Over 19 cycles of America’s Next Top Model, contestants have been asked to shave off their teeth and dress up like Margaret Thatcher, but Episode 1 of Cycle 8 stands out as one of the most cringe-worthy to date. The first challenge saw models pose in photo shoots based on political viewpoints. There were painted rainbow backdrops; pro-choice and pro-life shoots involving chains and abortion clinics – beyond comment – and a particularly memorable pro-death penalty shoot built around the theme life in prison. The shoots, overseen by an exuberant Miss Jay, managed to turn serious, sensitive political issues into bizarrely sexual-looking scenarios. The women didn’t get to choose their topics; they were assigned them, and the results were just as weird and offensive as you’re imagining them to be right now.
This episode isn’t the first, nor the last time, fashion has turned politico. From Paris’s Dior Not War show to dresses made entirely out of raw meat, brands and industry personalities have jumped into bed with political parties, sexual health organisations and environmental activists, all in the name of a cause. Just last week, supermodel Abbey Lee Kershaw used body paint and naked flesh to speak out against gun control, in what was probably the most punk thing to happen at the Met Gala. Madonna, in an act of questionabe self-expression, made ample use of her back during her MDNA tour, adorning it with the words “PUSSY RIOT”, “OBAMA” and “MALALA”. And Anna Wintour has voiced her support for gay marriage, broaching the topic while chatting about sweatpants and fried food with Stephen Colbert.
Are fashion people just a bunch of frustrated politicians? Are these attention-grabbing antics and campaigns legitimate forms of activism, or simply a means to oversimplify the issue, shock and rake in some positive PR?
Designers make it their job to see the bigger picture and reach new audiences, but that doesn’t always translate well into the world of politics. Marc Jacobs, never reluctant to make a statement, felt this firsthand when he released a range of “Free Tibet” t-shirts a few years ago. The campaign drew outcry and calls for a boycott from people around the world, leading him to one conclusion – mixing politics and fashion isn’t a great idea (or advertisement) for your brand. Fashion, like art, music and film, is a great medium for communicating messages, but problems arise when that communication is on an overpriced slogan T-shirt without any real knowledge on the issue.
The most effective forms of designer activism are much more subtle and sensitive than that. Think of the way Yves Saint Laurent promoted freethinking in the 1960s with his beatnik looks and famous le smoking tuxedo for women, and Yohji Yamamoto’s non-sexualisation of women through his collections in the 1980s. Stella McCartney believes fashion is political on a daily basis and this shows in the way she produces her garments. By using recycled fabrics and low-impact dyes and refusing to use leather and fur, she wears her eco-conscious agenda on her sleeves, totes and shoes.
Designers have also used fashion’s creativity and appeal to extend the political agenda, such as Karl Lagerfeld’s 'lesbian brides'at the Chanel show at this year's Paris Fashion Week. Turning a headline into an actual discussion, however, requires a clear and convincing message on what is trying to be achieved, lest it be lost or obscured by inappropriate language, shock tactics or frivolity. But this shouldn’t invalidate fashion as a form of political expression. Clothes have power. They aren’t just tools to express one’s taste, they also tell a personal story. And that certainly shouldn't be silenced.