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The thin line between fashion and politics

Published: September 12, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


Some may be surprised by the Election theme of the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week website. The page is scattered with buttons and signs typical of political campaigns, except rather than promote a political candidate, they tout fashion empowerment, with slogans such as “Fashion = Change” and “Accessorize for Democracy.” With a landmark election in U.S. history fast approaching, the more politically minded among us might find it a bit offensive to see a political race compared to the latest trend strutting down the runway. Further, is the website’s political theme really only a marketing ploy or does it suggest a deeper connection between fashion and politics?

After all, New York Fashion Week was not the first to draw the connection between fashion and politics. It seems that no figure in the current political race has escaped fashion scrutiny. Hillary was condemned for her penchant for pantsuits and criticized again when she explored plunging neckline territory. Michelle Obama has been lauded as “the next Jackie O.” for her wardrobe that is both classic and trendy. Even the gossip and scandal involving GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin’s children has not allowed her to escape from under the unsympathetic glare of discerning fashionistas. Every fashion choice she made during the Republication National Convention, from the open toe red patent shoes she wore when McCain announced his VP selection to the low-cut satin jacket she donned for McCain’s speech, was noted and thoroughly analyzed.

Though much less intense, Barack Obama has received mostly praise for his style prowess and the occasional flak when he falls short of critics’ expectations. Barack Obama was criticized when the public snuck a peek of his casual wear wardrobe and were disappointed when it consisted of ill-fitting jeans and a tucked-in polo shirt. Perhaps the lack of any discussion about John McCain’s choice of clothes offers an explanation for why this same debate over fashion did not exist in the 2004 Presidential Election. After all, John McCain, George W. Bush and John Kerry do not represent the youth and overabundant vitality that seem to drive fashion.

However, these political figures have impacted fashion as much as they’ve been influenced by it. Italian Vogue editor Franca Sozzani said that the newsworthy July issue, which dedicated 100 pages of photographs to only black models, was inspired by her interest in the American presidential race and specifically in Barack Obama. Even Versace’s Spring/Summer 2009 menswear collection was inspired by “the type of man, Barack Obama represents.” The September issue of Harper’s Bazaar, the first fashion magazine established in America, features a photo spread of Tyra Banks, role-playing Michelle Obama in First Lady scenarios.

The strong female presence in the presidential race is likely responsible for the increased visibility of style and fashion trends in political news. However, the fact that even Obama’s tailored suit and tie combinations came under inspection shows that fashion is no longer limited to movie stars and models. Rather, what one wears has come to be taken seriously as an indicator of a person’s personality and ideology. As Coco Chanel once said “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”