Arts Illustrated

November 5, 2020

The Stitch that Subverted

Clothing can act as a powerful medium for expressing dissent, asserting political viewpoints and externalising conflict through sartorial cues, sometimes in an obvious and explosive manner, and sometimes through subtle interventions in colour, material and detail

Arti sandhu

In 1984 when British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett met with the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wearing an oversized T-shirt dress with the slogan ‘58% don’t want Pershing’ printed on it, she was actively voicing her and countless others’ opposition to the stationing of nuclear missiles in the United Kingdom. Hamnett, who had smuggled the T-shirt dress on her person, literally used her clothing and her body as a billboard to express her dissent. The lasting image of this meeting loses its potency when viewed out of context, especially from our current perspective where oversized T-shirt dresses with bold slogans are the rage and extremely fashionable globally. Yet, countless other examples take its place, where the meaning and metaphors embedded in our sometime ordinary clothing choices become mobilised to create extraordinary outcomes that continue to echo similar sentiments of resistance and conflict. Just recently, i-D magazine accurately captured the readers’ distraught mental state in response to the US election results through featuring images of Isamaya Ffrench’s angsty [sic] styling of body art and clothing – encouraging its followers to ‘wear your beliefs where we can see them’. Urging them in essence to externalise the conflict they were experiencing in the most direct and personal way possible through and on their bodies.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Katharine Hamnett, 1984, Associated Press

In contrast to the tone suggested through featuring Ffrench’s work, just a few days prior to the US presidential elections many women chose to wear pantsuits to express their hope and support for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Clinton gained notoriety for her pairing of suit jackets with pants in a multitude of hues during her campaign and, it is believed, that during one of her debates consciously chose to wear a white pantsuit in homage to the women’s suffrage movement. The individual sartorial statements of solidarity for Hillary Clinton by mostly women voters took on a much grander scale when viewed collectively on social media paired with #ImWithHer. In one case, a flash mob of pantsuit wearing dancers gathered together in New York’s Union Square for an uplifting and inspiring performance to Justin Timberlake’s catchy song Can’t Stop the Feeling, thereby allowing the oft-overlooked ordinary corporate pantsuit to take on the role of an extraordinary mantle signifying unity in diversity and hope.

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) campaigning in Puerto Rico, 2008

It is easy to dismiss fashion and fashion-related matters as trivial and as mere decoration with no substance. Yet, closer inspection of any number of examples where fashion and individual items of clothing have been strategically curated to comment on a multitude of pressing issues and viewpoints – in tandem with the knowledge that clothing the body through being a universal embodied experience is quite literally a form of communication or language – draws attention to its inherent potential for challenging the status quo.

Closer to home, the mobilisation of the cloth, clothing and adornment practices to express political opinions or dissent for the same create conflict towards a greater goal, and unifying diverse groups of individuals has a long and rich history. The promotion of khadi as a material medium of the nation and presentation of traditional styles, like the sari, as visual symbols of the nation during the freedom struggle are probably already familiar to most readers. These, along with stories about the selective appropriation of Western styles of clothing by Indian men during British rule, offer nuanced and powerful narratives about redressing the body as part of larger strategies of resistance, subversion and empowerment.

About 200 dancers in colourful pantsuits at a flash mob in honour of the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Union Square, New York, 2016

Since fashion is an intrinsic part of all cultures, and dressing and adorning the body for presentation are familiar cultural practices that have evolved over generations, the signs and symbols embedded in these practices are widely and easily (and often subconsciously) understood and appreciated. As a result, sartorial strategies that have evolved over centuries continue to play out in current times, as designers, celebrities, politicians and regular citizens deploy cloth and clothing to collectively express, challenge, promote, mourn or celebrate a variety of causes. This is especially true in India, where nationalist themes continue to inform contemporary dress and design practices. One such brilliant and effective example was the Aam Aadmi Party’s use of the iconic Gandhi topi (during Delhi’s legislative assembly elections in 2013) as a political symbol for connecting with the common man, unifying mismatched segments of Indian society, driving across its slogan of cleaning up corruption, and ultimately opening up a dialogue in favour of political upheaval through selective disorderliness and disruption. While the Gandhi topi was originally made and constructed from khadi, in keeping with the Swadeshi movement, the topis that AAP’s representatives were handing out were mostly made from a recyclable non-woven polypropylene material. Despite the evolution in the materiality of the topi (from woven to non-woven, natural fibres to manmade) its political symbolism and intent had remained intact.

A T-shirt bearing the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk makes an appearance at the Dior Catwalk show at Musée Rodin as Maria Grazia Chiuri becomes the first woman to head the house of Christian Dior, 2016. Photograph: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

 Similarly, in the case of the sari, in spite of its constant style and material evolution it continues to represent Indian nationhood, albeit at the cost of this always being an expectation of women and their bodies. Nonetheless, wearing the sari in recent times has allowed for the subversion of expected dress codes at Cannes by Indian celebrities, and at the same time in a different space and setting allowed women to unify against domestic abuse and oppression – as illustrated by the now notorious Gulabi gang. The sari also continues to present a rich canvas for indigenous design to assert its unique identity globally, and at the same time gives countless women the opportunity to express their own individual creativity and approach to self-fashioning on social media through taking on the 100-day sari pact.

Shopkeeper in New Delhi with the Aam Aadmi Party topi, 2013. Photograph by Arti Sandhu

Sometimes, even the subtlest of interventions allow for not so subtle outcomes that unite groups of people actively choosing to go against the grain. For the uninitiated, these may just be fashion fads that largely go unnoticed, but for those in the know it is possible to appreciate how for a moment in time clothing can literally turn our bodies into billboards.

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