Political Fashion

Susan Mc Ateer

At the first 2016 US presidential debate Hillary Clinton wore a red pantsuit that was typical of her style, the self-proclaimed pantsuit aficionado that she is, and which defied the audience not to pay attention to her. Donald Trump probably wore a navy suit and a red tie or something I guess, I dunno. Why would I know, he’s a male "politician". The global media still fixates on what women wear regardless of what field they are in, and female politicians have been held to the same scrutiny as any woman in the public eye. In an interview with Vogue last year, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t escape the topic of clothes (it’s Vogue, we’ll give them a free pass). When asked about wardrobe choices Sturgeon, who like Clinton is known for a bold colour palette, said bright colours work better for television, although she personally is more at home in black and grey. Pretty straightforward, makes sense, I get it; but that’s not going to stop the countless articles examining what she’s wearing when making public appearances. I’m not advocating that we separate fashion and politics as fashion is inherently political, but we and the media have a responsibility to focus on fashion when it is used as a medium to consider and discuss wider issues. 

I am Irish but I haven’t lived in Ireland for about 4 years now (we named the site with an Irish word though so I’m keeping her lit). During this time there has been a growth in challenging the political landscape of this Catholic island. In May 2015 Ireland became the first country to legalise gay marriage by popular vote, an inspiring feat which indicated that the country is ready to move forward and not be held to the ideals originally imposed on a religious basis. But there’s a but; women still do not have the right to have to abortion. In 1983 a referendum was held with public opinion in favour of the 8th amendment, a law which prohibits abortion, leaving women with less control over their own bodies. This law has always been contested, but the young population of Ireland today have particularly raised their collective voice to repeal the 8th.

How are they communicating this message? Through fashion. 

Repeal Sweater designed by Anna Cosgrove, worn by our chest model. 

Repeal Sweater designed by Anna Cosgrove, worn by our chest model. 

Designer Anna Cosgrave has designed a monochrome sweatshirt which says ‘Repeal’ in capital letters. Cosgrave said that her intention with these striking sweatshirts is to create a deliberate talking point and, probably most significantly, she has cited that often we funnel our beliefs and opinions into the echo chamber of social media and online communities where we engage with like minded people. These sweatshirts move the conversation from online to offline encouraging a wider discourse. The sweatshirt is achingly simple but with the huge impact of these jumpers, Repeal the 8th has been cultivated into a strong, considered and recognisable brand; with a single word you can share your beliefs and be an active participant in the political conversation. 

Embroidery is one of the buzzwords in fashion this season, which Amelia looked into and hurt all our wallets by convincing us that we were chumps if we hadn’t invested already. Embroidery has been described as ‘visual, tactile, intimate, laborious, political’ by Rachel Dedman, curator of recent exhibition ‘At the Seams: a Political History of Palestinian Embroidery’. This exhibition ran from May to July earlier this year in a satellite space for the newly founded Palestine Museum. Dedman explored the history of embroidery in Palestinian fashion focusing on the 20th and 21st centuries. As the first satellite exhibition of the new Palestinian Museum, the show presented an important exploration into the history of embroidery and its active role in the political landscape. (Significantly it was held in Beirut which has a vast population of Palestinian refugees). 

Christian Moussa for the Palestinian Museum

Christian Moussa for the Palestinian Museum

Embroidery was traditionally practised by Palestinian women and throughout the years each town and region developed its own style and aesthetic which was so particular to the area that details such as marital status were communicated via embroidered detail on clothing. A woman would stitch blue embroidery onto her dress if she was widowed, and if she was ready for remarriage she would then introduce red thread again to her garment, a colour that represents love in Palestinian embroidery. In this way embroidery becomes a social communicator, a language.

Following the 1948 Palestinian exodus (the Nakba) when more than 700,000 Arab Palestinians fled or were expelled from their country, the varied individual voices of embroidery from the different regions dissolved to form a central Palestinian style over the years following. Tracing further through the 20th century, embroidery played a significant role in the post-Nakba resistance. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) worked to revive traditional Palestinian craft to counter the Israeli occupation. The PLO impressed on women that they were just as important as their male counterparts fighting in the front lines. This overt political connection continued throughout the Intifada, the first major large-scale Palestinian insurgency in the West Bank and Gaza from 1987 to 1991. During this period women began stitching nationalistic images and symbols such as the Palestinian flag, and the Temple of the Mount on their clothes. As their male relatives were involved in the conflict, women became more involved with protests and used their language of embroidery to speak against injustice and display their national pride.

Christian Moussa for the Palestinian Museum

Christian Moussa for the Palestinian Museum

Whether it is related to a woman’s rights to her physical self or to her ideological beliefs, fashion has been, and is, a vehicle for women’s voices. But let’s choose appropriately when politics and fashion exist on a level plane, and when they are a useful and significant part of the discussion. Basically, let’s not all lose our shit if Hillary whips out another scrunchie and let’s pay attention to women weaving their experience and views into fabric.