Special Issue Edited by Sara Kaufman and Anna Zinola

Sara Kaufman and Anna Zinola


  1. Letter from the Editors
    By Sara Kaufman and Anna Zinola

  2. The Right to Wear: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Contemporary Clothing Bans
    By Anna Espinoza

  3. The Politics of Self Expression in Fashion: A Postmodern Conundrum 
    By Giuppy D’Aura

  4. Aesthetic Maoism: Style Homologation as a Form of Social Control and Increasing Productivity
    By Carlos Gago Rodriguez

  5. Fashion Parades and the Political Side of Fashion Staging
    By Vittorio Linfante

  6. Rituals of Dressing
    By Katherine Shark

  7. Vodka & Tena Lady: A Macabre Dance by Charlie G. Fennel
    By Sara Kaufman 

  8. The Last Days of Vogue: Russian Fashion Magazines After the Invasion of Ukraine
    By Ira Solomantia

  9. War in Fashion: Luxury and Contagious Affect
    By Tetyana Solovey

  10. Fashioning Democracy: What We Can Learn From Political Power Couples
    By Jasmine Bacchus

  11. Why Is Muslim Modest Fashion so Political?
    By Chiara Sebastiani

  12. Dear Grandma: A Fiber Art Compendium
    By Rana Feghali

  13. Untangled: The Kaffiyeh’s Potential for Reinvention
    By Joelle Firzli

  14. The Topless Rebellion: Debates and Paradoxes of the Chilean Feminist Mobilizations (2015-2020)
    By Javiera Fermandoy

  15. Dakar Fashion Week: Dressing to be Addressed
    By Kelly Kirby

  16. The Mirror of History: Sustainable Fashion and Earth-First Values
    By Jess Montgomery

  17. The PHALIC Method
    By Dirk Reynders & Matthew Porter

Letter from the Editors

At first glance, fashion and politics may seem like two worlds apart, if not opposites - the first supposedly a world of frivolous glamour, the second a grey world of “serious business.” In truth, however, not only are they not all glamour/greyness, they are in fact very closely related to each other. History demonstrates this - just think of how the kings of the past used clothing as a form of affirmation, declaration, and legitimization of their role and power. Of course, much has changed since then, starting with the concepts of politics and power; politics still uses clothing to send messages, while fashion has long embraced the practice of using its outputs to manifest political opinions. Moreover, fashion, both as an industry and as creative expression, is deeply affected by the political (and economical) environment, thus reflecting the status quo by mirroring social trends.

When we first started conceiving this special FSJ issue, our vision mostly revolved around what our professional backgrounds (Sara as a fashion journalist, Anna as an academic) and our geographical provenance (both of us are based in Milan, Italy) had so far allowed us to experience; that is to say, we mostly identified fashion as “what you see on the catwalk and politics as “what takes place within governmental institutions.” Milan is one of the world’s fashion capitals, therefore fashion professionals who live and work here tend to be very much exposed to ready-to-wear and couture, to a point in which we sometimes tend to forget that fashion occupies a space in society that goes way beyond the one of seasonal fashion weeks. Moreover, Italy being a—relatively—democratic country, urgent global matters are all too often supplanted by a lot of theoretical discussions, which ultimately serve the purpose of keeping the educated elite within its comfort zone.

However, our eyes were opened, and our horizons broadened, the moment we started receiving the first pitches. Indeed, both fashion and politics have a variety of meanings, and the relationship between them is constantly changing, influenced by geography, shifting borders, cultural perceptions, religion, heritage, historical events, and, of course, personal experiences. We received an insanely large number of submissions, with themes ranging from the outfits of governors to sustainable fashion, from religious modest attire to the political side of artisanal practices, and from fighting the patriarchy in the everyday to doing so through street protests. Clearly, the fashionable side of politics and the political side of fashion are matters close to many people’s hearts.

To top the experience, during the very early days of this issue’s gestation, major political events started colliding with major fashion happenings: the war in Ukraine exploded in the middle of fashion month (February) 2022, pushing fashion brands to take some kind of position, and political campaigns for the election of the Italian prime minister took place in Italy during fashion week in September 2022, generating a medley of fashion and politics on the local news; this was followed by the election of the country’s first female, far right, prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Both these events would require an issue of their own, while featuring all the amazing content that was pitched to us would probably require a
two-year contract with a publisher. It was extremely hard, and also somewhat painful, to make a selection, because ideally all voices deserve to be heard on a matter such as fashion and politics.

This FSJ issue does not claim, or even aspire, to be exhaustive in regards to such a broad and evolving topic. Rather, it is intended as a conversation starter, providing inputs, thoughts, experiences, and ideas that could be the subject of further study. The invitation is to read, compare, and discuss. And in general, to engage, in whatever way you see fit, not forgetting that, quoting American activist Ralph Nader, “if you don't deal with politics, politics will deal with you.” Even through your clothes.

Anna Espinoza is a legal assistant from Phoenix, Arizona with experience in fashion law, complex litigation, medical malpractice defense and criminal defense. She graduated from Arizona State University in 2022 with dual degrees in Philosophy and Fashion and is an incoming first year law student at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. 

“While they may have regarded the right [in one’s personal appearance] as a trifle as long as it was honored, they clearly would not have so regarded it if it were infringed.”
- Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kelley v. Johnson

Dress has an undeniable relationship with politics, culture, values, and identity. Reports about state-imposed clothing bans, whose historical purpose has been to reserve luxurious modes of dress for the nobility, seem to have reached record numbers. This increase begs a close examination of the justification and impact of such bans. When scrutinized, do the bans make moral, logical, and practical sense? Is there not a fundamental, though not absolute, human right to wear what we choose? Shouldn’t the question of fashion be left to the people themselves?

As anthropologist Daniel Miller points out, a depth ontology exists in western academia. There is a prevalent belief that “being—what we truly are—is located deep inside ourselves...in direct opposition to the surface.” [1] Accordingly, someone who cares about what they wear is “shallow,” while a philosopher, or a saint, is “deep,” and thus superior. If we can’t recognize as legitimate or even imagine the deep and meaningful connection some people have to their clothing, it becomes difficult to understand that laws banning clothing are capable of doing real harm and difficult to question whether or not they are just.

The exhibition “The Right to Wear: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Contemporary Clothing Bans,” first opened in March 2022 at Arizona State University. It includes a selection of banned clothing capturing the spirit of contemporary sartorial prohibitions. The number and the diversity of the bans demonstrates their ability to target different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, and income brackets.

Our interest in being free to dress as we choose must be weighed against concerns about cultural erasure, security, modesty, ethics, the economy, and the environment. At times, those concerns will and should take precedence over our desire to determine our personal appearance. No doubt we will continue to disagree on the question of whether clothing bans are serving just causes. Nevertheless, each ban deserves a thorough examination in order to make that determination, and none should be relegated to the rank of triviality or consigned to history.

Niqab: MyBatua (polyester georgette)
Abaya: MyBatua (polyester nida)
Hijab: Culture Hijab (polyester chiffon)

France became infamous for initiating federal bans in October of 2010 with the enactment of a law banning “the concealment of one’s face in public,” Law Number 2010-1192. Since then, bans on face coverings have come into effect in Cameroon, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, Bulgaria, Italy, Tajikistan, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Switzerland adopted a face covering ban in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when masks were mandated to stop the spread of sickness.

In most of the countries that ban the veil, a very small minority of women wear them. But politicians played into Islamophobic stereotypes, claiming they had security concerns about veils and that pressure was being put on women to don them. Widespread dismissal of the significance of the veil and women’s autonomy resulted in the claim that secular states could not allow veils, which would prevent Muslim women from “participation in society.”

Miniskirt: Forever 21 (polyester)
V-neck t-shirt: Bozzolo (cotton and spandex)

While short skirts had existed in many forms across the world, it was the diffusion of miniskirts in the late 1960s that arguably caused the most upset and eventually resulted in now-defunct bans in Namibia, Malawi, and Uganda. Swaziland’s Crimes Act of 1889, however, is still interpreted as a miniskirt ban. It threatens a “fine of 600 rand or imprisonment for 2 years” as a punishment for “enticing or soliciting immoral acts by words, signs…or in any other way whatsoever” and punishment for anyone who “knowingly aids or facilitates the commission of immoral acts; or is a person of notoriously immoral character and exhibits himself in indecent dress or manner at any door or window or within the view of any public street or place.”

Activists struggle against the dangerous belief that European miniskirts are a sexual invitation and that they cause high rates of assault and even a higher rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Implicit in the argument about the miniskirt ban is the question of the meaning of modesty and decency. Additionally, the popularization of the miniskirt was seen as an act of “enforced deculturization.”

