In the Spotlight: The Politics of Fashion

In the Spotlight: The Politics of Fashion

I’m not a beautiful woman, I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else – Wallis Simpson

How unfortunate, considering the recent behaviour of former Dior designer John Galliano, that his muse for the last collection before his antisemitic rants became public knowledge was alleged Nazi sympathiser Wallis Simpson. The Dior pre-fall A/W 2011 collection designed with Wallis in mind not only tuned into Galliano’s own obsession with 30s styling and bias-cutting, but also paid homage to one of fashion’s most enduring, yet problematic, personalities. In his veneration of Simpson, Galliano is not alone. With roles in quadruple Oscar-winner The King’s Speech (2010) and highly acclaimed Channel 4 adaptation ‘Any Human Heart, not to mention the forthcoming Madonna-directed W.E. (with fashion by Dior/Galliano amongst others), the Duchess of Windsor is back on the fashion radar with a vengeance.

Wallis Simpson on her wedding day to the Duke of Windsor (1937); Dior pre-fall A/W 2011 collection designed by John Galliano and inspired by Wallis Simpson

Edward and Wallis meeting Adolf Hitler

Fashion has always occupied a somewhat ambiguous space between art, commerce and industry and as such the interplay between fashion and politics is usually limited to whether the First Lady’s choice of designer supports home businesses adequately (see the Mrs O Blog for more on First Lady fashion and see the Style of Politics blog to find more considered approaches to style and power). And of course, who in fashion can forget Jackie Kennedy – the First Lady of trend-setting First Ladies. Fashion inspired by royalty is also nothing new, even for contemporary collections – remember D&G’s Queen-inspired collection for A/W 2008? Plus, as we prepare ourselves for the merchandise onslaught that will accompany the royal wedding we have the added joy of the tediously ubiquitous media coverage on the apparent ‘Kate Middleton effect’.

Wallis Simpson; Dior pre-fall A/W 2011 collection

But Wallis Simpson is a far more complicated icon. Viewed by some as a romantic figure – Edward VIII gave up a kingdom and an Empire for her – her political leanings have cast a long shadow over her legacy. There’s no doubting that she was a fashion fanatic; according to the Evening Standard she spent over $100,000 a year on couture clothing  from houses like Dior, Balenciaga, Schiaparelli and Vionnet. And her jewellery is the stuff of legend; at a Sotheby’s auction in November it sold for £8 million,  while a Kerry Taylor auction earlier this month saw other Simpson-memorabilia go on sale, including a scarlet chiffon nightdress (£6,500) and a Louis Vuitton vanity case (£48,000). To complicate the royal power-play even further, the proceeds of the auction are going to a children’s charity set up by Mohammed Al Fayed in memory of his son, Dodi, who died in the same crash that killed another sartorial Sovereign, Princess Diana. See more at the Huffington Post.

A selection of Wallis Simpson’s custom-made jewellery that was auctioned last year: a flamingo brooch made with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds, and an onyx and diamond Cartier bracelet

But you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love. – Excerpt from Edward’s abdication speech, 1936.

Where’s Wallis? Dior pre-fall A/W 2011 collection; Duke and Duchess of Windsor

There’s no denying that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor cut quite a dash. Edward, in his pre- and post-abdication guises as the Prince of Wales and later the Duke of Windsor, is often lauded as a sartorial genius in his own right. He initiated many trends in menswear that have since become classics, including the popularity of golfing clothes. His predilection for plus fours, argyle sweaters and looser, more casual American-fit trousers sparked trends across the globe. Known as the best dressed man in the world, his style was followed with diligence by the press, especially during tours of America where he popularised British style and helped to increase the prestige of Savile Row. But no amount of sartorial elegance can excuse a Nazi flirtation. As suggested in The Guardian, Edward regarded Nazism as a safeguard against the greater threat of communism, and had a German victory occurred in WWII, Hitler apparently planned to reinstate Edward as king with Wallis as his queen.

Good style, bad politics. Edward, Prince of Wales by Sir William Orpen (1927)

The desire to elevate female politicians to the realm of trend setter knows no bounds. Tentative steps have even been made in recent years towards casting the Milk Snatcher herself as a style icon, helped along by the soon-to-be-released biopic The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep (luckily the idea is rebuffed in The Guardian). But this raises a plethora of issues. How far do politics really enter into our fashion choices? When does the political become too much of an issue to be ignored in the face of aesthetics? We’re used to making ethical choices as consumers where fast fashion, sweatshops and fair trade are concerned. But we’re less clued up about making overtly political decisions. Should the politics of our designers or style icons be called into question? Or is the creative process divorced from this?

