When you choose your outfit in the morning, do you ever think about the statement you’re making? Sure, what we wears tells the world about who we are, but what about consciously choosing to make a political statement to the world? The latest exhibit at the Design Exchange is all about people who do just that – and the clothes they’ve worn.
Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics, guest curated by Jeanne Beker, is really a two-part exhibit. In the first section, political statements through fashion are laid out semi-chronologically, starting with the 60s youth-quake in Britain and the raising of hemlines as a means of self-expression and creativity.
Issues such as the Vietnam war, sexual freedom (the topless swimsuit by Rudi Gernreich), homosexuality (Bowie’s boots, Klaus Nomi’s tuxedo, RuPaul’s corset for the MAC VivaGlam campaign), and racism (a selection of pieces by African-American designer Patrick Kelly, who intentionally incorporated imagery of racial stereotypes into his designs, as well as pieces from the 1998 collection of varying length chadors by Hussein Chalayan) are all represented.
Various western sub-cultures and their “uniforms” are also prevalent, with a vast selection of Vivienne Westwood pieces from the 70s punk era, as well as pieces demonstrating the mod and skinhead styles that were worn at the time.
The Fashion of Politics aspect of the exhibit moves in a different direction, and predominantly includes clothing worn by politicians. While there are outfits that once belonged to the Kennedys, this aspect of the exhibit is amusingly, charmingly Canadian and includes Pierre Trudeau’s famous cape, as well as a dress worn by Margaret Trudeau to visit the white house, where the hemline length breached protocol (women traditionally wore floor-length gown to the White House) and caused a furor.
This portion of the exhibit also includes politically-related items such as collections of campaign buttons, a paper dress from the 1960s with Trudeau’s face on the front, and a pair of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s shoes, bought to be worn on the day the budget was presented in parliament.
Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics encompasses a lot of issues, but because of that, few are explored in depth. Each trend or issue gets a quick mention but the exhibit works as more of an overview, and sometimes doesn’t fully explain the context or the importance of the individual pieces, particularly if they are not designer garments.
A lot of the exhibit focuses on the works of well-known designers, which is impressive when you think about the effort it took to pull together, but mostly demonstrates how out of touch many designers are with a more grassroots aesthetic. For instance, there are two pieces from the recent Moschino fall collection, which plays on lines, colours and logos from McDonald’s. The line was obviously intended to be provocative, and it is, but given the price tag, it comes off as out of touch and insensitive given the wage of the average fast food worker. Political statement? Sure. But the pieces are not one-off works of art – they are for sale, at astronomical prices.
I’m also a bit put off by what the exhibit missed. After all, if we’re looking at fashion as politics, should there not have been some reference to events like Slutwalk? Or the recent incident where The Bay was forced to pull a t-shirt that said “Nothing Tastes as Good as Skinny Feels” because people felt the message was pro-anorexia? Likewise, while there was a write-up and video regarding the prejudice against black models in high-end fashion, I would have also liked to see something that mentions the recent surge in plus size fashion blogs, models, clothing companies and body positivity issues, as well as the politics regarding fashion houses that don’t include larger sizes.
And after two passes of the full exhibit, I saw no reference to the biggest fashion-related political issue – that of sweatshops and how most clothes are made.
Near the end of the exhibit, and somewhat easy to miss, a huge display of-shirts with political slogans is possibly the most on point aspect of the whole show. After all, what better way to tell the world who you are and what you’re thinking – or what issues you care about – than the built-in billboard that is your own chest?
Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics is still an important exhibit, any aspect of which could and should provoke a dialogue about important issues from fur to feminism, racism to homelessness, as well as what we more traditionally think of as “politics”. But even getting to stand next to Klaus Nomi’s tuxedo doesn’t make up for the fact that we’re only scratching the surface, and for the most part, doesn’t really get past the garments to the actual political issues they represent.
Politics of Fashion – Fashion of Politics runs at the Design Exchange (234 Bay Street) until January 25, 2015.