Sundress: Anna Espinoza Spring 2022 (polyester taffeta)
Artificial flower crown: Anna Espinoza Spring 2022

Gender-bending dress is defined here as wearing clothing and adornments not typically associated with one’s assigned sex at birth. Ambiguity surrounding the questions of which garments are “male” or “female” has allowed for a loose interpretation of laws prohibiting gender-bending dress, which have been and still are weaponized against the LGBTQ community.

The laws of Oman, the U.A.E., and Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia ban “impersonating,” “posing as,” and “disguising oneself” as a woman. Abu Dhabi police have been known to make arrests for gender-bending dress on the charge of “violating public morals.” Prison sentences range from one month to two years and fines range from $280 to more than $4,000. In the U.S., the cities of Charleston, El Paso, and New Orleans have retained “masquerade laws” historically used to police gender-bending dress, which has been categorized as “disguise.” The use of masquerade laws to regulate gender-bending dress is an affirmation of the depth of ontology—the belief that who we really are is concealed, rather than revealed, by what we wear.
Fur coat: Made in Hong Kong (Finnish blue fox fur shell, acetate lining)
Mink stole

California was the first state to ban the sale of new animal fur products with Assembly Bill 44, which implements a statewide prohibition on manufacturing, selling, offering, displaying, trading, donating, or otherwise distributing any fur product in the state and includes exemptions for second-hand fur and leather sales as well as fur sales for “traditional tribal, cultural, or spiritual purposes” by members of Native American tribes. The penalty for violating the ban is a $500 fine for the first violation and $1,000 for repeated violations, with each fur product representing a separate violation.

Fur bans are said to be key to eliminating animal cruelty, reducing waste, and improving public health conditions. Mink, foxes, sables, rabbits, and other animals are raised in adjacent wire mesh cages and cared for via automated systems, then killed with electrocution and euthanasia. When it comes to environmental concerns, no fur—real or fake—is quick to biodegrade, and the tanning process that natural furs go through is toxic. Finally, fur farms increase the risks of spillover and spillback, or the cross-species transmission of disease, which results in novel disease variants.

Used clothing bale: (various fibers, plastic packaging)

Less than 20% of clothing donated to charity is actually repurposed there, and another 12% is recycled. The remainder of the 94 million tons of textile waste created each year is almost all shipped to the global south for a last chance at sale before going to a landfill, where it emits greenhouse gasses, chemicals, and dyes. Top exporters of used clothing believe they are alleviating poverty, reducing textile waste, and creating jobs. But saturating any market with used clothing strangles the domestic fashion industry and has a massive environmental impact. Nigeria, Haiti, Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia prohibit imports of used clothing.

Trade agreements offer preferential treatment on exports to the U.S.—namely, reduced tariffs and fewer quantity restrictions and the option to create free-trade zones on exports for countries who lower the barriers to U.S. exports of used clothing. In 2016, member states in the East African Community (EAC) indicated they would phase out used clothing imports. In response, the U.S. threatened to withdraw members of the EAC from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a program supposedly designed to aid economic and political development, which would offer duty-free access to U.S. markets. Rwanda alone moved forward with the ban, and its AGOA benefits were subsequently withdrawn.

Crocodile pattern handbag: NihaoJewelry (pleather shell, polyester lining)

Purchasing and carrying a counterfeit product in France could result in imprisonment of up to three years, and prosecutors can levy fines of up to $300,000. Penalties increase if the activity is part of a larger counterfeiting operation.

Does the strength of the anti-counterfeiting law tell us more about France’s concern for citizens, or more about its concern for the value of its luxury fashion industry? Does buying a fake piece really mean one deserves a real criminal record? American sensibilities, shaped by life under a legal system that has no intellectual property laws specifically meant for fashion, leave us more open to the idea of counterfeits. They can be a way to express a reverence for a designer or lifestyle that isn’t socially or financially attainable. Some counterfeits can trick expert authenticators, and are even made of the same materials as the real thing. This presents a sort of paradox for the concept of authenticity.

Hoodie: Hypland (cotton)
Boxer shorts: Hanes (cotton and polyester)
Jeans: Arizona Jeans (cotton and elastane)

The hoodie is banned in Georgia, Minnesota, and North Carolina, where it is forbidden to wear a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer upon any public way or public property. “Sagging,” the practice of wearing one’s pants below the hips, revealing the underwear, is banned in Lynwood, Illinois, Union Point, Georgia, and Abbeyville, Louisiana.

These laws disproportionately affect young Black men and serve as justifications for stop-and-frisk policies. A Shreveport, Louisiana sagging ban led to the death of Anthony Childs, and the argument that a hoodie is threatening was invoked in the trial of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer. As Richard Ford Thompson writes, the result of this is that sagging and the hoodie have become “a statement of racial pride and defiance, solidarity with a community and an emblem of belonging”—and yet they are still policed.

Baseball cap: Bestify Products (cotton and polyester)
T-shirt: Port and Company (100% cotton)
Assorted pins and stickers: Cafepress, Flagline, Presidential Election Historical Center, Redbubble
Blazer: Calvin Klein (polyester, rayon, spandex)
Pants: Talbots (rayon, cotton, spandex)

Some U.S. states and municipalities ban electioneering gear at the polls. Georgia bans “campaign gear,” while California and Texas prohibit the “badge, insignia, emblem, or other similar communicative device relating to a candidate, measure, or political party appearing on the ballot, or to the conduct of an election.” The states maintain that the purpose of the laws is to provide a peaceful and intimidation-free environment for voters.

A more vague ban on “political clothing” is being revised by the Minnesota State Legislature after it was struck down in 2010 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
T-shirt: Gildan (100% cotton, made in Bangladesh)

In Malaysia, the “Bersih 4” logo printed on a yellow shirt is banned. The logo is the emblem of a coalition of citizens fighting for what they call the “Clean 4”—clean elections, clean government, the right to dissent, and a better economy.

In 2015, 100,000 people took to the streets to protest the 1Malaysia Development Berhad embezzlement scandal, tens of thousands wearing the shirt. Malaysia's Security Minister used the Printing Presses and Publication Act to ban printed Bersih 4 materials, including the t-shirts, arguing they were “prejudicial to the public order…security…and national interest” and a “national security threat.” Shirt wearers were exposed to criminal liability.

The Shah Alam High Court sided with the Security Minister in a lawsuit brought by the Bersih 4 rally organizers.

Notes: The Right to Wear

[1] Miller, Daniel. “Why Clothing Is Not Superficial.” Stuff, Polity, Cambridge, U.K., 2009, pp. 12–41.

Full paper and works cited available at https://therighttowear.org/

Giuppy d’Aura is a lecturer at Istituto Marangoni School of Fashion (UK). He completed a BA and an MA in Film Studies at Università Roma Tre, followed by a second MA in History of Fashion at London College of Fashion and is currently studying for an MSc in Psychology at Birkbeck University. He worked as head of research and author of the interviews in Luca Guadagnino's documentary "Ferragamo: shoemaker of Dreams" (2020), and his peer-reviewed publications focus on the relationships between fashion and art, fashion and modernity, and fashion trends.


In today’s political landscape, great focus is placed on what is commonly referred to as “identity politics.” This approach conflates two aspects that do not usually belong together: identity, which is deeply intimate, and politics, which has traditionally been a general, public matter. Clothes occupy the liminal space between the intimacy of an individual and their representation in society; for this reason, it is particularly interesting to see how fashion is intertwined in both identity and politics.

An increasingly abused platitude about fashion is that it amounts to “self-expression.” If proof is needed, try asking a group of young design students for their definition of fashion. Today, fashion is also used to convey political messages, some of which belong to the politics of identity and of the aforementioned Self. However, the more I have studied the domain of fashion, its meaning in society, and its nature, the less it appears to me to be an efficient tool to communicate both the Self and one’s political beliefs. What people are really defining when invoking self-expression is a certain use of garments rather than the very nature and function of fashion; for these reasons, both the concept of “self” and the communication potential of fashion call for further analysis. This contemporary attitude reveals liberal societies’ obsession with identity and individuality in its most extreme form: individualism. I find myself needing to question this narrative by investigating how the crumbling of 20th-century politics and the emerging of a postmodern sensibility have led to a re-consideration of dress and have given fashion a new, albeit unfulfillable task: representing certain intimate features of the wearer's personality. I also try to address two fundamental matters deeply rooted in the postmodern liberal discourse: I begin by defining the Self and understanding whether or not it is accessible to the individual, and then analyzing the communication potential of fashion tout-court. There seems to be a silent agreement that fashion expresses precise individual, political, and societal values, but can we trust this assumption?