Wallis Simpson; Dior pre-fall A/W 2011 collection

People have mixed responses to designers getting political. Katharine Hamnett initiated a trend  for slogan T-shirts that 25 years later (and with the politics removed) would make a fortune for Henry Holland. In 1983 she launched her first protest T-shirts, some of which – Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now, Preserve The Rainforests, Education Not Missiles – are still uncannily resonant today. Two decades later she sent models down the runway adorned with the words ‘No War, Blair Out’ as the threat of the Iraq invasion grew stronger.

Katharine Hamnett meeting Margaret Thatcher in 1984 emblazoned with ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’ – a reference to polls showing public opposition against basing Pershing missiles in the UK

Vivienne Westwood is another designer who wears her politics on her sleeve – she made her name in the Punk and anarchy heyday of the 1970s and political issues have never been far behind her design ethos. But the rest of the fashion community often find it uncomfortable and difficult to align her anti-consumerist stance as outlined in her manifesto with the economic realities of running one of the world’s most successful fashion houses. Suzy Menkes summed it up pretty well, fuming: How dare she send out a show laced with anarchist messages… announce that the spirit of her show is ‘the more you consume, the less you think’ and then take the opportunity to launch her collection of punk safety pins in diamonds? This contradiction is never fully explained by Westwood, whose answer tends to be along the lines of, “I don’t feel very comfortable defending my fashion except to say that people don’t have to buy it” (both quotes from The Guardian).

Vivienne Westwood S/S 2007 ‘I Am Expensiv’ collection and her Active Resistance to Propaganda manifesto

The paradox continues, as the Grande Dame of British fashion also finds inspiration in the royal family which feeds into her interest in textiles such as tweeds and tartans. This seems an unlikely source of inspiration for a supposedly anti-establishment designer, but it emphasises the peculiar relationship we have with the class system in Britain, also illustrated very visually by Westwood twirling knickerless as she collected her OBE. Her irreverent approach to these honours mirror her reappropriation of aristocratic dress styles in some of her collections. The basis of Westwood’s jocular take on ‘English country dressing’ were staples for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who populised these styles around the world, and they are currently in vogue once again thanks to the heritage trend and a renewed interest in Sloane-style dressing thanks to Kate Middleton.

A right royal affair. Vivienne Westwood A/W 1987–88 Harris Tweed collection found here and Studio International. Westwood designs are the focus of a current retrospective at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Find more info on Vivienne Westwood’s blog and the Active Resistance site.

There’s no denying that today’s politics affects the fashion industry, as shown in this NY Times article on the beneficial effect of Middle Eastern regime change on the luxury market. So while John Galliano reflects in rehab over his inappropriate and unfounded words concerning absolutist politics, in other areas of the world contemporary dictators are being ousted by populations who are no longer prepared to live in autocratic states. And as Wallis Simpson is resurrected in cinemas and auction houses around the country, we can sleep safe in the knowledge that the globally expanding middle class is a positive force for consumerism – as well as for democracy.

10 thoughts on “In the Spotlight: The Politics of Fashion

  1. Fantastic post, it is a very interesting point. Should we care what people’s political views are? I suppose now Galliano will forever be associated with the incident, but that doesn’t make his art any less beautiful? I do find Vivienne Westwood’s views very confusing shop less, but if you do buy, buy my clothes?! Wallis’s style is an inspiration, looking forward to the film.

  2. You hit the nail on the head with so many issues here. I loathe when an artist I admire (such as Galliano) turns out to be an ass. But does his idiocy negate his talents? Am I now obligated to unlike him? And as we learn to live in an increasingly open world, one where we are bound to know more and more about the private lives of celebrities, will we be able to ignore their politics and peccadilloes in order to enjoy their talents without the inconvenience of knowing whether or not they share our same worldview?

    It’s all so subjective, too. Pee Wee Herman was blacklisted for 20 years for jerking off in a movie theater while Charlie Sheen is lauded despite beating up a number of women. Can we love Coco Chanel and lambast the politics of Wallis Simpson? Galliano is obviously deranged, but how many other celebrities are one martini away from a similar meltdown? We can’t be so jaded that we can’t admire anyone, for fear they’ll turn out to be secretly sinister, too.

    History is filled with artists and celebrities who likely would not be revered if we knew all of their personal details. I doubt I’d love my own grandparents if I were to meet the less evolved, 1940s version of them, but I love them for who they are today, not who they were in another era.

    Btw, I’m not saying it’s wrong to question the politics of those in the past. I’m just expressing my own frustration at what seems to be an ever-growing dilemma of loving an artist who turns out to be an asshole.

    1. Thanks so much for all of this – it’s an issue that people feel really strongly about as was evidenced by so many discussions on facebook/twitter after the Galliano incident. You’re definitely right to bring up Chanel in relation to Wallis Simpson – that would have been a great inclusion to this post. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Thank you very much I’m currently doing my BA in Fashion. I have chosen the topic Politics in fashion for my dissertation.Your ideas gave me a new way and loads of information to write it . Thank you once again

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