How Fashion Designers Are Preparing For The 2016 Election
Google Anna Wintour, and the first image in which she’s posing with someone else is a shot of her and Hillary Clinton having a little giggle. The next person to grace her image search is Michelle Obama, clutching Anna’s hand with both of hers, their heads merely inches apart, and Anna, once again, giggling. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Ms. Wintour was just a very fashionable and colorful White House aide. And yet, her relationship with the White House—and, by extension, fashion’s relationship with the White House—was not always so intimate.
Think of White House fashion, and Jacqueline Kennedy will inevitably come to mind. While her husband was in office, her style was lauded and admired. But it was often just discussed as a pinnacle of femininity, one that taught girls and women all over America to emulate Kennedy in order to nab a rich and handsome husband like JFK. Conversations surrounding her style abounded, but they barely scratched the surface. Before her second life as Jackie O., admiration of Jacqueline’s clothing and beauty was ultimately mired in the belief that womanhood meant being a mother, a housewife, a mindless trophy. Outside of that, fashion in the White House was mentioned only to denounce first ladies–to speculate on, judge, and scrutinize their apparently unseemly sartorial choices.
There were the many gowns of Frances Cleveland that, according to The National First Ladies’ Library, “showed off her bare neck, shoulders and arms”—the horror!—and that caused a hullaballoo among the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who felt these dresses “corrupted the morals of young women who copied [Mrs. Cleveland].” There were the “black knickers” Mrs. Reagan apparently wore, which caused quite the controversy. And there was the radical switch from skirts to pants made by Pat Nixon, which The National First Ladies’ Library recalls “was an issue in the re-election year of her husband.” Even in 2007, fashion and the fashion industry still carried negative connotations for high-ranking politicians; that year, after announcing her bid for the White House, then-Senator Hillary Clinton cancelled a photo shoot she had scheduled with Vogue out of, according to a statement released by the magazine, “fear of looking ‘too feminine.’”
It wasn’t until Barack Obama took office in 2009 that the White House began to really embrace and soften up to fashion. And this was no coincidence; Obama—with his languid drawl, basketball skills, and celebrity friends—brought an element of cool to the White House that had previously never existed, opening up a place for fashion in politics. Suddenly we had Michelle Obama, a stylish and relatively young First Lady. With every one of her appearances came a pivotal fashion moment, not to mention a drastic spike in revenue for whichever designer she happened to be wearing that day. According to the International Business Times, Mrs. Obama “created $2.7 billion in cumulative abnormal returns” – or in simpler words, sales that would not have occurred had she not worn an outfit – just between November 2008 and December 2009.
There were, however, more factors at work in the entwinement of fashion and politics. It was possible, for instance, that designers could no longer, as Nadine DeNinno put it, remain “sartorially bipartisan”—at least not while gay marriage and abortion were issues that gripped the nation. And then, of course, there’s the possibility that this new mutually beneficial relationship was nothing more than another display of the sweeping, immeasurably powerful influence that fashion’s magisterial overlord, Anna Wintour, can wield. Having landed a spot on the White House Committee on the Arts and Humanities in 2008, the Wintour theory isn’t too far-fetched.
Whatever the reason, the sartorial choices of the president, and particularly the first lady, were now no longer bathroom talk, but rather a reflection of their beliefs. Vanessa Friedman, in the New York Times, wrote, “The point of fashion is to reflect the world around it.” And it’s true; it always has. What changed when the Obamas took office was that people began to take notice of this, and what’s more, began to take it seriously. To prepare for the upcoming Presidential bid, the candidates must now take their style into account. And as for designers? Well they’re starting to prepare for the election too, whether conscious of it or not. For what is the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election if not a PR goldmine?
For some designers, preparing for the election means deciding whether or not to be vocal about politics at all. At first glance, the lack of political shout-outs on Michael Kors’ Instagram, for instance, probably seems like an extraneous point. But when you take into account the fact that Mr. Kors has a history of giving very generous donations to Democrats (according to The Daily Beast, in 2012 he had already “given nearly $95,000 in the last three election cycles”) the blatant dearth of anything related to politics does begin to look a little suspect—if not an unmistakably conscious decision to disassociate his brand from the White House.