Political shifts, identity politics, fashion

In today's public discourse, the narrative of the essentiality of the Self often overlaps with its opposite: social constructivism. Conservative author Douglas Murray has written about the paradox whereby a left-wing activist may describe transgender identity as an immutable and innate characteristic, and, simultaneously, being a cisgender woman as a social construct.[1] Identity is increasingly exploited by people and parties on both sides, and it is probably one of the most contentious and divisive topics within the public political discourse.

But how did the Self become such a critical political category today? Postmodern sensibilities played an essential role in radicalizing the concept of individuality. As claimed by Lyotard, [2] the disillusionment towards Master Narratives such as Marxism during the second half of the 20th century is at the very base of Postmodernism. This process is conventionally seen to have culminated in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it became clear that the Soviet experience—a Master Narrative still rooted in Modern values—had been deeply unsuccessful. It was also during the 1980s that the left wing started to reorganize itself around a new principle, shifting its discourse from the defense of the working class to the empowerment of identities and minorities. This is one of the elements that has, slowly but progressively, formed what we call today “identity politics.” In the spirit of postmodern morals, the diverse mass that constituted the working class and encompassed people of all sexes and races, splintered into identity groups—race, sexual orientation, gender, and so on. Class was no longer seen as the main bond for all the oppressed. From the point of view of the traditional Left, the irony of this is evident: if the dividing line stops being class, the opposition is no longer between rich and poor but between, let's say, Blacks and Whites, or straights and gays. And these identity groups should supposedly have the same needs and priorities, even if within those categories some individuals have far more financial possibilities than others. The large working-class mass stopped being the Left’s priority, and progressively disintegrated within its discourse. The Master Narratives that informed Modernity met the same fate. 

One is tempted to think that some left-wing politicians hoped that addressing many minorities could grant the same success as addressing one single, albeit vast, working class. However, in politics, the sum of fragmented clusters of voters is often smaller than expected. In other words, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. What the Left underestimated is that not all voters within a group have the same priorities; furthermore, different groups may have conflicting interests, and it is sometimes difficult to keep them together. How can a party in the West address the values of conservative Muslim immigrants and, at the same time, the liberal values of young women or gays? This synthesis is undoubtedly challenging to achieve.

The emphasis on individualism is the extreme outcome of the fragmentation of social classes; in other words, groups have been atomized, leaving individuals loosely connected. In our social-media-dominated society, every subject demands to be unique and uniquely successful. Every individual is the carrier of a personal truth, while the concept of a universal Truth has also melted into thin air for the sake of individual, fragmented 'lived experiences.' It is from this confusion and lack of structure that the incestuous marriage between capitalism and the relics of the Left originated. Fashion brands have done a fantastic job capitalizing on this quest for truth amongst their clients, who today tend to be wealthy, young, urban, and embracing of liberal values with all their contradictions. The marketing strategies adopted by the most successful brands rely on discourses that seem to resonate with the demographics mentioned above. Inclusivity, diversity, freedom, and sustainability take center stage, even if they often operate only at a communication level. Sustainability, for instance, is virtually incompatible with a business that encourages clients to buy one new collection every six months, and where brands are expected to be on a steady path of financial growth. Nevertheless, if fashion brands wish to succeed among the younger generations, they are required to address the supposed moral values of their target consumer. In capitalist society, morality is yet another commodity to sell. I believe it is precisely for this reason that the most successful maisons upholster their communication with the narrative of self-expression. The new frontier of capitalism today, as noted by Slavoj Zizek, is to sell to clients both the problem and—included in the price—its solution. [3] This is particularly visible in the case of fashion, where, by virtue of its price and exclusivity, class and social inequalities are rendered more visible; nevertheless, brands offer an image of diversity, empowerment of individuality, and, most ironically, inclusivity.

Alessio Bolzoni for “Many of Them” FW22

The historical dimension of fashion, changing politics, new subjectivities

Is expressing individuality a task that fashion is ontologically fit to fulfill? The answer is straightforward: no. As most readers will know, during the 19th century and well into the 20th, fashion was not consumed to convey individuality and difference but, on the contrary, clothes needed to communicate the social ambitions of a woman, her place in the social hierarchy, and her respectability. All this had to be done while treading a path paved by strict social and fashion norms. Uniqueness and creativity would have led women astray from the accepted trajectory of fashion. [4, 5] It is essential to specify the asymmetry between genders in regard to fashion consumption during the 19th century: while men’s style became increasingly simplified, women were encouraged to indulge in the consumption of fashionable clothes. [6]

Consuming clothes to signal one’s social ambitions and position has been the basis of the fashion business for many decades, and it is well represented in pop culture. For instance, in Bret Easton Ellis' masterpiece American Psycho, [7] where the author consistently uses the description of clothes to convey the status of their wearers, but never their intimacy. Another example is the compelling 1980s TV series Dynasty. The 1970s and 1980s were also the age of the “total look,” an idea allegedly brought into mass-produced clothes by the Italian stilista Walter Albini. With the total look, the aim of designers such as Albini, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, and Gianfranco Ferré, to name a few, was to propose a consistent and unified style for all the items of an outfit. Indeed, the total looks says more about the brand than it does about the wearer.

Our contemporary obsession with identity is partly the effect of the erosion of the hierarchical social order, which is a relatively recent (and Western) feature. Postmodernism, however, is a cluster of contradictions: on the one hand it takes the modern concept of individuality to the extreme, turning it into individualism; on the other, it splinters the Self and undermines the possibility of communicating it to the external world. As suggested above, the erosion of Master Narratives described by Lyotard has determined the birth of countless “Micro Narratives,” [8] virtually one for every individual. In political terms, the fall of Marxism and conservatism, as previously conceived, has determined the Self as the re-direction of the political discourse towards atomized discourses. If the Right became identitarian and often racist, the Left followed a similar path, focusing on identity politics and fragmenting the working class into races, sexual minorities, and gender politics. Both attitudes, however, are opposite reactions to the same stimuli. This, in time, has had important bearings in fashion as well: the era of total looks is today virtually nonexistent as designers rely heavily on styling, proposing very different and even clashing elements within the same look.

At this point, we should try to address the elephant in the room. What is the Self? Moreover, what is its relationship with fashion?

“Contemporary fashion consumers regard non-conformity as a way of expressing uniqueness; this, at closer inspection, appears to be another platitude.”

The Self

The Self can be described as the sum of an individual's beliefs about their personality attributes. However, when we approach it, it appears to be more complex. Everyone possesses at least two dimensions of the Self: a private, intimate Self, and a public Self, which is shaped by our position within a particular social group and in opposition to other groups. But there is also an external projection of one's ideal self, which does not necessarily coincide with who that person really is.

Sociologist Erving Goffman takes this idea of the multiplicity of selves to an extreme by questioning the very existence of a "true self": the individual, in his view, seems to be a cluster of front-stage and back-stage selves, all of which are equally fictional and situation-specific. [9]

The relationship between the presentation of the Self and clothes (not only fashion) was discussed by psychologist John Flügel in his pivotal work The Psychology of Clothes, [10] in which he discusses the contradictory nature of garments. Flügel points out that even the word that signifies the most intimate of human characteristics, “personality,” actually comes from persona, which in Latin means “mask,” namely another item to wear. For him, clothes serve three primary purposes: decoration, modesty, and protection. The original and most compelling reasons to get dressed, however, are the first two. Hence, according to Flügel, the dress serves two discordant masters at once: decoration, whose aim is to reveal, and modesty, whose aim is to conceal. The latter can be considered the opposite of getting dressed to express one's Self. The practice of modesty is typical of religious communities, workplaces, or conservative social groups; hence it represents an attempt to diminish the outer appearance of individuality. Modesty aims to bring individuals closer to their peers. As Flügel writes, “clothes resemble a perpetual blush upon the surface of humanity.” [11] The self, in the case of modesty, is not denied, but becomes a private, secret luxury that does not need to be flaunted.

The idea that one can express oneself through clothes rests upon a naïve view of the self, namely that we know who we are. It is, however, at least since Freud discovered the existence of the unconscious that this idea has become outdated. [12] Psychoanalysis proposed that the truth about our desires is found in our unconscious: a virtually inaccessible area of our minds. In their daily practice, psychoanalysts do pay more attention to their patients’ dreams, slips, free associations, and other gaps that function as cryptic gates to unconscious truth, than they do to what the patients ultimately say. Said very plainly, psychoanalysis has subverted Descartes’ famous principle “I think therefore I am,” and reversed the relationship between “think” and “am.” As French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan put it, "I think where I am not; therefore, I am where I do not think." For psychoanalysis practitioners, truth is not to be found in conscious and controlled expressions but in whatever escapes the lies and traps set by the conscious and deceitful will.

