Although both fashion and women have often been excluded from the political conversation, Dior’s now-cult S/S 2017 graphic t-shirt (designed by the house’s first female creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri) stated “We Should All Be Feminists”, which referenced a 2014 essay by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (and was worn by rap-star A$AP Rocky in his viral video for Wrong) it was a clear cut example of how fashion can still be used as a powerful platform for activism.
The rise of political slogans in fashion dates back to the early 70s thanks to the great dame of punk rock Vivienne Westwood and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The duo created a series of now-super-collectible deconstructed t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Destroy” and featured a subverted swastika and an inverted crucifix. The aim was to use shock to draw attention to the wider political statement.
In the 1980’s, British designer Katharine Hammnet caused a sensation with her iconic “Choose Life” t-shirts that denounced the cold war. In 1984, at a meeting with Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she wore a political slogan tee, which read; “58% Are Opposed To Pershing”, referring to the stationing of nuclear missiles in the UK.
Even to this day, Westwood reigns supreme when it comes to embodying the revolutionary values of the Punk spirit. In 2005, she released her “I Am Not a Terrorist, Please Don’t Arrest Me” t-shirt, denouncing the government’s anti-terror legislation, which challenged core democratic values.
Although Westwood has proven her dedication to the cause for several decades, there seems to be an issue with political statements as seen on recent runways. It might seem that in our current political climate, activism has become a trend in itself – but with t-shirts costing around $500, the trend is paradoxically only accessible to the wealthy.
You might be able to pick up a high street version of your favourite designer’s statement t-shirts, but the clothes themselves will have been produced in sweatshops, where workers are denied fundamental human rights.
While fashion is inherently political, it seems obvious that fashion’s political commitment is kind of inconsistent. But thanks to social media, we’re beginning to see a surge of independent labels that are driven by a real cause and dedication to their core message.
One of which is London-based collective HypePeace, who have demonstrated that although young people are often singled out for their political disengagement, the truth is that although they might have disengaged from mainstream politics – they haven’t shied away from campaigning. The brand re-interpreted the iconic Palace Skateboards triangle logo and made it red, green and black in support of Palestine. The t-shirt went viral almost instantly. Not only did they subvert the hypebeast appeal of a cult brand, but more importantly – they used it for good. With profits from the tees going to local charities and organizations to help young people in Palestine – their brand is anything but a vanity project.
Ultimately the success of insta-brands like HypePeace (and the ongoing appeal of activist stalwarts like Westwood and Hamnett) lies in the fact that millennials place heaps of importance on a brand’s political views and social identity. With brands like Dior, Vivienne Westwood and Tommy Hilfiger tackling social issues on the runway and in their campaigns, it signals a positive change in the industry, whereby designers are using their platforms to inform political and social changes, but it also begs the question of whether activism has become a commercial tool for monetary success rather than a vehicle to instigate real political change?