“Woke” is the New Black: Activism on the Catwalk

The 21st-century has seen an explosion of social justice and activism, from Black Lives Matter to the Me Too movement, and the fashion industry is no different. This energetic push for change has seen a shift in the fashion industry with designers and models making a stand for causes ranging from women’s rights, climate change, and racial discrimination, perhaps it should come as no surprise since fashion has often served as a vehicle of protest throughout history. 

Fashion has a reputation for frivolity and escapism, but it is also reflective of the cultural zeitgeist and what is going on in the world. Fashion is a canary in the coalmine, an ever-evolving time capsule. Women donning pants was once a bold statement. Now, wearing a hijab while walking the runway, like pioneer Somali hijab model, Halima Aden, is a not only a statement but a mood. And one that is indicative of the change that women like Halima are ready to see happen in the fashion industry when it comes to diversity and representation. 

Dress has often been a mode of protest and form of self-identification for women. Talented athlete Serena Williams fashion on and off the court has always been a statement of both rebellion and triumph. Serena’s style made waves from the outset of her career when she and her sister were met with criticism for wearing their hair in beads in their hair. At the 2018 French Open, Williams wore a Black Panther-inspired full-body compression catsuit, which the French Tennis Association (FTA) later banned claiming it didn’t follow the dress code. Williams wore the catsuit for health reasons and in dedication to moms who had difficulty recovering from pregnancy, but Bernard Giudicelli, president of the FTA, told Tennis magazine that he considered it having “gone too far.” In response, a t this year’s French Open, Serena wore a statement-making Virgil-Abloh-designed Nike x Off-White dress with the words “Mother,” “Goddess,” “Queen,” and “Champion,” that served a sartorial backhand to the French Tennis Association (FTA). 

In the midst of attempted rollbacks on Roe v. Wade and threats to women’s reproduction rights, the designer Alessandro Michelle was inspired to design jackets emblazoned with the seventies Women’s Movement slogan “My Body, My Choice” for Gucci’s Cruise 2020 collection in homage to women’s fight for control over their own bodies.  Also apart of the collection was a skirt adorned with a beaded and sequined uterus and a capelet with “22.5.1978,” the date that abortion became legal in Italy. Michelle is just one of many designers who are expressing their political stance and making creative political statements within their collections. 

It wasn’t always in style to be socially conscious. However, social media has leveled the playing field and designers and models now have the opportunity to let their voices be heard. Perhaps American Vogue editor-in-chief  Anna Wintour said it best in an interview with The Star: “Standing up for something is not easy … but it is a challenge I have set for myself. In these times, you cannot sit on the sidelines.” 

A decade or two ago, these actions would have called for a fashion designer or a model to be excluded from New York Fashion Week, the end of a career or a tarnished reputation. But expressing their political differences and refusal to support Trump and Trump supporters, like the owner of this year’s NYFW venue, billionaire real-estate developer Stephen Ross, are exactly what fashion brand Rag and Bone and Fashion Designer Prabal Gurung have done. Both were set to show their recent collections at locations in the Hudson Yards development owned by Ross’s firm. However, after learning of Ross’s fundraisers for Trump’s presidential campaign, which featured $100,000 photo opportunities with Trump himself, Rag and Bone and Gurung opted to take their business elsewhere. Gurung, known for being outspoken, took to Twitter stating the reasons behind his taking a stand:  “my goal here is to start a dialogue and maybe, hopefully, change some minds.” 

Fashion can be a powerful form of protest. From tees printed with political slogans to pink hats, designers are finding creative ways to merge the personal and political in one of the ultimate forms of self-expression–what we wear. This new-age protest fashion, armed with democratizing social media platforms, is bringing to the forefront new voices in fashion. 

– Makhalath Fahiym