An objection to this may be that psychoanalysis rests upon theory and has limited empirical evidence. However, social psychologists have also raised similar doubts, which have been underpinned by empirical research. A recent study has demonstrated the discrepancy between Instagram users' online personas and their real individual characteristics. [13] This study revealed a twofold problem: on the one hand, Instagram users had an idea of themselves that was different from the one conveyed on their Instagram accounts. On the other, their followers could not consistently predict personality traits and self-attributes based on social media accounts. One problem was the “codifier” of the message, and the other was its “decoding.”

Similarly, a classic study by Timothy Wilson and colleagues [14] demonstrated that predicting one's mood is extremely difficult for people. The researchers asked a group of subjects to predict their mood against several variables, such as the weather and the amount of sleep received; these self-predictions turned out to be, for the most part, inaccurate. The researchers concluded that people have difficulties with this type of forecast because preconceived ideas often blind them. This research demonstrates that the perceptions of our Selves do not necessarily coincide with who we are. They also cement the idea that the intimate Self differs from the aspects of our identity that we project to the outside world. We can conclude that even what we convey through fashion is not necessarily who we are but how we would like to be perceived.

One of the problems with the Self in our society seems to be that it has become a disembodied, discursive, and therefore solipsistic entity. The first element to fall during postmodernity has been the physical nature of the body, the latest and most dangerous social negotiation at the base of our identities. This radicalization of individualism reduces the Self to a whim: I am not the product of social, psychological, and biological processes, but I convince myself that I am what I decide to be every day. I am what I wear. We dream of a shell that coincides with its content. Despite how many attempts individuals can make to deny the involuntary nature of the Self and the difficulties of knowing one's true self, nothing can erase its complex ontology.

Furthermore, contemporary fashion consumers regard non-conformity as a way of expressing uniqueness; this, at closer inspection, appears to be another platitude. Psychologists have studied the underpinning processes of conformity for over a century, and some aspects are still being unveiled. Particularly interesting are the processes of anti-conformity. In fashion terms, they exemplify what most contemporary die-hard fashionistas chase: being different from the norm and not obeying pre-imposed rules. Therein resides the contradiction: the urge to eschew conformity is itself a reaction to the rule, hence determined by it. Several studies have documented this, and, as psychologist Paul Nail [15] suggested, there is no real difference between conformity and nonconformity. The two may be seen as two complementary aspects of the same phenomenon. Conformity, Nail claims, is so pervasive in human behavior as to encompass its opposite. Following this view, non-conformists may simply be marching to the beat of a more distant drum.

A critical problem regarding fashion as a vehicle of self-expression is that we have to assume that the Self has a certain degree of stability and carries a kernel of truth about the subject. Some psychological theories confirm this view. Personality, for instance, is definable as a stable set of traits that can, to some degree, predict how an individual may react to certain situations. However, this definition of the Self jars with the very pattern of fashion consumption because fashion is a system deeply grounded on change, namely instability. If fashion does not change, it dies. On the other hand, if one's Self were to change as fast as fashion trends, it would splinter into a constellation of unstable and contradictory personality traits; it would approach psychosis.

Alessio Bolzoni for “Many of Them” FW22

Can fashion still communicate?

Once the Self has been discussed, it is time to problematize the extent to which fashion can communicate. The contemporary, liberal idea of fashion as the ultimate vehicle of self-expression contains an embarrassing irony. It presents the personal need to express oneself as a luxury, a preserve of the few who climb very high in the hierarchy of needs, and a privilege of the rich who can buy their freedom of expression in fashion stores. In the 21st century, capitalism has achieved an unprecedented and highly consequential goal, designing itself as the enhancer of freedom and liberation. However, what young liberal consumers fail to notice is that if consumption is the ultimate sign of one's intimate self-expression, then we need to view those who are excluded from fashion consumption as the new oppressed class. In the liberal view, consumption is not only a way to convey one's success and taste (or a way to shy away from them) but it acquires a mystical and transcendental property that goes beyond its modern scope.

The ability of clothes to communicate the Self has been questioned by scholars such as sociologist Joanne Finkelstein [16] and fashion theorist Llewellyn Negrin. In her book The Fashioned Self, [16] Finkelstein compared the contemporary emphasis on outer appearance to the physiognomic studies of the 19th century. Physiognomists like Dr. Lombroso and his followers proposed that one's character and criminal inclinations were predictable through physical characteristics and proportions. The idea that fashion can convey one's character (and values) reveals another profound contradiction in our society. On one hand, we discourage people from judging others by their appearance; on the other, we demand to be judged and understood according to how we present ourselves.

Fashion collections, and with them our wardrobes, have progressively become more casual over the last decade. The success of brands such as Off-White and Vetements is a testament to this idea. These brands have brought street garments onto contemporary catwalks, blurring the lines between ready-to-wear and streetwear. However, if you think these very innovative and profitable collections look like freedom of expression at its purest, think again. We may have been freed from the constraints of formal and business attire, but, as Negrin [17] suggests, today, people can wear whatever they want because nothing they wear carries a meaning anymore. If anything goes, nothing matters, and this is because any form of freedom can only operate within some constraints. To put it in semiological terms, if the signified today is detached from its signifier, how can any signifier be the carrier of a meaning? One and only one meaning seems to be the true prerogative of fashion, and that is fashion itself. Fashion signifies being up to date, being “cool,” and being part of an inner group constituted—like any social group—in opposition to another: the unfashionable. Thus, in today's world, if we care so much about sending messages, it is just because messages are the latest fashion trend and, just like in the past, the pendulum can shift away from this quest for “depth at all costs” when the wind of trends blows in another direction.

Effective communication requires three elements: a subject who speaks, one who listens, and a mutually intelligible code. Communication becomes impossible in a world where a common language does not connect enough individuals. If everyone wears anything with absolute freedom, without embracing any code with a value that is recognizable to others, then they are not communicating with anyone. Style is reduced to an individual language, a radical idiolect that only the wearer can understand. Expressing any idea—let alone yourself—in this situation becomes harder and harder. This inability of fashion to effectively communicate ideas has led Fred Davis to define fashion not as a code but as a 'quasi-code.' [18] In today's society, where tweets and Instagram posts are considered activism, we like to think that clothes can be an efficient vehicle for positive messages. This reveals more about our society than it does about fashion’s arguable power.

To conclude, I must argue that it is crucial to avoid a moralistic approach to the use of fashion. This article aims only at investigating the contradictions of contemporary fashion communication, and at undermining the pretenses of depth regarding a system that draws its value precisely from its glittery frivolity. What to do then? It would probably be worth reconsidering the apology of indifference implied by Gilles Lipovetsky in his acute The Empire of Fashion. [19] For Lipovetsky, fashion opens a new possibility for the democratization of society, not by virtue of its depth and political engagement but by its superficiality. In his view, the shallowness in human relations is not only good but also desirable. He claims that the more progress the ephemeral makes, the more stable democracies become, and this is because the less people care about one another, the better they will get along. Through fashion, we should be pushed to desire and prefer the realm of fantasy rather than the universe of confrontation. The frivolousness of fashion and its potential to hide and protect one's idea of the intimate Self is probably not wholly attuned with our postmodern life, which demands strong images, social media authenticity, and political involvement. Nevertheless, they still are essential underpinnings to its nature.

Notes: Politics of Self-Expression

[1] Douglas Murray,  The madness of crowds: Gender, race and identity. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019)

[2] Jean-Francois Lyotard,. The postmodern condition. (Manchester: Manchester, 1994)

[3] Žižek Slavoj The fragile absolute, or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? (London: Verso, 2001)

[4] Kate Nelson Best, The history of fashion journalism.(London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 51

[5] Judith Flanders, The Victorian house: Domestic life from childbirth to deathbed (Public Library Interlink, 2007), 256

[6] Giuppy d'Aura, "The Silence of Garments: Modernity and the conquest of elegance." Aisthema, International Journal 8, no. 1 (2021): 77-99. http://www.aisthema.eu/ojs/index.php/aisthema/article/view/80/86

[7] Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho: A Novel. (United Kingdom: Vintage Books, 1991)

[8] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The postmodern condition. (Manchester: Manchester, 1994)

[9] Erving Goffman, The presentation of Self in everyday life. (New York: Anchor Books, 1959)

[10] John Carl Flügel, The psychology of clothes (Madison: International Universities Press, 1950)

[11] John Carl Flügel, The psychology of clothes (Madison: International Universities Press, 1950), 21

[12] Sigmend Freud, and James Strachey. The interpretation of dreams. (London: Allen & Unwin, 1900)

[13] Elisabeth Harris, and Aurore C. Bardey. "Do Instagram profiles accurately portray personality? An investigation into idealised online self-presentation." Frontiers in Psychology 10 (2019): 871.