Same goes for Ralph Lauren. While everyone was in hysterics over the much-improved, Lauren-sponsored upgrade to Hillary’s go-to pantsuit that she wore this past September for her first campaign rally in New York City, the brand itself remained conspicuously silent. And then we can’t forget Tory Burch, who, in September, hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at her Hamptons estate, and who, along with Wintour, has “served as liaisons between the fashion industry and the Democrat party over the past several years.” Yet her Instagram includes no mention of Hillary, not even in the photo she uploaded from her Hamptons fundraiser in honor of Mrs. Clinton.
For other brands, preparing for the election consists of focusing on whether or not they can capitalize on a new market. That is, making dresses and gowns with the slew of upcoming political galas and events in mind—down to the right colors (red, white, and blue) and the right cut (conservative and sophisticated). A common thread throughout the last couple seasons is a turn toward more audacious and progressive designs—and especially in light of the general aesthetic that preceded it. Recalling the clothes that seemed to dominate the Bush era, Cintra Wilson said, “It was all baby-doll dresses and little pastel blouses with Peter Pan collars and smocking over the collarbones. Child-women were infantilized and bowed up until they resembled decorative, virginal Easter eggs… Many pieces evoke the Pampered-with-a-capital-P innocence of the nursery, yet defy the vigor of either youth or sex.”
“Up until 1993, women couldn’t even wear trousers on the floor of the Senate.”- Robin Givhan
Trousers, which were once used as a tool to oppress women (according to Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan, “Up until 1993, women couldn’t even wear trousers on the floor of the Senate.”) are now being used by women to do the exact opposite—that is, to assert their authority and importance. Once the butt of every pantsuit joke, Mrs. Clinton is owning the look this time around. In doing so, she’s writing her own narrative. “When you look at Hillary Clinton’s sort of evolution in both deciding to wear trousers publicly and becoming ever-more comfortable with that decision,” Robin said. “I think you see an almost history of how professional women have changed on the public stage.” Women’s clothes today don’t scream “girly.” They scream “practical,” “comfortable,” and are suited for the working woman who is constantly on-the-go.
But rare are the Marc Jacobs of fashion, who seem to want to make a real difference with his designs (and designs alone), and the stories they tell. Nowhere is this more obvious than in his spring 2016 collection and show—an extravagant homage to America held at the Ziegfeld Theatre, which he said was largely inspired by the legalization of gay marriage. This wasn’t the first time Marc aimed to make a difference in the world of politics with his clothes. In both 2014 and 2008, he made Hillary Clinton-themed t-shirts. This time, however, it seems he’s decided to take a more nuanced route. “It was the first time he saw ‘cool’ people saying they’re proud to be Americans,” Pardis Saberi, a buyer for Marc Jacobs, told me. Which makes sense, given the excruciatingly cool Americana-themed clothes that comprised the collection.
The collection was teeming with smaller, even more nuanced messages too. “A main theme, which is a constant in Marc’s aesthetic, is a contrarian point of view; the mixing of high and low,” said Pardis. For instance, she explains, “the same amount of attention and consideration went into the more accessible pieces as the higher end design,” like guipure (a complicated lace without a net background) which was “used both in evening and more casual looks.” Was this a nod to the middle class? Sending out a message that both the middle and upper classes deserve the same attention and care?
And finally there was a tendency—one that’s pervaded his past collections—to “tak[e] the ordinary and ‘mak[e] it extraordinary.’” Take his use of denim in this collection; “denim skirts, jackets, and jeans are seen in an original pinstripe print, decorated with embroidered patches and a mix of brooches, as well as discharge printed with a 3D glasses print inspired by Marc’s tattoo,” Pardis told me. Could this use of the most American fabric be a message of hope, a nod to the American Dream? Marc certainly seems to suggest so. Expounding on his Spring 2016 show in an Instagram caption, he concludes with, “Let us celebrate the beauty of pride in equality and all things in their natural integrity.”
Images via the White House Photo Library, Associated Press, Huffington Post, Vogue