Fashion is Political

I read that Spiegel column a lot of German women are excited about and want to address its initial premise: the critique that reporting on Kamala Harris’s appearance and fashion choices is more prominent or visible than criticism about her “agenda.” That simply isn’t true.

The first thing to consider, whether you’re reporting out a story, writing a hot take, or hell even creating a brand campaign is to know your audience. The columnist here knows that herself but unfortunately creates a straw man argument suggesting that fashion journalists don’t. Not only do fashion journalists (I write about fashion but wouldn’t position myself as one) know their audience, so do the stylists and people behind both Biden and Harris and every other politician. Sartorial choices are made with that audience in mind.

It might feel overdone at this point to read once again about the power of the white suit, but remember, four years ago, very few people made the connection between the suffragists and their white suits until Clinton made that clear. What makes Harris unique here, though, is that she is Black. Non-white women were not granted suffrage through the 20th Amendment in 1920. Black women got that through the Voting Rights Act in 1965. That’s *after* Harris’ birth. 

So while German women might be *sick* of hearing about suffrage, it’s still within living memory that some women in the US were not afforded the right to vote. And it is those women whose votes put the Dems over the top. Harris’s white suit is thus not necessarily a message intended for *you.* But it is a message. Just like Merkel’s choice to wear blue in her speech congratulating Biden is a message. (Blue, as you now likely know, is the Dems color).

All fashion does this. Whether conscious or sub-, people’s clothing choices are made with an audience in mind. You’re fooling yourself if you think you’re the exception. And it’s a common error that German feminists make. Ask women in Germany if they are feminist and it often boils down to appearance. Women my age will say, “well I shave my armpits and have long hair so probably not.” Younger women will say, yes, of course, that’s why I wear red lipstick and high heels. But that’s your ongoing dialogue, not the US’s.

The question is then, why do journalists write about fashion and not her “agenda,” as the criticism is leveled?

The answer: we don’t. We can hold two truths in our mind at the same time. We write about both things, often simultaneously. Fashion is, after all, political. All fashion houses will tell you that. And fashion struggles a lot with racism so the public embrace by a Black woman of a particular brand and style choice is political. And to wear a pussy bow in light of its historical associations both with Thatcher and the #MeToo movement. Wooh.

There’s also the criticism that we don’t pay as much attention to men’s choices as women’s. That’s true, in large part, because men’s choices aren’t as obviously weighted. Yet that doesn’t neglect the conscious messaging that takes place.

Consider, i.e., 45’s love of Brioni suits. We heard a lot about them in men’s fashion journalism. But did you make the connection to the brand’s creative campaign in 2016, wherein Justin O’Shea’s very short-lived stint as creative director anointed Metallica as brand ambassadors? It’s reminiscent of that time Paul Ryan said he loved Rage Against the Machine. The message is that politicians want to appeal to the disgruntled class while co-opting the status symbols of the ruling class.

What’s my point here? I’ve written before about how discussions of fashion and appearance negatively influence the public’s perceptions of women politicians so I’m as aware as anyone of the dangers of reporting on style choices.

Fashion is loaded, especially for women, its main consumers. But we also know that women who write about fashion are much less likely to get death threats than women who write about politics. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t holding room for both political choices and style choices. Conservatives know this and are co-opting the understanding of fashion symbolism (see, i.e., the pussy bow again), rendering it quickly devoid of meaning. It’s the real GEcAnCeLt Kultur

My last point on this is to refer to my own tweet. The columnist’s criticism is that more was made of Harris’ fashion choices than her policies and experience as a state prosecutor, which is just not true (as the many embedded links in that piece prove).

As I said in my tweet from November 3:

What white European lefties have to understand is that this vote was, for many, existential.