[14] Timothy D. Wilson,  Patricia S. Laser, and Julie I. Stone. "Judging the predictors of one's own mood: Accuracy and the use of shared theories." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 18, no. 6 (1982): 537-556

[15] Paul R. Nail, "Toward an integration of some models and theories of social response." Psychological Bulletin 100, no. 2 (1986): 190

[16] Joanne Finkelstein, The fashioned self. (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2013)

[17] Llewellyn Negrin,. In appearance and identity. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

[18] Fred Davis,. Fashion, culture, and identity. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

[19] Gilles Lipovetsky,  Empire de L'éphémère.(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

Carlos is an art director and fashion buyer focused on the synergies between retail reality and e-commerce.  He has worked for major Italian fashion luxury brands like La Perla and Max Mara. Currently, Carlos as a fashion consultant develops 360° bespoke strategies such a trend forecasting, visual identity, image making, and digital development for brands like Bogner or Bulgari among many others.

As a professor of visual research and the future of fashion, Carlos makes younger generations reflect on the importance of the omnichannel paradigm and its upcoming drivers.

The rise of digital technology in the new millennium has influenced the creation of a production model based on efficiency. Before this technological revolution, some experiments in social control, such as the infamous Maoist revolution during the 1950s government of Mao Tse Tung, established the foundation for a new model of social oppression aimed at increasing the productivity of human and material resources. During Maoism, style homologation, understood as a form of social control imposed through the use of the Sun Yat-Sen jacket, became a tool not only for efficient production but also, and perhaps primarily, for ideological censorship. If we look at the fashion scene today, there is something unsettlingly similar to the Maoist concept and use of aesthetic homologation.

Homologation dixit

In Maoist China, aesthetic homologation was at the service of a standardized society. By leveling age groups, genders, and social classes, the regime was able to guarantee both exponential economic growth and social control over the Chinese population. The smaller the differences between people, the greater the productivity and the economic progress. After all, the visual expression of personal style (and of differences in general) ultimately tends to hinder economic growth by creating disjointed desires and ambitions, whereas the disciplined choice of the uniform speaks the visual language of socio-political power. In some ways, the imposition of the Sun Yat-sen jacket during Mao's regime is similar to the current model of consumerist homologation: a global and very simplified aesthetic code of street culture, ultimately evoking the culture of efficiency by producing less diversified garments (namely hoodies, jeans and t-shirts), which are then replicated and reproposed in similar fabrics and color variations. Inherently, the costs of design are reduced in favor of increasingly costly marketing tools, which are needed to differentiate one brand from another. For this same reason, in times of economic recession, ideologic flattening, and creative crisis, fashion - both as the mirror of society and as an industry aiming at continuous exponential growth - takes advantage of this aesthetic unification as a key driver to, once again, increase social control, boosting the efficiency of a system placed exclusively in the hands of a few very competitive giants who, in turn, dictate the market rules.

In post-modern society, the process of digitization has contributed to an aesthetic globalization by means of new consumption codes; both brands and consumers have shaped a new ideal of uniformity within the pleasure of being recognized by one another. A reassuring sense of taste dictates a “comfort-zone style” and encourages brands towards the convenience of a guaranteed turnover model. The more fashion puts itself at the service of digital consumption, the more creativity is ultimately delegated to the final consumers, who end up playing creative directors on social platforms that invite users to dress their virtual identities.

Mao costume by Thierry Mugler 1985 displayed at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Photo taken Nov 28, 2022 by Carlos Gago Rodriguez.

Socially manipulated consumers

Today’s consumers are firmly convinced of their freedom of choice since, today more than ever, they tend to position themselves within like-minded groups or communities of values. This makes them feel that they can express themselves individually by buying what (they think) they are choosing autonomously. In truth, the manipulation of consumers’ desires is dictated by a super-object: technology, a dematerialized yet omnipresent form of control that ideally allows people to be their own creators while actually transforming them into “consumo ergo sum” individuals, approved by community rules. This creates a rather perverse sense of social media acceptance, aimed at manipulating individuals by means of a collective mentality dictated by what is photogenic and/or validated by followers and other virtual tech-friends.

As a consequence of the manipulation of creativity by the digital sphere, fashion becomes a blank canvas on which a new form of product is being designed, following commercial micro trends and social algorithms. While the fashion industry is supposedly discussing sustainability, a huge amount of influencers (plenty of them, at the same time) are wearing,  one time only and discarding after use, ultra-expensive looks from luxury designers’ collections, transforming the perception of a long-term investment into a moment of digital glory: luxury has become fast fashion.

Brands cannot keep up with the quantity of content required by the day-to-day social media flow, nor with its rapid interchange, therefore, they tend to homologate their creative sphere by replacing ready-to-wear collections with a sort of “wardrobe” style container, which differs from the one proposed by other brands only because of its narrative, its testimonials, and the context in which it is showcased. No longer diversified by the products they offer but rather by the way in which said products are communicated, fashion collections have started embodying an accessible, understandable, and easily approachable world, thus becoming the expression of an industry in which many more people can, in theiry, feel included. 

The new customer journey plays by the rules of Gen Z-ers, who tend to relate to brands in a more ideological, less product-centered way. Consequently, luxury is no longer synonymous with scarcity, quality, and style, but with everyday, aesthetically relatable, and generally “understandable” products, defined merely by a spectacular one-of-a-kind storytelling, by impressive site-specific installations, fashion films, or in-store performances aimed at creating a strong connection with the younger generation of consumers. Along this path, expressions of individual creativity are displaced, shifted towards the “wow effects” of a communication destined to escalate fashion to the next level of the luxury paradigm: social media lust.

Pucci's Mediterranean party in Capri, the Cappuccinos at Dior’s flagship boutique in Saint Tropez, or Bottega Veneta's Instagrammable pop-up store in South Korea, are all visually magnificent experiences that transport customers into an endless escape/travel mode.  Luxury has always been a journey, but nowadays the itinerary is easier and cheaper as social networks provide virtual transportation; at the same time, imagining has become harder, because everything is always available and constantly on display. 

When compared to emerging realities, established brands tend to perform better because their position as advertisers provides them with the power to capitalize upon consumers’ desires, dictating what people have to wear in order to follow the hype. These - very few - brands manage to monopolize and ultimately conform the fashion aesthetic, and it is undeniable that “seeing always the same looks, unchanged and unchanging, from the catwalk to magazines to celebs and influencers for the following six months, causes a flattening, a boredom, a homologation that is antithetical to the very nature of fashion.”[1]

Zara Man flagship store in Milan. Photo taken February 29, 2022 by Carlos Gago Rodriguez.

Big, bang, spectacle!

1997 marked the beginning of the post-couture era. The fashion momentum of that time symbolized a turning point in the democratization of global aesthetics. The big luxury brands and their young and fresh creative directors, John Galliano at Dior and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton just to name a few, changed the paradigm of luxury fashion houses. Brands became a contaminated container of disruptive ideas and theatrical fashion shows, where dreams were placed at the service of a very profitable merchandising policy: It-bags, fancy shoes and flamboyant accessories were designed to provide more democratic access to the exclusive world through relatively inclusive prices. This slow and incessant process helped fashion brands to achieve a multi-million-dollar turnover, as well as popularity worldwide .

Shortly after, the Aughts and the post-digitalization period of 2010 prompted the rebirth of several “sleeping brands” which were acquired by the oligopoly of conglomerates (for instance LVMH and Kering) and brought back to life by massive investments in image-making and communication strategies.

Luxury conglomerates promote a certain uniformity of style, logos, and aesthetic codes, while at the same time operating a new form of digital scarcity and pricing strategies oriented towards an inorganic economic development no longer based on product quality and craftsmanship but on marketing choices, fueling an ongoing desire for novelty. The current consumer, influenced by the immediacy of social media, is constantly looking for heavily-logoed items and blockbuster drop collections, following the new ethics of "real-time fashion." As mentioned before, this (d)evolution lacks the expression of individual creativity: from a human, social, and cultural perspective, this is clearly an issue. 

