around trends and seasons, what’s hot and what’s definitely not. So is this ‘fashtivism’ really just a trend? Will it still be around next season or will it be deemed ‘uncool’ and boxed away until eventually someone digs it once again out of the archives? ‘In a way fashion is a double edged sword,’ says Zoe Williams. It’s very good at pushing an agenda but only for a season. And that almost makes it more insulting than ever. There is something de-humanizing about the suddenness of it. You’re just a thing, a commodity for their metrics.’
Unlike, trends and social media posts real political activism isn’t fleeting. It’s why perhaps, the most shocking placard at the Women’s March wasn’t of Trump’s comments on women being ‘Beautiful Pieces of Ass’ or his ‘jokes’ about dating his daughter, instead it was of an elderly lady holding a sign that simply read: ‘I can’t believe I still have to protest this fucking shit.’ One can only hope, that like one of Prabal Gurung’s t-shirt urges, the fashion industry and community ‘Stay Woke,’ for more than just autumn winter 17.