Historically, art, fashion, and design have significantly contributed to global stances and images of social change. Consider the usual suspects – military uniforms, insignias, affirming-Afros, burning bras and poppy-adorned gypsy shirts and the slogan tee. There are of course the less obvious contributors – metal from corset boning used in WW1, camouflage makeup worn in WW2, fair-trade accessories, and vegan shoes. Only in the last two decades, however, has fashion, as a collective industry taken a proactive step to promote social change while also aiding the world in healing from traumas it endures. These days, most of us share our sartorial activism in our Matt&Nat bags, pink hats, and capsule wardrobes. Let’s take a minute to wax reflective about some of the pioneering fashion activists and consider the potential options of today’s fashionable social voice.
Since the mid 80’s, Kenneth Cole, a New York-based designer and humanitarian has consistently used his visibility and saleability as a platform to initiate dialogue and fundraising to fight HIV/AIDS. His provocative poster campaigns boasted slogans like “What you stand for is more important than what you stand in. His 2017 “The Courageous Class” collection was dedicated to “Those determined individuals who confidently overcome life’s challenges to become the inspiring role models they were meant to be.” To be aware is more important than what you wear.” Graphic, stylish and on trend – to buy Kenneth Cole, also meant buying into a cause. Benetton, a.k.a. The United Colors of Benetton also set a standard for fashion’s participation in global awareness, diversity, and peace.
Campaigns such as “Colours of Peace”, (a project to supply 130,000 school children in Europe with books and posters to encourage them to be tolerant and to respect other cultures) and the 1998 playbill style campaign honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were created out of the brand’s belief that ‘communication should not be commissioned from outside the company, but conceived from within its heart.'
And it's the heart and consciousness of designers, style icons and brands that have expanded to include an almost expected devotion to creating change or at least participate in its consideration. Change in today’s social context means addressing issues of women’s rights (or lack their of), police brutality, institutionalized racism, crumbling educational system, celebrated hate, poverty, the environment, discrimination… Now with ongoing events in Standing Rock, Twitter, and the travel ban, echoing a multitude of social disasters of the past, change also includes establishing a kind of solidarity we preach but don’t always teach or live.
The silicon bracelet which first inspired a cult following in the early 80’s when worn in multiples on Madonna’s arm, took on a new popularity in the 90’s when the bands, thicker and in an array of colors sported messages for peace, hope, and strength, like “Live Strong”. Lady Gaga designed and started selling a similar simple rubber bracelet that says “We pray for Japan” referencing the 2010 tsunami in English and Japanese. These days, the bracelet reminds us that "Black Lives Matter" on both sides of the exterior of the wristband. On the interior of the wristband in black is the phrase "No Justice No Peace”. The brilliance of the design reminds us that the movement is more complex and comprehensive that the hashtag slogan was sadly often dismissed to mean. Created in 2012 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors founded the movement as a call to reality as much as a call to action. The fashion influence doesn’t stop there. The BLM movement is also a celebration of Black culture - wearing natural hairstyles or growing locks, a return to African-inspired prints and head wraps. Black is beautiful and that matters.
Discreet yet generous giving may be made through Born Free; a philanthropic initiative with the sole objective of ending mother-to-child transmission of HIV, creating the first AIDS-free generation. While the cause focuses it’s attention on mothers and children in Africa, the partnership is global and fashion forward. The fashion campaign and collaborative project spearheaded by American Vogue, offers limited edition staple pieces (flirty skirts, dresses, shirts) by over 20 famous designers (DVF, Prada, Tory Burch to name a few) using exclusive Born Free prints designed by acclaimed African artist Wangechi Mutu.
As we sort out our ideals and values and the degree to which we choose to wear that, it’s important and certainly empowering to remember that the greatest social moments we may have are with ourselves and those closest to us. What you wear is an extension of you, not the other way around.