Fashion: Oppressor or Liberator?

By Laura MacPhee

At 9 o’clock this morning, London Fashion Week took over from New York Fashion Week in style. Public attention is not all we have stripped from Manhattan. In August, London overtook New York as Fashion Capital of the World, according to a survey by Global Language Monitor. This seems to have sparked a renewed interest in dressing well, although not necessarily in all quarters. When Vogue asked Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, what he planned to wear to London Fashion Week he appeared nonplussed, and replied: “I don’t know – a suit.”

Fashion is about more than just “what we wear” though. There are numerous debates about what fashion is, and what it can do. Some feel that there is no place for fashion as art, for example, but that all clothes should be practical and wearable. Another important question is whether fashion acts as an oppressive or a liberating force. This seems especially relevant in 2011, the year of revolution.

Western fashion has long been viewed as a mark of freedom by those living under repressive regimes. Earlier this year, the Belarus Free Theatre group performed their “Generation Jeans” in Parliament, with Jude Law in a starring role. This play focused on jeans as a symbol of western democracy and American culture. The narrators explained, in both English and Belarusian, why there was such demand for a counterfeit jeans industry amongst the young and idealistic.

We are now aware of the dark years of repression which followed, but in 1969 Colonel Gaddafi was the one leading the revolution against King Idris of Libya. The Revolutionary Command Council’s stated aim was to achieve “unity, freedom and socialism.” One key change brought under this ‘new society’ was the “emancipation” of women. This was achieved largely by allowing women to cast off their customary dress and wear Western style clothing. As the regime grew more oppressive in recent years, this was reflected in a widespread return to the veil.  This may well display a personal choice on the part on the individual women – I am certainly not debating the merits of the veil itself – but rather the associated perceptions and patterns.

It isn’t only Western fashion which has the power to liberate, though. Fashion reflects our aspirations and if people don’t aspire to western style democracy it would seem incongruous to adopt western dress. That was made very clear earlier this year. Pakistan Fashion Week was held in Lahore in March. This was only the third time the event had run, compared with the 27 year history of London Fashion Week. This was a stunningly beautiful celebration of Pakistani culture and the local textiles industry. There was no need to reference the West here.

This was raised as an issue in India at the end of March. The problem wasn’t the clothing. Catwalks were filled with vibrant colours and designs which are unmistakeably Indian. It was the models themselves who were the subject of contention. Indian models accused the country’s fashion industry of racism. It appeared to favour white, foreign models over darker skinned local women. Carol Gracias, an Indian supermodel said: “You never see a dark-skinned girl on TV ads and that’s where the lucrative work is. Everyone uses fair-skinned girls.” This is thought to be a “hangover” from the British Raj.

This is one of the reasons cited by those who argue that the fashion industry is oppressive. It is undeniably prescriptive, and demands a very narrowly defined idea of beauty. The fashion industry arguably created the unrealistic, “Size Zero” culture. It is not without fault, but equally it does not “oppress” women without other, internal, conditions being present. This seems to have more of an impact on younger women, who are inevitably more impressionable than their more senior counterparts. To blame the fashion industry for low self-esteem in women is to over simplify the issue and to ignore the real (but possibly inconvenient) problems to be addressed.

Female fashion has traditionally been led by men. Critics said that this meant that men were enforcing their ideas of how women should look. Even if that were true in the past, it seems to be changing now. To give one high profile example, Sarah Burton is doing exceptional work at Alexander McQueen. Ultimately, fashion seems to be a force for liberation. The industry tends to be viewed as “oppressive” in liberal democracies, where women are already free to wear what they like, suggesting that the oppression is psychological and these manacles are mind-forged.

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