The Politics of Fashion


Fashion is more than just the clothing we wear. It’s not only a reflection of personal style, but also of culture, economy, social status and politics. Some people may not realize how much fashion has a lot to do with political and social messages over the centuries. Designers often have the opportunity to express themselves through the way they create. Photographers also take the opportunity to capture the state of our society and thinking through provocative images.  The Politics of Fashion exhibit at the Design Exchange in downtown Toronto features over 200 pieces from 1960 to present day.  The exhibit has been running since September, but I finally got a chance to visit during its final days.  It ends January 25, 2015.

Divided into different facets including ethics and activism, consumerism and gender and sexuality, The exhibit attempts to explore the depths of how fashion and politics are actually connected.  As you walk into the exhibit you first see the work of photographer Oliviero Toscani who is famously known for some of his campaigns shot for clothing label United Colors of Benetton.  The brand became synonymous with outspoken advertisements that often shocked and even went against the norms of what society expects.  They particularly shocked with its use of political and religious images that were usually considered offensive by many.

The fashion industry is often criticised for its lack of use of black models in advertising and runway shows.  Models like Naomi Campbell and Iman have been outspoken on this issue for many years.  Bethann Hardison, who was a model herself and used to run a successful agency is one of the key figures speaking out on diversity in the fashion business.  Fashion, politics, social issues and culture have long intertwined with each other; good or bad.  The video below is a political commentary by fashion photographer Nick Knight about racism in fashion featured at the exhibit in.

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This exhibition wouldn’t be complete without the presence of PETA and its outspoken tactics to protest the use of furs and leather in the fashion industry.  Known to demonstrate outside fashion events and even throw red paint on people wearing fur, they continue to gain momentum in the world when it comes to supporting the ethical treatment of animals.

Patrick Kelly was one of fashion’s darlings during the 1980’s with his whimsical style and use of buttons and bold colours on his designs.

During the 1980s Patrick Kelly was one of the fashion industry’s most successful up and coming designers.  He not only gained notoriety in fashion circles in America but he was fully embraced in Europe, which is almost every designer’s dream.  His was a whimsical sense of style that was fun and expressed a youthfulness that fashion always gravitates to.  His use of buttons and bold colours on his designs was a creative expression not many were doing at that time. The designer’s untimely death due to complications from AIDS left a hole in the fashion industry.  Particularly because he was one of few Black designers to have such wide recognition in Europe for his work.  He was the first American designer and the first person of colour to be admitted as a member of the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode.  Including his works at this exhibit was so important and relevant because he represents the few designers of color who get wide recognition in an industry that is largely ‘white’ owned and dominated.  He also symbolized the deep issue of HIV/AIDS that was rearing its ugly head like a vengeance in the world.


Fashion has always had its place when it comes to making political or social statements.  Usually with the simplicity of words emblazoned across the front or back of a t-shirt.  Through buttons or images also plastered on our shirts.  The way we dress can also symbolize a group, culture and social status.  Skinhead culture had its own style best known for close shaved heads and wearing Doc Martin boots and plaid shirts.  But what many don’t realize is its roots stem from working class culture in many parts of the United Kingdom and were actually heavily influenced by the West Indian or Jamaican ‘rude boy’ and British ‘mod’ style in the 1960s.  Through the decades the style evolved embracing punk culture and often became associated with bad behaviour.  It even developed a sub-culture often associated with white supremacist groups in the U.S.

Skinhead culture had its roots in working class neighbourhoods across the U.K.
Skinhead culture had its roots in working class neighbourhoods across the U.K.

Overall this exhibit did a good job of touching the surface when it comes to fashion and politics.  There are so many other areas that could have been explored more in-depth, but there’s only so much that can be done with limited space.  It certainly did a good job of opening up conversation and dialogue about some of the key moments in fashion that created its own social and political commentary.


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