Friday

The politics of what you wear

Eamon Allan

From hoodies to a Speedo or a pair of pope-type shoes, your clothes make a statement about you.

Kate Middleton in polka dots. The high street dress sold out within an hour. (Reuters)

"In fashion, one week you're in, the next you are out," is model and Project Runway host Heidi Klum's catchphrase. It's no secret that the industry is cut-throat, competitive and difficult but the significance of seemingly innocuous fashion items can sometimes be underestimated – whether it's the yellow dress you wear to the opening of Parliament or the little black number you doff for the gallows.

Google chief executive Larry Page's jeans
"Larry Page ... tortures us with his jeans," says Alain de Botton on his blog, The Philospher's Mail. De Botton bemoans the fact that one of the world's richest men, still only in his early forties, wears normal looking clothes and could pass for a "maths teacher or a manager down at the gym". Page wears simple jeans and T-shirts just like an average person.

De Botton points out that King Louis XVI (for example) wore brocade shirts and occasionally a suit of armour, an carried a gold cane. In those times there was a clear difference between the man in the street and those in power, so ordinary people were spared the anxiety of wondering why, despite apparent similarities in their attire, they were not super-successful captains of industry.

Did the pope wear Prada?
In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI's red shoes began media speculation that the Vatican's number one was a patron of designer fashion house Prada. The stylish red loafers were discussed in such highbrow media outlets as CNN, the Financial Times and the Washington Post. Speculation reached a high point when Esquire magazine named the pontiff "Accessoriser of the Year" for 2007.

Near the end of Benedict's papacy the idea was finally put to rest by the Vatican. It seems the pope had his shoes custom made by the papal shoemaker up the road. And bad news for Catholic fashionistas – new Pope Francis I is sartorially more low key and unlikely to wear Prada, or any of the fur trims, elaborate jewellery or embellishments that his predecessor definitely sported.

The MP in the yellow dress
Thandile Sunduza MP faced a storm of mean-spirited criticism for an unflattering yellow dress which she wore to the opening of Parliament recently. Critics on Twitter likened her appearance to the Oros Man, and the dress to a caterpillar and a lemon, with seemingly no regard for the MP's state of pregnancy (calling to mind the treatment of pregnant Kim Kardashian in the press recently). Sunduza was so upset that by the end of the week she collapsed at OR Tambo International Airport and was checked into a Johannesburg private clinic where she was treated for low blood pressure and "Braxton Hicks Syndrome" (false labour).

The offending item was renounced by both owner and designer, with the former claiming the dress arrived too late for any alternative and the latter pointing out that Sunduza had worn only the petticoat of the original dress and fiddled with the top. Maybe more interesting was the media back-pedalling after the fact with some journalists decrying their colleagues' insensitivity. But being critical of other people's clothing is kind of what fashion bloggers do, isn't it?

David Gandy's Speedo
In 2007 David Gandy squeezed himself into a white speedo and reclined in a rowboat for a Dolce & Gabbana shoot for their fragrance Light Blue. The dark-haired, tanned, and muscular Gandy lying seductively in a small boat wearing nothing but a small pair of white swimming trunks caught the attention of viewers across the globe. Billboards were erected and traffic accidents probably increased worldwide as Gandy became (arguably) the first well known male model after decades of female supermodels.

Critics said that the images objectified Gandy in the way that images of female models had been sexualised for years. Many supporters of the campaign said the same thing. Gandy himself said the campaign "was a defining moment, a bit like an actor with his first film. It changed everything but it also changed the industry. It really brought men back into fashion ..."

Kate Middleton's polka dot dress
In 2013 world media focused on Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, as she prepared to give birth to the royal heir. The British Guardian put a filter on its website to block royal baby news for readers who felt overwhelmed by the volume of coverage of Middleton's pregnancy.

Meanwhile on April 26 2013 the Daily Mail reported that the British high-street chainstore Topshop dress that Middleton wore while visiting Warner Brothers's studios sold out within an hour of her wearing it. The polka dot dress cost £38.

This public endorsement of her style was probably welcomed by Middleton after she was publicly criticised by some designers such as Vivienne Westwood for her fashion choices. This cannot have been easy as her late mother-in-law, Princess Diana, was much loved for her style as well as her other attributes.

Another supporter of Middleton's fashion came in the unlikely guise of Vogue editor-at-large Anna Dello Russo who commented that Middleton's nude pantyhose (which she often wears, including with the polka dot dress) were "avant-garde".

Laugh It Off go to the dark side
In 2005 South Africa's Laugh It Off (LIO) was everyone's favourite anti-establishment T-shirt producing, purveyor of counterculture. SABMiller famously sued LIO for copyright infringement over its "Black Labour White Guilt" parody T-shirt, and lost. Fast forward to 2014 when LIO has taken issue with the Pepkor Group, owners of the Jay Jays brand in South Africa, over copyright theft regarding their T-shirt design featuring panda bears and the World Wide Fund for Nature logo.

LIO's retaliatory reworking of the Jay Jays brand as Gay Gays and its subsequent defence is simply unacceptable, as pointed out by Lloyd Gedye on The Con online magazine site. LIO was quoted as saying: "And we don't mean [gay] in the awesome homosexual sense, but rather in the lame, weak and creatively bankrupt way." Fratboy homophobia? Been there, got the T-shirt.

The hoodie and the London riots
In 2011 protests swept through London, becoming increasingly violent and ultimately resulting in five deaths, widespread looting and damage to property. Youths took to the streets dressed in hoodies – fabric sweaters with hoods, originally associated with tracksuit bottoms and sportswear but lately with streetwear and unlawful activities.

During the riots the hoodie took on another aspect, as described by Kevin Braddock (The Power of the Hoodie, the Guardian, August 9 2011). "All clothing is political in a sense that it communicates a message about how the wearer wishes to be perceived, and face coverings and headgear can be particularly charged."

Practically, many participants in the protests thought that their identities would be obscured from CCTVs (and prosecution) by their hoodies but the hoodies themselves took on the spirit of anonymous dissatisfaction which caused the riots to erupt in the first place.

Maria Manning's black satin dress
Manning, a notorious murderer from the 1800s inspired Charles Dickens' Bleak House. The Swiss national and former lady's maid to the Duchess of Sutherland, with her husband Frederick George Manning, killed her lover Patrick O'Connor and buried him in quicklime under their scullery floor.

Mrs Manning was arrested with O'Connor's French railway shares, amounting to £110. She wore a new black satin dress when she was hung in 1849 and she was said to be so unpopular that black satin became unfashionable even 20 years later. How true is the legend that Manning destroyed black satin as a fashionable choice for dress fabric? Murder, Myth & Make Believe author Andrew Moss says that "research carried out in the 1980s indicates that in reality the market for black satin was unaffected by Maria Manning choosing it for her hanging".

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