Fashion follows the zeitgeist. Designers from the ‘20s to now have used their creativity and influence to convey their political views and social opinions on the runway and red carpet each season. Even with that, fashion is more often seen for its materialistic vanity and far less for its social influence and as an opinionated form of expression. That said, a more gradual, game-changing wave of public appearances featuring subtle, and sometimes striking political statements, has been taking over the tabloids.
The Met 2021
A recent example of the same was seen at fashion’s favourite annual event, the Met Gala. After skipping a year due to COVID-19 induced restrictions, the event made a comeback with a smaller, different set of crowd and the theme: In America: A Lexicon of Fashion. This year’s star-studded set of red carpet appearances also included a number of politicians and athletes.
Met Gala 2021’s red carpet saw New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in a statement-making white gown with the phrase “tax the rich” printed on the back in a bold, bright red. The outfit was sourced by Cortez from Black woman immigrant designer Aurora James’ label, Brother Vellies. Often known for using her fashion choices to make a point, the idea of the Congresswoman’s red carpet outfit was to highlight the need for childcare, healthcare, and climate action through the phrase “tax the rich”. Trolled for attending an event that had tickets cost upward of $35,000 a piece to make a conflicting statement, she hit back saying, “The medium is the message. NYC elected officials are regularly invited to attend the MET… Dress is borrowed.”
Image Source: Instagram/aoc
Another New York Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney, made a political statement in a purple, white, yellow, and green dress that included sashes stating “equal rights for women” and a green purse that read "ERA YES”. This was referenced to the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was designed to provide the legal equality of the sexes and prohibit gender discrimination. The proposed amendment in question has been waiting on state ratification since Congress passed it in 1972. In a social media post about the outfit, Maloney said, “I have long used fashion as a force (for) change. As the Met Costume Institute reopens (with) their inaugural exhibit celebrating American designers, I am calling (for) the certification of the ERA so women can be equal once and for all.” Interestingly, the congresswoman has been previously criticised for defending America’s move to Afghanistan, citing the draconian treatment of women in the country under the Taliban rule, Maloney wore a burqa for her 2001 House of Congress speech.
Image Source: Instagram/metmuseum
Politicians weren’t the only ones inclined towards highlighting crucial topics of social concern. Fan-favourite American singer, Billie Eilish shed her usual quirky, logo-heavy outfits for a process-like moment in a blush pink, tulle gown designed by Oscar de la Renta. But it wasn’t a special moment just because it was Eilish’s first time wearing the iconic designer. As reported by the New York Times, the look was made on the singer’s condition that the brand stops using fur, which the brand agreed to.
Image Source: Instagram/billieeilish
Met Gala debutant and singer Madonna’s daughter, Lourdes Leon made a statement in a pink, embellished Moschino gown, proudly showing off her unshaven armpits, in an attempt to encourage the idea of self-love and personal expression.
Image Source: independent.co.uk
Actor Dan Levy’s pastel-hued, embellished outfit by JW Anderson and Loewe featured two men kissing, referring to his support to the LGBTQIA+ community. On a social media post, he wrote, “With support from the estate of American multimedia artist and LGBTQIA+ activist, David Wojnarovicz (1954-1992), Jonathan and the design team built upon an image of two men kissing from Wojnarovicz’s work, F*ck You Faggot F*cker, named after a homophobic cartoon the artist had come across. But rather than feed on the message of hate, we wanted to celebrate queer love and visibility – acknowledging how hard artists like Wojnarovicz had to fight, while also presenting the imagery in a way that offered a hopeful message.”
The red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute also saw model Cara Delevingne wearing an all-white Dior outfit with the phrase “peg the patriarchy” on her corset-style top. “It’s about women empowerment, gender equality — it’s a bit like, ‘Stick it to the man,'” she said in an interview, when asked about what the outfit referred to. Delevingne’s outfit and comment, however, have received a set of mixed opinions ever since. The phrase, “peg the patriarchy”, was originally coined back in 2016 by sexuality and body confidence educator, Luna Matatas. The phrase was meant to be about the subversion of traditional power dynamics. Matatas shared an image of her wearing her own “Peg The Patriarchy” tank top in an Instagram post that read, “While I'm giddy that Peg the Patriarchy® made it to The Met Gala, (Cara Delevingne) co-owner of (Lora DiCarlo) tried to pull it off as their own. No credit to me, the creator and owner of the trademark.”
Image Source: Instagram/vogueparis
Fashion Favourite Political Moments
While making a political statement on the Met Gala red carpet is less known of, there have been events that have come to be known as platforms to voice change. One of the biggest examples of this was the Golden Globe Awards that took place in 2018, around the time the Time’s Up and Me Too movements took the globe by storm. The awards event saw almost all attendees, including A-list celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Kerry Washington, Eva Longoria, and many more, sporting outfits in the black dress code to protest against sexual harassment and raise awareness for Time's Up, an initiative started by a group of over 300 women in Hollywood, in order to bring about gender equality in the industry and beyond, and especially to prevent sexual harassment. The following year, the Golden Globes saw celebrities wear the 'TIMESUPx2' bracelet on the red carpet, designed by costume designer and stylist, Arianne Phillips. At the Oscars this year, Natalie Portman sported a Dior Haute Couture cape with the last names of snubbed female directors at the hem in a bit to call out gender inequality in the entertainment industry.
Image Source: harpersbazaar.com
In an attempt to protest against the sexual misconduct faced by women, Amber Rose and Blac Chyna donned matching flesh-coloured outfits, a bodysuit and dress respectively, at the MTV Video Music Awards 2015. Both outfits featured slurs like gold digger, hoe, stripper, and many more. The outfits painted an uncomfortable, yet real picture of what women go through as a part of sexual harassment.
Image Source: Dailymail.co.uk
These ground-breaking red carpet statements, however, are not brand new. These can be traced back right from stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman sporting the red ribbon, a symbol for AIDS awareness, pinned to their couture outfits at the 1992 Oscars, to Jane Fonda famously opting for a subdued four-year-old black Yves Saint Laurent suit as a sign of protest against the Vietnam war at the 1972 Oscars. “I wasn’t into buying fancy dresses when the Vietnam War was still being fought,” Fonda told the New York Times in an interview at the time.
Image Source: theadventurine.com, businessinsider.in
The Importance Of Political Statements On The Red Carpet
While using a public moment to raise crucial issues to the spotlight helps influential celebrities get important conversations started, there’s also a sense of responsibility that goes with it. There has, however, been just a handful of people that are open to taking risks at the cost of negative criticism, which the age of social media has only helped make worse.
Underestimating the red carpet, however, is nothing short of bad judgement. The Time’s Up movement, for example, garnered global attention after the Golden Globes moment in 2018, helping countless women open up and point to those who have subjected them to sexual harassment. Time Up’s ended up setting a legal defence fund to help less privileged victims of sexual assault, raising over $16 million as a result. Me Too helped surface perpetrators of sexual violence and misconduct who would otherwise have hidden in blindsight.
While movements like these are often global, it’s far less common to see equally outspoken moments like these closer to home. While Indian celebrities are often seen promoting sustainability, homegrown crafts, and traditional arts on the red carpet, politically inclined statements are a rare or negligible sight on Indian red carpets. However, it’s worth wondering how much something as outrageously game-changing as a politician sporting an outfit with a relevant phrase would help the socially diverse complexities of a country like ours.