Hyper-connectivity often evolves into digital voyeurism — a fetishistic ritual of pleasure deriving from a temporary identification of the viewer with the body being shown on the screen. Indeed, the idea of being aesthetically homologated to the rules set by society has had a serious impact in the realm of psychology; this manifests, for instance, with young people trying out the facial-symmetry filters on social media. One of the most emblematic scenarios is TikTok’s proposition of different face filters developed through the inversion of a mirror reflection, with the ultimate goal of revealing one’s face as others perceive it, imperfections and asymmetrical features included. One of the most popular symmetry effects is called “Inverted”. According to TikTok’s public view figures, the Inverted effect has been used in nearly 10 million videos and has reached 23 billion views. [2]

Virtual (distorted) beauty and digitized dysmorphia

As a result of the pandemic, face-scrutinizing filters and apps are used more than ever, and the amount of time people spend in front of laptops and smartphone screens doing video calls has triggered an unforeseen increase in cosmetic surgery. [3] The rise in the number of (not only facial) reconstructive procedures by people who struggle to accept their appearance is known as the "Zoom Boom" effect; it was notified by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, estimating that “The pandemic has led to a 10% increase in cosmetic surgery countrywide. In France, despite limits on elective procedures during the pandemic, cosmetic surgeries are up by nearly 20%, estimates the French Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons.”[4] No need to say, the results of these cosmetic surgeries are hardly ever diverse, in fact, they tend to mirror one or another celebrity, ultimately erasing individual features and peculiarities. The exaggerated use of social media has led to the rise of new a aesthetic canon, a “virtual beauty” which, considering its non-material nature, is bound to be not only homologated but also distorted, thus leading to “deleterious effects on mental health caused by seeing yourself as others see you, and at the same time offering ways to cope with the new self-knowledge.” [5] In particular, in our hyper-sexualized society, more and more women tend to manipulate how they show themselves to others, "virtually modifying what they dislike, creating perfect selves instead."[6] The consequence of this social media syndrome has been defined as digitized dysmorphia, with the pressure for “normativity” and homologation exerted on the upcoming generations becoming ever greater.

Adidas x Gucci, 2022.

From individuals to consumers

Since fashion is inherently political, individuals tend to look for certain types of  identifying style codes, status symbols, or statement pieces that will allow them to manifest their voice and express their opinion in an aesthetical manner. In every decade of the 19th century, clothes have had a strong connotation which reflected [or perhaps influenced) some kind of social movement: the 1950’s and the new role of femininity; the 1960’s and the new radicalism; the 1970’s and the strong political activism; the 1980’s and the rise of power dressing, and the 1990’s and its nihilistic grunge minimalism as the antithesis of 1980’s gloss. [7] After the year 2000, and even more so after the Covid-19 pandemic, fashion started speaking a global language, incorporating all human declarations into a conversation around style: by now, the fashion dialogue is fully political and it responds to the changes in the social structure and its certainties. New empowering messages are released every day according (mostly) to social media agendas, and ideology in all its forms becomes a driver of success for brands. Today, the ultimate recipe for success in the fashion universe is to buy communities of belief-driven consumers: these will naturally become ambassadors of brand values and creators of aspirational marketing content. Conversations around inclusivity also serve this purpose, and so does the fashion industry’s current broad-scale interest in gender fluidity: it isn’t just about respecting the rights of the LGTBQIA+ community, or offering inclusive beauty standards; it’s about changing the mindset of society in a very profitable way: the more people feel included in a homologated - and therefore deculturized - group, the more they are subjected to commercial exploitation. And fashion is the industry that has so far contributed the most to the transformation of the human being into consumer.

Fashion collections become more homogeneous, design is less creative, production costs are lower, and it's faster and easier to deliver messages to a larger number of potential hypebeast consumers.

Perhaps fashion is an industry that aspires not to create a diversity of identities, but to condense them into very few and similar groups of homologated individuals, controlling a globalized society by simplifying a low-cost and high-gain production model. What will happen next? Will we return to a veneration of the “less but best”, as some trend forecasters seem to hope? Will a new consciousness make consumers more aesthetically independent? Or will the huge fashion groups continue to dominate and impose a reassuringly homologated look? Personally, if fashion truly is a reflection of society, I fear that the next  big trend will simply be a blatant expression of being “under control.”

Notes: Aesthetic Maoism

[1] Cecilia Caruso “Esiste ancora lo stile personale? Il feed degli influencer e le politiche dei brand raccontano un presente omologato e ripetitivo”. Nss Magazine ( April 8, 2022) https://www.nssmag.com/it/fashion/29487/stile-personale-influencer-marketing-brand

[2] Rhonda Garelick “When did we become so obsessed with being symmetrical? A slew of filters on social media allow users to evaluate their features , reigniting age-old obsessions with perfection and beauty”.  New York Times (August 23, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/23/style/is-your-face-symmetrical.html

[3]The Economist . “Covid-19 is fuelling a zoom-boom in cosmetic surgery” (April 11, 2021) https://www.economist.com/international/2021/04/11/covid-19-is-fuelling-a-zoom-boom-in-cosmetic-surgery

[4] Cision PR Neswire “The Aesthetic Society releases annual statistics revealing significant increases in face, breast and body in 2021” (april 11, 2022) https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/the-aesthetic-society-releases-annual-statistics-revealing-significant-increases-in-face-breast-and-body-in-2021-301522417.html

[5] Rhonda Garelick “When did we become so obsessed with being symmetrical? A slew of filters on social media allow users to evaluate their features , reigniting age-old obsessions with perfection and beauty”.  New York Times (August 23, 2022) https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/23/style/is-your-face-symmetrical.html

[6] Isabelle Coy -Dibley “Digited Dysmorphia” of the female body: the re/disfigurement of the image”. Palgrave Communications, Vol 2 (August 25, 2016) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2828637

[7] Maya Singer “ Power Dressing: charting the influence of politics on fashion”. Vogue.come  (September 17, 2020)  https://www.vogue.com/article/charting-the-influence-of-politics-on-fashion

Vittorio Linfante is an art director, textile designer, and docent in fashion design, branding, and communication at the Politecnico di Milano, Università di Bologna and NABA. He curated the Il Nuovo Vocabolario della Moda Italiana exhibition at the Triennale di Milano 2015. He authorises articles and books on the ties between fashion, art, and communication, such as Catwalks, Le sfilate di moda dalle Pandora al digitale (2022), and he has co-authored Italian Textile Design. From Art Deco to the Contemporary (2023) with Massimo Zanella.


“Fashion is politics. Fashion is desire.”; “Choosing a dress means expressing an opinion.” These are among the statements included in the creative manifesto of Maria Grazia Chiuri, creative director of Dior, — statements that, season after season, the Italian designer also materializes through her fashion shows. Quotes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Linda Nochlin, Robin Morgan, and Yael Bartana (“We all should be feminists!” “When women strike, the world stops”, “What if Women Ruled the World?”, “Sisterhood Is Global”, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”) have guided Chiuri’s creative process at Dior since she became creative director in 2017. In her creative vision, catwalks become performative spaces to stage not only products but also her political views. Additionally, thanks to new technologies, fashion shows have become an essential channel for conveying a specific thought or opinion, or for stimulating debate.

Historically, fashion shows played a political role capable of defining different forms of staging the passage of time. The history of fashion is paved with such examples, from the rupture with the past done by Walter Albini, Caumont, Ken Scott, Krizia, Missoni, and Trell, when they left Florence in 1971 to open a new fashion path in Milan, to Moschino who, in 1990 stated (clearly and through a theatrical staging) “Stop the Fashion System;”. More recently, Serpica Naro’s fashion show in 2005, Katharine Hamnett's position against the war in Iraq in 2003, and Vivienne Westwood who, in 2008, drew attention to the situation at Guantanamo Bay. And again, Sid Bryan and Cozette McCreery (designer of Sibling), who took stands against Brexit, the many expressions of support to the Ukrainian people staged during the February and March 2022 fashion shows, the desire to revolutionize, or even destroy, the fashion system expressed by Demna Gvasalia through his fashion shows for Vetements, the breaking of gender and beauty stereotypes by means of street casting (a tool increasingly used by various brands), and the works of LRS (Pic. 01) and Prabal Gurung (Pic. 02), who uses clothes as surfaces to share political statements while clothes themselves become a form of protest.

This article aims to investigate, from a historical perspective, the current political role of fashion shows as performative acts, created to present new products and trends as well as to stimulate debate. These performances, also thanks to social media, can convey the different messages that fashion is increasingly trying to promote, both through its products and through its catwalk shows. In this sense, fashion shows are a tool both for presenting new seasonal products and for conveying political and social messages.

