As far as Instagram is concerned, this past year has been an important one for fashion. Starting with t-shirts emblazoned with “We Should All Be Feminists” on the Spring/Summer 2017 Dior runway (and subsequently on models and some of the industry’s most heavily-followed influencers), we have seen an influx of what appear to be some of the most political and activist-inspired collections in a decade.
At some of the most recent fashion weeks, some designers went mad with pussy hats and pink brooches on and off the runways, while others took the white t-shirt to the next level, covering it with piercing black Times New Roman slogans about empowerment, peace, and of course, feminism. Front rows and Instagram profiles were full of industry insiders with white bandanas tied around their wrists, as a sign of unity. Liberalism and free spirit are seemingly the biggest trends of the season. But are they?
Take away those media stunts that seem to have been designed, in some cases, just weeks after Trump was elected as post-it add-ons to collections that had been in the making for months, and you will see that there is no real correlation between the written messages or gimmicks, mostly representing a mindset of radical change and new opportunities, and the seasonal concepts, themselves. To put it bluntly – the slogans may point to the left, but the clothes? They look to the extreme right.
Look at the major seasonal motifs – Seventies looks; Eighties looks; classic British tweed or Prince of Wales patterns; cinched, corset-like feminine waists with very short or very long skirts – there was nothing truly tolerant of variety in the spirit of most of the collections.
Not only were many of the collections retrogressive and unliberal, resorting to a safe nostalgia instead of suggesting new ideas and alternatives to the familiar, but a lot of them were also Eurocentric, based on looks that defined Western culture in the 20th century, or on the same gender politics. In general, men looked like gentlemen, women looked like traditional ladies – or like successful businessmen.
While everyone said that they were concerned about immigrants or a new social structure with respect to the status of women, few of the designers thought outside of the familiar boundaries of New York, Milan, London, Paris or the usual sexual clichés.
Take, for example, the resurgence of stiff tailoring. This season it was seen everywhere, in womenswear especially, from Alexander Wang to Jil Sander. Designers put a huge effort into promoting the suit, with its padded shoulders, grey hues and trousers, as a novel idea.
It is not novel at all, neither the suit itself nor the idea of women wearing one. Not only did they choose the most generic First World form of the suit, which is already the ultimate symbol of success in the West, particularly of the male-centric type, as it has been for the past 400 years; women in suits today quotes the days when they needed to provoke, to imitate men in order to be accepted in society.
Once that border was crossed, such a long time ago, it quickly became a solid agenda that best represented the capitalist world in which business players recognize each other by their greyness. After all, who can imagine an executive woman not wearing a tailored suit nowadays? That is why this lukewarm comeback is not a revolution; these are conservative clothes for a conservative audience.
Putting the same old clothes on new women in 2017 can hardly move them forward. A change in spirit has to come with a change of fashion, and vice versa.
Rebellion, or at least cutting edge millennial fashion, is contaminated with a similar malady as well. On the surface, the neo-Soviet trend that is fueled by designers such as Gosha Rubchinskiy or Demna Gvasalia of Vetements and driven by skinny pale muses, bleached denim and intentionally ill-fitting sweatshirts with a hint of cold war military, might have suggested a fresh contra force to the West.
But no contra was ever achieved. Generally speaking, both designers prefer a dreamy Nineties vibe to dealing with a contemporary reality, and have baptized their unique point of view by collaborating with the largest brands in Europe and the U.S.
For instance – Rubchinskiy has collaborated with Fila, Adidas and Reebok while Gvasalia created an entire Vetements collection for Spring/Summer 2017 based on the iconic pieces of brands such as Levi’s, Church’s or Dr. Marten’s.
Although decontructivism is involved in both cases, and one might see this visible work method as being effective as a political and social sign that calls for a shift in perspective, in the end the collections sanctify the same conformist values of fashion – a narrow perspective which matches a conservative western agenda and the aggrandizement of youth, with all the lack of opportunities that those entail.
Be it Dior or Vetements, the need to say and the need to sell are creating an extraordinary moment – “Democrat” designers that produce “Republican” fashion. While designers dream of a better world, the clothes they are making are allied with a popular mindset that is much more closed-minded, and that prefers the near and the familiar above everything else.
This is an ambivalent reality that demonstrates how fashion, as a crossroads of creative power and commerce, will always illustrate what people really want – the general zeitgeist – irrespective of the writing on the shirts.
Liroy Choufan is a fashion journalist and writer, and is a lecturer in the fashion department at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design.