Politics on the Runway

Protest actions and fashion week catwalks may not have much in common, but the two cross paths more often than you might expect. I’m not just talking about protests on issues relating to fashion production (such as the use of fur) – that deserves its own detailed account.

No, I’m talking about major designer houses incorporating themes of protest into runway collections, and pointing out the discomfort that this justifiably provokes when framed alongside genuine actions of protest.

Dior’s Fall 2018 collection adapted the countercultural aesthetic of the late 1960s to the sphere of luxury fashion, the irony of which is not lost on observers, including Vogue commentators. The question is, is this this a case of the corporate world milking a revolutionary aesthetic for social capital that can be translated into financial gain? Or is it an artistic impression of current political moods, featuring such phenomena as the state of Trump-era America? Is it both?

I don’t know for sure – I wasn’t there. The show in question is certainly not the first of its kind. Chanel used the aesthetic of protest in the staging of a collection as recently as 2014.

Adding an additional layer of complexity are instances of individual models utilising the runway as an opportunity for demonstration. 2015 saw a model for Rick Owens hold up a sign reading ‘PLEASE KILL ANGELA MERKEL’ … ‘NOT’, an action which the designer denied association with.

In 2017, the situation became meta when D&G put out ‘#BOYCOTT DOLCE&GABBANA’ t-shirts in mocking response to online critics of the designer house dressing Melania Trump. A model booked for a D&G menswear show continued the conversation by revealing words written on his body, including ‘PROTEST D&G’ and ‘I AM NOT YOUR SCAPEGOAT’, during the show’s finale. He said he hadn’t been aware of the message present in the collection until the day before the show, and felt that D&G were disregarding legitimate criticism and mocking the concept of protest.

These acts are undeniably real. The question is, in the theatre of the runway show, can designers make a real statement beyond simply drawing on the aesthetic of protest? Have any high-profile designers succeeded in doing this? I’ll be searching the vaults for clues.