Motto printed on underwear during the LRS New York presentation on Februar 10, 2017 in New York. Photo © Jason Kempin/2017 Getty Images

The language of fashion, as defined by Barthes, [1] can multiply the value of the artifacts it produces, the associated narratives, and their staging which incorporates different elements: aesthetic, semantic, expressive, communicative, emotional and political content. [2]

Following Harold H. Saunders, who assumes that “politics is about relationships, [3] let us start from the assumption that fashion, as an instrument of interpersonal communication, is political. We can thereby consider fashion, and its staging through fashion shows, as having a political relevance as it affects the relationships between people. In this context, clothing, fashion, and staging all imply an intersubjective social world in which one presents oneself and is seen by others. [4] Fashion and fashion staging increasingly represent a complex design field that transcends the production of merely wearable products. It consolidates itself as a design field capable of generating hybrid goods that, by their very nature, have an interpersonal, social and increasingly political communicative function. [5] [6]

Fashion is understood here as a complex system of objects and meanings, increasing its value depending on who makes, uses, and wears the clothes — an essential concept that sometimes defines and sometimes adapts to the changes of taste and style, and is both social and political. Not only art and politics, but also fashion can be understood, following Rancière’s thought, as a form of knowledge capable of constructing “fiction,” that is, material rearrangements of signs and images between what is seen and what is said, between what is done and what could be done.” [7]

Fashion is, by its nature, an interpreter and mirror of social changes that, as Eleonora Fiorani states, unites and stitches together what would apparently seem irreconcilable: tradition and modernity, past and future, localism and globalization, social inadequacy and consumerism. [8] Fashion, in this sense, can indicate “how people in different eras have perceived their position in social structures and negotiated status boundaries.” [9] As Andrew Bolton states: “fashion functions as a mirror to our times, so it is inherently political. It’s been used to express patriotic, nationalistic and propagandistic tendencies, and complex issues related to class, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.” [10] 

Nepalese-born fashion designer Prabal Gurung, reflecting on the glowing debat over immigration into the United States during the final runway show of his spring/summer 2020 collection, presented models of different origins with a sash similar to those used to crown Miss America with the motto "Who should be an American?"
Photo © Mike Coppola/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows/2019 Getty Images

“If a thought needs words, fashion needs bodies. Fashion as a language dresses the body with meanings, becoming an expression of personal and social identity; therefore, to wear is to communicate.”

Fashion, as a communicative interface concerning primarily the human body, as a production system, and as an economic and political agent, increasingly contributes to defining new forms of staging that not only speak of clothes and bodies, but also of our present thus creating the narrative behind a collection, i.e., the fashion show, interpretable as a form of manifesto and political statement.

The pervasiveness of digital media since the early 2000s has redefined the fashion show, its rituals, and its dynamics, opening up more and more to the general public and transforming it from a presentation for the few to an event, from a show limited in space and time to a true palimpsest that not only shows products but also expands into artistic, performative, musical, and cinematic forms.

In this context, fashion shows represent one of the fundamental tópoi of the fashion system: the first showcase, the most important way to present and stage the collections, the ideas, and the style of a brand, effectively and immediately communicating the product and its entire design path.

Fashion shows, for which the dichotomy between packaging and product is disintegrating, thus become the focus of what Orvar Löfgren calls today’s catwalk economy, that is the need to  communicate an increasingly appealing image blending innovation and creativity: a commercial artistic performance, where tickets are free but almost everything on the stage is for sale,[13] designed to succeed in engaging an ever-growing audience (in situ and online) and thus establish a visual, but above all emotional, relationship between designers/brands/models acting on the catwalk and the audience. [11] [12][13]

Alongside the creation of a multifaceted abacus of staging possibilities, over the years, there has been an increasingly rapid expansion of the geographical boundaries within which the current fashion system and design circles have moved, increasingly involving digital technologies and media. The voyeuristic nature of fashion shows, amplified by fruition through social media, has contributed to their consolidation as practical communication tools. Perpetuating modes that have been established for more than a century, the catwalk still represents an eagerly awaited moment, during which the novelty of products is associated with the constant research of forms of representation, spaces, and sharing. It is precisely this solid communicative value, as well as the increasing pervasiveness of messages through digital channels, that have meant that fashion communication is not only limited to sharing new aesthetics and new forms of dress, but also real political messages and decisive stances.

As a catalyst of transformations and changes, in its continuous mutations, fashion has evolved from an elite to a mass commercial phenomenon, from a production system to a communication system, increasingly in the service of spontaneous political actions. [14] Thanks to the explosion of social media, fashion shows now represent an independent and trans-disciplinary design field, in which architecture, set design, dramaturgy, performing arts, communication, and new technologies are intertwined.

The entire fashion system can be said to be enclosed between the extremes of a structure that on the one hand contemplates the artistic/creative dimension reserved to insiders and, on the other, addresses the expressive/communicative one to the public. In the fashion system, the artist’s creative impulse is expressed through the use of the multiple languages of contemporary communication, from photography to advertising, from design to fashion imagery and fashion shows, from theater and opera to cinema, radio, and television. The line between fashion culture and fashion marketing is fragile. [15]

The product presented during a fashion show, the choice of a stage, space, or city, and the definition of a precise communication strategy, all become ways for fashion to share not only a creative and productive process but, increasingly, to explicitly communicate clear political statements.

The runway finale during the Dior Cruise 2021 fashion show on July 22, 2020, in Lecce. The show was the first one after the Covid-19 lockdown.
Photo © Vittorio Zunino Celotto/2020 Getty Images

The product and its staging as a communicative system of political discourse

Although the product is no longer the sole protagonist of the fashion show, it is still the main protagonist of any form of fashion staging. The collection represents the purpose, and the fashion show is like a film premiere — the moment in which the product is presented and, above all, judged from a market perspective.

Curiosity regarding new forms of clothing makes the fashion show, season after season, the moment in which the centrality of the product is reaffirmed, renewing the anticipation that precedes the event which becomes even more significant when a new brand is presented, when innovations are introduced in terms of proportions and silhouettes (as in the historical cases of Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, or Mary Quant), when new markets and new economic relationships are opened (as in the case of Giorgini’s First Italian High Fashion Show), when there are changes in the design and in the formal language of a brand - recently expressed by the increasingly frequent changes in creative direction, for instance the arrival and departure of Phoebe Philo at the creative direction of Celine, the alternations of Tom Ford and Hedi Slimane at the helm of several historical brands, or the arrival of Maria Grazia Chiuri, the first woman at the helm of Dior. Regarding the latter, it is precisely on the occasion of her debut at the helm of the Parisian maison that the Italian designer used the catwalk as a space to express not only her creative approach but also her idea of fashion and her political thinking.

“We Should All Be Feminists,” the speech given in 2012 at TEDxEuston by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, became a fashionable slogan in 2017, printed on the T-shirts presented by Chiuri in her first collection for Dior. The decision to use this phrase to mark her debut at the French fashion house was a real programmatic manifesto, meant to reiterate the need to define a specifically feminine vision of fashion design [16] and the necessity of understanding how to interpret the present as a “happy feminist.” [17]

The stage and the location as political choices

Fashion has always needed bodies to dress, and physical (and now also virtual) spaces to display the clothed bodies.

The space of the runway show now transcends the boundary of staging or the mere selection of a location, becoming an increasingly complex artifact, designed to engage with the IRL audience and to be best conveyed, through various digital channels, to a virtual one. Catwalks are increasingly becoming an all-encompassing experience, not limited to the most superficial decoration.[18]

Runway locations become relevant in defining the narrative of a collection but, at the same time, they are transformed by the way fashion uses them.[19] For fashion shows, public spaces have often been temporarily closed, and private spaces have been opened up; places inaccessible to most have been made accessible, while set design has taken the form of authentic architecture. Indeed, fashion show set design is a free-standing creative form, a new facet of the architectural project: the space of the fashion show can be seen as a microcosm capable of making the most of new products and new trends, but it can also be read as a field of experimentation, capable of offering a perspective (albeit in an ephemeral form) on society, culture, and art. And so the static form of architecture, in apparent contradiction with the mutability of fashion, “deals with dressing the body in the same way fashion does,”[20] and the choice of a place or city becomes not only a narrative choice but also a political one.

When, in 1971, some young fashion designers — among them Walter Albini, Missoni, Krizia, and Ken Scott — left Florence to show at the Circolo del Giardino in Milan, they expressed a political choice:“Against the rigid formula of the catwalks of Florence, to seek in Milan more fluid modes of expression and at the same time a more coordinated presentation of the models. These are years full of changes for Italian fashion, which is preparing to become an international phenomenon. Getting out of the Florentine formula, which was somewhat strict and organized according to a precise number of garments to be paraded in front of the audience, to start a new, more spectacular way that would become typical Milanese, also meant changing the very spirit of the fashion show. Not only do more models appear on the catwalk, but the vision of the designer is proposed.” [21]

1971 marked the beginning of an era that would see Milan as capable of catalyzing the best entrepreneurial and creative realities of Italy and beyond. Milan was chosen because it was “an industrial city, not particularly attached to its past, lacking ties to the rituals of high fashion and, on the contrary, extremely sensitive to the younger boutique. In the 1960s, the Lombard capital had been the city of the boom, of the avant-garde in the artistic field, of design and, at the end of the decade, of protest. Choosing the Lombard capital meant focusing on another Italy, one that did not live by the myth of past glories but sought an active space in modernity.”[22]

Later, fashion shows in the Red Square by Laura Biagiotti in 1995, on the Great Wall of China by Fendi in 2007, and in Havana by Chanel in 2016, have become not only scenographic choices but also choices dictated by strong political intentions.. [23]

More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the act of not stopping the fashion system and opening the scenic space of the catwalk to virtual sharing, have also been political gestures. During the lockdowns, social media changed the structure of fashion shows, pushing them to redefine themselves by taking different forms — sometimes extremely technological and immaterial, sometimes, by contrast, recovering already established physical modes. On September 26, 2020, at the beginning of the first pandemic wave, Giorgio Armani decided to give a sign of resistance and resilience by confirming the fashion show but holding it behind closed doors. Thus, the Milanese designer organized a runway show without an audience in attendance, a show shared not only via social media channels and the web, but also broadcasted live through the Italian television channel La7. This was a sign of resistance and openness in a period of closures. The unique event achieved a 3% share with 685,000 viewers in the Italian territory alone; sharing this event via television broadcast with a wide audience previously excluded from this form of communication was regarded, in a period of restrictions and social distancing, as a political stance.

