Fashion, like film and music, tends to be a reflection of the time so it makes sense that politics often intersect with the arts. For many wearing clothing is more than a social norm, it is a way to break those social norms. Fashion is a way to show society, without ever having to say a word, what your beliefs are both socially and politically. Every decade has had its movements and its political leaders who’ve impacted the social atmosphere through fashion and vice-versa.
The ‘60s was a decade of mass social movements. People began to question politics, civil rights and gender equality. In the 1965 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District the Supreme Court ruled that political fashion is protected as free speech after students were told they could not wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.
This is also a time when people of color took their power and identity back through distinctly African-American stylistic clothing. The civil rights movement and the black panthers took to their roots, figuratively and literally. Beginning to wear their afros with pride and cornrow braids. The popularity of kente cloth, the dashiki and imported African jewelry grew and the Black Panthers donned all black clothing and military beret style hats—a clear political fashion statement. All of this was pride of self and sent a message to the establishment that black was beautiful and here to stay.
For women at this time, liberation meant more than the right to vote, it meant the right to define womanhood as they saw fit. This meant wearing things that may not have been seen as “ladylike” before. The defined “hourglass” dresses were out and miniskirts were finding their way “in” and the colors and designs were as bold as the women who flaunted them.
From the awakening that happened in the ‘60s came the ‘70s. It was a time of true exploration and freedom of expression which blurred gender lines and challenged political and social values. This brings us to the Hippie movement, which started in the late ‘60s but was most prevalent in the ‘70s. “Flower power” and “Peace on earth” are two slogans that we still associate with the hippie lifestyle were also symbols of a movement. This light-hearted loving way of looking at the world was what sparked the fashion of the time and through that fashion, the blatant dismissal and protest of the political climate.
The daring and carefree space of the hippie lifestyle gave women the courage to wear, or not wear, whatever they pleased. Women were burning their bras and wearing everything from traditionally male clothing, baggy pants, vests and ties to the bell bottoms and long hair that carried over from the ‘60s. Ultimately freedom, whether it be through expression or from the patriarchy, was a statement that did not need to be vocalized because the fashion spoke for itself.
The Stonewall Riots of 1969 established a platform for future civil rights groups in the LGTBQ community which was propelled through the ‘70s. Artists like David Bowie changed the way people viewed gender and Disco was largely a place of acceptance for gay communities. Bowie performed in skin tight leotards, high heels, face paint and even makeup and Disco made high heels and ‘all that glitters is gold’ acceptable for men in a political climate that, until 1973, still called homosexuality a psychiatric disorder. All of this made way for the first ever, Gay Pride Parade.
The ‘80s lost the ‘peace and love’ hippie vibe and got angry. The fashions of the music icons of the time had a huge influence on the fashion of the masses. Madonna pushed the boundaries of sexuality and womanhood with her visible bra straps, messy blonde hair and black mesh tops, which was a pop-punk blend. Punk music was as non-conformist and rebellious as the fashion. This anti-establishment, anti-authoritarianism, non-conforming group was more than the music, it was a style. Doc Martins, ripped and tattered clothes, studded belts and spiked collars with piercings to match owned the scene. Anything that said “don’t put me in your social or political box,” without them ever having to look at you twice was the norm.
We can’t talk the ‘90s without talking Hip-Hop, and we can’t talk Hip-Hop without talking fashion and politics. The three have been cyclical since the first Hip Hop hit. Hip Hop was/is the voice of urban America and the political outrage that was voiced in the music is how people in those communities felt. This started, in part, with Public Enemy’s song Fight The Power and you can’t forget the Adidas sweatsuits of Run DMC in songs such as It’s Like That.
Hip Hop has continued to be a platform for political statements both lyrically and fashionably in a very prevalent way since the ‘90s and movements like Black Lives Matter have taken the forefront as of late. Social media has made it possible for grassroots civil rights movements like these to blossom quickly. Those in support of the movement wear their support on their sleeves as the generations before have with each important political statement before it. With the culmination of the fashion of decades ago and the current political climate, this is sure to be a generation to continue the symbiotic relationship between fashion and politics.