By now you’ve certainly seen MP Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dress of 2021 Met Gala theme In America: a fashion lexicon. The dress was white with a classic silhouette and the phrase “TAX THE RICH” was written on the back in red text. This collected the support of some liberals. But those who are more to the left on the political spectrum critical its performativity, even comparing it to Mark Fisher’s concept of Capitalist realism, in which the anti-capitalist protest is commodified. But I’m not here to criticize his post. Instead, I would like to talk about the effectiveness of his communication style.
Why, you will ask me, am I qualified to criticize fashion? Well i will let you know that i have seen every episode of Project track, twice, and I went on a meet and greet for a photo with former Parsons teacher and reality TV personality, Tim Gunn.
One of the most meaningful ways to offer political and social commentary is through the clothes we wear. The most powerful political fashion statements are those that are readable without words. They lean on cultural symbols, using or diverting them to convey a message that takes a little thought to understand and begs the audience to engage.
Psst, AOC, just because the theme has the word lexicon in it, that doesn’t mean you have to spell it literally for us. And by the way, have you ever heard the expression a picture is worth a thousand words?
As soon as it emerged as more than pure protection from the elements, clothing became communicative: of class, of gender, of various forms of distinction and identity. From the colors we wear to the emblems we wear, we can tailor our appearance to convey beliefs. One of the most famous Supreme Court cases of all time—Tinker V. Des Moines– focused on the right of students to wear black armbands at school in protest against the Vietnam War. The court ruled in favor of the students, quoting First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression. Even the SCOTUS, who wear the same monochrome dresses every day, recognize the political power of fashion. Just look around our campus and you’ll see students carrying messages that are important to them, like the one from Dores Divest orange caps, or t-shirts that make statements about different identities.
Communicating through red carpet fashion has already been done effectively. For example, actor Billy Porter wore a “tuxedo dress” at the 2019 Oscars to challenge traditional conceptions of masculinity.
“My goal is to be a walking political work of art every time I show up. To challenge expectations. What is masculinity? What does that mean? ”Porter said.
But Porter didn’t need to explain this goal. A glance at the tuxedo dress clearly showed he was asking questions about gender expression. Alternatively, Porter could have worn a traditional tuxedo and wrote on it in the text: “What is masculinity? But it would have been less powerful – too obvious and too explicit. Instead, he trusted his audience to understand the cultural norms and symbols he distorted to create a more stimulating work of “political art”.
Similarly, Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime show was featured the references to the Black Panthers with dancers wearing black berets and clad in leather. Beyoncé let her outfits speak for itself. She could have had a text that said “I’m referring to Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party”. But she is an artist and understands that art requires a certain subtlety. She trusted her audience to get her credentials and trusted those who initially didn’t understand to do their own research on the Black Panthers. Part of Beyonce’s appeal as an artist is her choice not to spoon feed her audiences. She understood that art is at the heart of interpretation.
Politicized fashion is not a new invention, suddenly emerging from our culture’s continued blurring of the lines between politics and pop culture. Far from there. For example, Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen, regularly wore white and was known for her face painted white, which symbolized chastity and purity. I suppose she could have had a maid embroider a red letter V, for virgin, on all of her dresses, but Elizabeth had skillful political skills that included the symbolic communication of power, thus allowing her to permeate the tacit culture. In the twentieth century, white was adopted by suffragists who wanted to communicate that if they had the right to vote, they would use it to advance morality and purity. “Suffragette White” continues to be worn today by women politicians, including AOC.
When the AOC was sworn in in Congress, it wore white: “I wore white today to honor the women who blazed the trail before me, and for all the women to come. From suffragists to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here without the mothers of the movement. In 2019, AOC realized that fashion can communicate political messages in subtle ways.
The Met Gala, which has been criticized by many for its hungry-games-like expression of the extreme wealth of late capitalism, is at the heart of fashion. It is a perk of raising funds for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Slogans on t-shirts have their place during demonstrations in the streets, where the goal is to be visible, accessible and clear. However, at an event where your clothes are Assumed to put form on function, just slap a slogan on a lazy dress.
If your message could be conveyed in exactly the same way by scribbling it on a piece of billboard, then this is not fashionable; rather, it is a missed opportunity for something more interpretive, provocative and complex.
At this year’s gala, attendees were successful in creating political messages that reflect the artistic theme and setting of the Met Gala. The indigenous model Quannah Chasinghorse, for example, was double the star of the gala, wore traditional jewelry in Navajo turquoise. While not explicitly political, Chasinghorse made an important statement that “In American” must include Indigenous peoples and aesthetics.
Likewise, Gemma Chan paid tribute to Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star of Hollywood’s Golden Era, in a black dress with a silver dragon on it, similar to the one Wong wore. Wong said he was marginalized in the industry and especially given the rise in anti-Asian sentiments and hate crimes over the past year. Chan’s robe was powerful and conveyed its message appropriately.
AOC is not the only one who misunderstands the ambiance of the Met Gala. Actress and model Cara Delivigne opted for a shirt with “PEG THE PATRIARCHY” in the center and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney was wearing a dress that said “ERA YES”. While some can argue that fashion is insignificant and pop culture has no impact beyond “who wore what” and that red carpet dramas, pop culture and art can be essential to understanding our values. The way we spend our time makes sense. What we choose to interact with shapes our view of the world. What we consume matters. I don’t know about you, but I spent at least eight hours breaking down my favorite and less favorite looks and messages with my other fashion-loving friends. Politicians, artists and historians have always understood the importance of fashion in capturing social mores, as well as in reflecting conflicts, anxieties and power struggles.
What AOC and other wordmakers have illustrated is that they don’t believe in the ability of their constituents to understand more abstract symbols, and they don’t trust the power of art. to communicate effectively. They should have let fashion speak for itself and trust the cultural literacy of their audience, instead of literalizing the language of fashion.