Fashion’s History of Activism

The fashion industry is often slated for its lack of ethics and questionable labour practices. Despite this, two distinguished designers have characterised fashion as a conduit for addressing social issues.

Katharine Hamnett’s own appearance in her 1980’s editorial (pictured far right) | Photo credit: Katharine Hamnett

In light of recent protests, riots, and other forms of physical activism, it is crucial to reflect upon two divergent examples of, what was (and what can be) fashion’s history of activism.

Within this industry lies an unsustainable means of production, consumption as-well-as an overall lack of conviction regarding sustainability. As a vehicle of visual communication and imagery throughout history, fashion design and philosophy has always encompassed an element of making a statement. Expressions of both cynicism and support for activist notions have fluctuated throughout the years. ‘Fashion activism’ may to some, appear to be a fallacy. Whether fashion truly may be justified as a true vehicle for change or not, major examples of-which still hold their place in a history of activism.

 Admittedly, the least technical example of fashion activism, is the ‘Slogan T-Shirt’. Initially fuelled by the ethos of Vivienne Westwood in the political climate of the 1980s, the slogan t-shirt, was unofficially coined by Katharine Hamnett. Hamnett’s politically charged sentiments were undeniable. Such blatant slogans included ‘Education Not Missiles’, ‘Women Against War’, ‘Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now’, and ‘Protest and Survive’. Hamnett stated in an interview with The Fashion Spot, that her slogans were “seminal, to make people think, and then hopefully act.” 

Hamnett emphasised the importance of acting upon your beliefs, to not be performative within the sphere of activism. Although the main emergence of these shirts was in the 1980s, she has since recently returned to the industry in light of current events, to create new iterations of them. Recently she asserted that “Sadly, nearly all the tees are as relevant today as they were then”. Hamnett’s slogan shirts have further produced modern clone-iterations, addressing more extensive contemporary issues in harmony with protests.

Contrastingly, Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck, while portraying a maximalist aesthetic bold in-of itself, manages to address the essential social issues of the past and the current political landscape. Beirendonck’s universe encompasses much more history than Hamnett’s, producing stellar and expressive collections independently to this very date. Walter’s own history of activism stems from his personal beliefs, a need to express his opinion, and expansive design philosophy. His craft is selfless, representing an image of society that may not mirror delusion or stroke ego. Van Beirendonck truly exemplifies meaningful, positive extremism within his personal aesthetics.

Photo credit: Waltervanbeirendonck.com

Never straying away from political conflict, Walter has presented collections titled ‘Stop Terrorising Our World’, ‘W.A.R: Walter About Rights’ and ‘Revolution’. Walter’s work, creative process, and loud voice hold no limits. An array of collections use confronting imagery to formulate a greater statement about society at large. His A/W 2010 Collection had models paying reference to a recent terror attack, wearing enlarged earmuffs with some carrying firearms.

Photo credit: Waltervanbeirendonck.com

The aforementioned ‘Stop Terrorising Our World’ of late 2006, saw the creation of fictional characters that commented on issues of capitalism, greed, and the existence of nuclear arms. Opposed to pessimism, Walter aims to make a change in this cynical world, through his bright and bold symbolism.

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