Fashion Film

Essay: Power Dressing

by Alexander Fury on 23 July 2008

Fashion Writer Alexander Fury on fashion as political propaganda.

Fashion Writer Alexander Fury on fashion as political propaganda.

Vivienne Westwood as Margaret Thatcher on the cover of Tatler, April 1989

Fashion is inherently political. The choice of what to wear each morning marks you out as a sentient being. It is a manner, albeit tacit, of advertising a point of view, a belief system, like scrawling your cultural affiliations across your chest. Fashion, in short, is sartorial propaganda. In a modern world where we afford fashion the status of the politic it is perhaps inevitable that politics in turn are subject to the vagaries of fashion.

Of course one can argue that complicity between fashion and politics is old-school. Louis XIV used fashion as his foremost tool of government: following the Fronde, the civil war that tore France apart, Louis made his nobility so fashion-conscious within the rigid hierarchy of Versailles that they couldn't think of overthrowing him. Elizabeth I used fashion to reinforce her mythical status as virgin queen, expressing the power and wealth her country did not really have. Even her contemporary namesake uses fashion as a political tool, her coronation gown emblazoned with embroidered emblems of the Commonwealth she was barely holding together. What is different now is that it is the system of fashion, the conspiracy of fashion, rather than its sumptuary frills and furbelows, that is being used by politics and politicians to further their power.

If we consider fashion the ultimate means of manufacturing desire, it is only natural that politics should seek to harness its power.

Today, politics and fashion are in cahoots. Fashion, the ultimate spin-doctor, has been seized upon by politicians as a way to further their endeavours. David Cameron's recent appearance on the cover of GQ was striking because it was accepted as perfectly normal. The only other time a Conservative Party leader appeared on the cover of a fashion magazine, she was played by Vivienne Westwood in Tatler's notorious 1989 'April Fools' edition. If we consider fashion the ultimate means of manufacturing desire, it is only natural that politics should seek to harness its power. Politicians are now airbrushed, sliced and diced into their own propaganda, political campaigns run with the slick gloss of a fashion show, candidates styled, buffed, preened, their answers polished to a sheen.

Jean Baudrillard argued that in a post-modern world, fashion penetrates domains of experience outside of itself: it is perhaps inevitable therefore that in a culture dominated by quick fixes - fast food, fast fashion, fast promises - political policies become short-term. One week it is immigration, the next terrorism, the next monetary union, each one seized, milked and spat out, barely masticated like a cheap high-street trend. We no longer have left or right, black or white, just this season's ever-fashionable middle-ground in a fetching shade of grey.

There is something more sinister in these assertions. If fashion uses politics to add weight to its arguments - whether rebranding their catalogue as 'Manifesto' or using clothes themselves as tools of tub-thumping didacticism - fashion is a convenient distraction and disguise for the more dubious machinations of government. Walter Benjamin described Fascism as 'the aestheticisation of politics': today, the flash and scintle of fashion distracts from policy otherwise too dark to stomach. 'New Labour' branded themselves like a top advertising campaign - a fashion campaign - jumping on the bandwagon of 'Cool Britannia' and using it to consolidate their power. At the same time, Labour's broken election promises (on education, health, crime...) were craftily wrapped in a Vanity Fair veneer of hip. In America, Hillary Clinton appeared preened and poised on the cover of American Vogue as dewy-eyed diversion to her husband's indiscretions and perjury.

Fashion is politics' lambs clothing: if you can dress it up and make it look pretty, maybe people won't notice the ugly things it's saying. Again, this may be ages old - propaganda is hardly a modern conceit after all. But in the past, there was some kind of substance behind the sparkle. Today, image is as good as reality: if you can't have the real Hermès Birkin, a fake looks just the same. If you can't have a real politician, does it matter as long as they look the part? The real influence of fashion on politics is the sad, stark reality that image is everything and policies come a distant second.

Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda. All that matters is propaganda.

...Who was it that said that again?



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