In pandemic times, some brands felt the need to be physically present in order to give a positive sign of resistance, resilience, and of support to the entire supply chain. The first and most persistent promoters of the need to resist the hardships imposed by the pandemic were Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pietro Beccari (at the head of Dior), who chose not to give up the live fashion show in the presence of an audience as in their view it would have meant surrendering the topical moment of fashion culture. In an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Beccari said: “For us, fashion is also emotion, and nothing is more emotional than a fashion show. The second reason we decided to resume the project is that we want to give a signal of hope to the whole world and indicate a reason for rebirth.” [24] Such signal manifested itself with the brand’s 2021 cruise collection fashion show, which was showcased outdoors (in Lecce’s cathedral square) and with guests in attendance. 
Left: A model at the Serpica Naro fashion show in February 2005. The outfit was called "Italian husbands prefer blond Romanians," the outfit was created considering the theme of work-related rather than marriage-related residence permits.

Right: A model at the Serpica Naro fashion show in February 2005. The outfit was called "Call Donald Mac Center." The model ironized on the theme of a "happy call donald partner" to describe precarious young people's life hovering between the plates of a McDonald's restaurant and the phones of a call centre.
Photo © Marco Garofalo/Courtesy Serpica Naro

Politics in the form of stage and performance action

If a thought needs words, fashion needs bodies. Fashion as a language dresses the body with meanings, becoming an expression of personal and social identity; therefore, to wear is to communicate. [25][26] The body that walks the runway, its physical appearance, and the interaction created with those who witness the event, all become an integral part of fashion’s artistic design discourse. In fashion shows, the garment often transcends its physicality and becomes the subject of performance. Thus, actions designed to establish a direct and multisensory dialogue are defined, going beyond their commercial nature and becoming more of an art form capable of presenting a product, and posing a set of questions on how fashion can relate to people and society in general.[27][28]

Increasingly, fashion and the performing arts are merging. The catwalk hosts different forms of expression; events are designed to “catch the eye and appeal to the senses,” [29] and the product comes to life in the form of a performance, though it is not always clear whether the idea of the collection or its staging came first. For example, Viktor and Rolf's fashion shows, such as Russian Doll in autumn/winter 1999, Zen Garden in autumn/winter 2013, and Wearable Art in autumn/winter 2015, were true performative acts during which the designers assembled and deconstructed the clothes on the catwalk, creating a continuous flow between creative act, performative act, and product. Over the years, the fashion world has witnessed specifically theatrical stagings, from choreographies to acting — carefully planned campaigns amplified the events, communicating political and social messages through performative intent. Statements like those of Moschino in the 1990s, were not only printed or embroidered on clothes, but they also took shape on the catwalk during the theatrical runways that the Milanese designer used to stage. For example, the fall/winter 1990–1991 show titled Stop the Fashion System, was a theatrical performance with a political meaning, using irony and satire as tools to amplify the message of the collection. It was not just a fashion show but a proper dance performance, during which models and dancers moved together on the catwalk staging the struggle of ordinary people against Fashion (personified by an austere black-clad witch) in order to free the creative spirit and the liberty to dress how one wants. The dance ended with a final display of Italian flags (one of the brand’s iconic symbols) used to enshrine freedom from fashion constraints. With this action, Moschino created a communicative short-circuit, mocking the fashion system and all its social events (including fashion shows), though fitting perfectly within the system itself, albeit with its signature ironic and irreverent vision.

A non-show,[30] a proper performance, in full Moschino style, a hybrid of theatrical costumes with outsized elements, a reference to the iconography of jesters and the circus, and products taken from the street that define Kaos even more. “Moschino also advises reading the characters of dress circulating in our streets and, it remains implied, less textbook fashion images. The interpretations of the garments one encounters around the cities of Italy remain, after all, the most inspiring and familiar signs of our time. [The fashion show and collection are the staging and in the product of Franco Moschino’s request]: ‘Please leave me alone to make clothes! It’s the only thing I want!”[31]

The irreverent spirit of Moschino was then echoed over time by various realities of the fashion system, in particular by alternative groups such as the Milanese collective Serpica Naro (Fig. 04) (an anagram of San Precario, a joke in Italian to refer to the Patron Saint of 'precarious' workers). Serpica Naro was born as a provocation, as a non-existent brand created by a collective of creative activists, to raise awareness on the problem of unstable jobs and the on the issue of underpaid labor. In order to do this, the collective staged a runway show event in February 2005 during Milan Fashion Week, and "presented eight allegorical models aimed at illustrating the humiliations of precarious labor, followed by the presentation of outfits from European and Italian independent brands that did not recognise themselves as a part of the fashion world and its flattery"[32]. The entire fashion show was conceived as a protest and political stance.

More and more fashion, especially in its form of staging through fashion shows (whether in physical or digital form), is capable, as Gaugele asserts, of shaping a new arena of aesthetic politics in which designers and labels seem to compete as activists by demonstrating and claiming through their actions, taking clear stances, whether related to climate change or to labor exploitation, in support of humanitarian causes or for a social affirmation. [33]. As the age of digital communication has now opened the doors of fashion weeks to a broader audience, fashion shows have now become a new form of political manifestation which, beneath the glamorous surface, are capable of defining real manifestos and political declarations [34].

Notes: Fashion Parade

[1] Roland Barthes, Il senso della moda. Forme e significati dell’abbigliamento, trans. Gianfranco Marrone (Torino: Einaudi, 2006).

[2] Marco Ricchetti, Enrico Cietta, (eds.), Il valore della moda. Industria e servizi in un settore guidato dall’innovazione (Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 2006).

[3] Harold H. Saunders, Politics Is About Relationship: A Blueprint for the Citizens’ Century (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[4] Joshua I. Miller, “Fashion and Democratic Relationships”, in Polity, vol. 37, n. 1, 2005, pp. 3–23. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3877060. Accessed 25 October 2022.

[5] Giannino Malossi (ed.), Il motore della moda. Spettacolo, identità, design, economia: come l’industria produce ricchezza attraverso la moda (New Yorlk: The Monacelli Press,1998).

[6] Georg Simmel, La Moda (Roma: Mimesis, 2015).

[7] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), 39.

[8] Eleonora Fiorani, Moda, corpo, immaginario. Il divenire moda del mondo fra tradizione e innovazione (Milano: POLI.design, 2006), 17.

[9] Diane Crane, Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1.

[10] Maya Singer, “Power Dressing: Charting the Influence of Politics on Fashion”, in Vogue.com, 17 September 2020; https://www.vogue.com/article/charting-the-influence-of-politics-on-fashion. Accessed 25 October 2022.

[11] Francesca Ala, et al., Lo spazio architettonico della sfilata di moda (Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2019), 9.

[12] Orvar Löfgren, “Catwalking and Coolhunting: The Production of Newness”, in Magic, Culture and the New Economy, eds. Orvar Löfgren, Robert Willim, (Oxford-New York: Berg, 2005), 64.

[13] Rosie Findlay, “Things to Be Seen: Spectacle and the Performance of Brand in Contemporary Fashion Shows”, in About Performance nn. 14-15, 2017, 105.

[14] Vittorio Linfante, Catwalks. Le sfilate di moda dalle Pandora al digitale (Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 2021), 1.

[15] Daniela Calanca, Storia sociale della moda (Milano: Bruno Mondadori, 2002), 82.

[16] Vittorio Linfante, “What Women Designer Want. The Female Point of View in the Fashion Creative Process”, in PAD. Pages on Arts and Design, n. 18, 2019, 59.

[17] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist’”, in The Guardian, Fri 17 Oct 2014, retrived on