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Does fashion really have a place in politics?

In lieu of congresswoman AOC’s Met ball dress, here’s a look at the intrinsic politics of fashion – and why we need to stop denying it.

The Costume Institute of New York threw its annual Met ball last Monday, the first to emerge since the pandemic. As expected, none of us can stop talking about it.

Between the frenzied meme-ificaiton of A$AP Rocky’s quilt and Kim Kardashian’s… shadow, it was congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, arriving in a white strapless Brother Vellies gown with the words ‘Tax the Rich’ emblazoned across her back, who drew the most charged response from the public.

The look was considered by many to be a show of hypocrisy, a statement made in the wrong place at the wrong time (Met admission generally costs around $300,000 per table).

By nature, the Met stands for all that democrats ostensibly serve to dismantle; billion-dollar elitism and exclusivity. Model Indya Moore has already stated that this Met will be their last, after Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested outside the event on Monday.

But the outraged response to AOC’s dress says more about our prejudicial views of fashion than the nature of the industry itself.

Thousands have since cited the gown to denounce fashion’s place in politics, pointing to the disparity between its exploitative roots and the highbrow circles who benefit from them.

Others have simply echoed longstanding assumptions that fashion is the vapid fodder of an ignorant celebrity class.

While fashion’s multi-billion-dollar turnover is certainly marked by lines of privilege and oppression, its capacity to sustain (and dismantle) global economies flies in the face of those proclaiming its levity.

This is a conglomerate we all engage with every day. It is so fixed to our financial landscape that even the most ‘anti-fashion’ amongst us not only fuel its growth, but rely on the wealth it generates.

In the aftermath of AOC’s Met appearance, Google searches for ‘tax the rich’ surged. Her dress spun the night’s widespread coverage to infiltrate the same privileged community its message targeted.

Her aim, she stated on Instagram, was to inject urgent conversations into an event ‘that is both one of the largest spectacles in the world, yet takes place in and benefits an institution that serves the public’. Few could deny it had the desired effect.

And yet, the overarching claim that socialism and fashion are mutually exclusive critically ignores clothing’s subversive history, its status as a tool for those most marginalised and oppressed.

Journalists have quibbled since the dress appeared on the carpet. Was it radical? Was it hypocritical? Perhaps this isn’t the point. Reactions have shown us that fashion is still perceived to be an elitist, frivolous enterprise. And this isn’t the first time AOC’s clothing has been a recurring point of conflict, either.

Since her election to congress in 2018, the cost of AOC’s outfits have been subject to intense scrutiny. I’m hard pressed to think of a male politician who has received the same treatment.

This suggestion, that a woman’s enjoyment of clothes undermines her intellect, builds on the longstanding weaponisation of fashion by a White male elite.

Émile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) is a testament to the continual damnation of women who engage in an industry that has, since its conception, been forced upon them. The antagonist, Octave, is an incensed department store owner who exploits women’s desires for luxury goods in an effort to drive them mad.

Cultural mockery of fashion continues to undermine women’s spending power, and their subsequent influence over international economies.

Now, when fashion is targeted for its environmental implications, women bear the brunt of the blame. They’re often framed as fickle shopaholics, whose innate desire to consume has blinded them to any planetary concern.

In reality, every social movement – including feminism – has birthed an enduring fashion trend that shapes the way we dress today.

From the black power berets of the Black Panthers to the indelible Dr. Martens enjoyed by punks, skinheads, and lesbians alike, the most pervasive of our clothes are those that have moved from the side-lines, to the mainstream, and back again.

There is a power in this marginal position. Those who inhabit it can encroach on the social borders erected by the ruling class. AOC’s Met dress is but another example, advancing fashion’s unique ability to drive change in a way that only such an omnipresent enterprise could.

Those bemoaning AOC’s ‘contradictory’ statement forget that the fashion industry is, at its core, a product of the working class. Sure, the industry’s pockets of elitism persistently threaten this claim, but focusing solely on fashion’s White, wealthy, (largely male) zenith overshadows those who’ve shaped its history on the ground.

‘…the medium is the message, and fashion is a medium […] it’s important that we defend that medium when people try to diminish it.’ AOC said on social media Thursday.

She may not be the first high-profile individual to use her clothes for political ends, but we can’t let a blind dismissal of fashion mean she’s one of the last.