Monday, April 15, 2013

Politics and Fashion

by Abigail Cucolo
© Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

Western and non-western cultures alike exhibit one of the most basic motivations of dress: display of status. Historically, sumptuary laws were enacted to visually distinguish the upper levels of society from the socially and financially inferior. During the 14th century, for example, poulaines became so fashionable and extreme (the shoe points could extend to 12 inches or more) that Edward IV of England made a decree limiting them to the nobility, and knights were not permitted to have points exceeding two inches, lest they fancy themselves part of the aristocracy (Simonson, 1944, p. 68). The sumptuary laws of Medieval and Renaissance Europe were plausible because of the rigid class system of the monarchies; they would never have been enacted in an egalitarian society. Fashion visually interprets the ‘vogue political philosophy’ of a time and place- the restricting style of Victorian modesty, the Greco-Roman silhouettes of Neo-Classicism, the uniformity of Soviet Russia (Donald, 2002). Likewise for societies with a religious state: Islamic republics have women covered in very conservative clothing, and in Amish society, where pride and vanity are sinful, the costume is modest and plain.

Before the end of the 18th century, the purpose of dress was to make as obvious as possible the differences in rank, lineage, and wealth; however, after the spread of democratic ideals and republican governments, the effort became to minimize them (Simonson, 1944). Men’s fashion, originally very flamboyant, adopted a minimal, somber style because of the new “no frills” attitude that came with the period (Simonson, 1944, p. 70). This ‘democratic simplification’ was mirrored in women’s fashion when they achieved more equality (Simonson, 1944). The simple, boyish silhouettes of the 1920s and 1960s coincide with women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. The ‘vogue philosophy’ can also explain the rise of popularity in lower class clothing items because of the French and American Revolutions, when opposition to the aristocracy was admirable- knee breeches became associated with tyranny so they grew more and more obsolete.

Reactions to political subjugation often manifest in costume. During the 1960s, governments from East and Central Africa reacted to colonialism through the prohibition/denunciation of what they saw as influence of western culture, issuing directives to “Cover-Up” and “Lower Hemlines or Else” (Wipper, 1972, p. 329). Miniskirts were blamed for widespread rioting in Ethiopia, and Zambia’s reaction to its recent independence resulted in its president ruling that skirts be at least three inches below the knee and women were not to use lipstick, straighten their hair, paint their fingernails, or wear trousers (Wipper, 1972, p. 334). Though a republic, Zambia’s fresh political upheaval created an autocratic control of the adornment of its citizens.

Ethiopia, however, was a monarchy soon to be overthrown by a socialist military regime, who saw fashion as “products of western capitalism” (Wipper, 1972, p.334). Countries with strong socialist and communist governments tend to result in homogenized clothing, reflecting the extreme equality and uniformity proposed by the ideology. Those who attempt to follow fashion lack dignity, as it is the absence of indulgent adornment that is the “politically correct” way of dressing (Ip, 2003, p. 333). The irony that comes with the philosophy “freedom from adornment = freedom from oppression” (Ip, 2003, p. 334), is that the ordination of people’s clothing through law or coercion is oppression. A person’s individual identity is erased; they become one of the masses- which, of course, is perfectly representative of the ideology.
Sarah Palin in Valentino
In the democratic republic of the United States, where freedom is highly valued, uniformity is not enforced, yet equality is exhibited in similarities between the clothing silhouette of the leaders and the “common” people. The President of the United States and the small town business manager will both dress in a suit. In the African Ashanti tribe, on the other hand, a person may be killed if he wears a garment like the king (Tortura and Eubank, 2005, p. 4). It is literally ‘fashion suicide.’ The custom clearly reflects the value of the absolute power of the monarch. By wearing the style of the king, the perpetrator has the gall to assume king’s identity and may be seen as a pretender to the throne. Dressing above class in a totalitarian society sends the message that you are attempting to take on the authority of the elite. In a democracy, it becomes the opposite--leaders could commit political suicide by appearing too elite. Politicians hold focus groups and hire consultants to tell them what tie color represents the best values or what hair style makes them most affable--it is detrimental to look too pretentious or privileged. There was significant controversy in 2008, for example, when it was reported that $150,000 had been spent on vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s wardrobe. Because of America’s strong middle class, value of equality, and message of opportunity for every level of society, politicians don’t want to alienate the blue collar voter. They want to prove they are a true representative of the people by being relatable as one of the people, and the fastest way to do that is through clothing.

So while they are now more subtle, the visual cues that express the political philosophy of a culture, western or non western, monarchy or democracy, are still present today and exhibited across the globe.

Works Cited
Donald, D. (2002). Followers of fashion: graphic satires from the Georgian period. London: National Touring Exhibitions.

Ip, H. (2003). Fashioning appearances: feminine beauty in chinese communist revolutionary culture. Modern china. July. Vol. 29 No. 3. pp. 329-361.

Simonson, L. (1944). Fashion and democracy. The metropolitan museum of art bulletin. November. Vol. 3 No. 3. pp. 65-72.

Tortora, P. and Eubank, K. (2005). Survey of historic costume: a history of western dress. 4th ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc.

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