Can fashion be political?

2020, the year of political turmoil and controversy has closed the chapter in the history books. Yet the impact the year left on our society transpires as we turn the pages into the new decade. 

As we look back on this decade, one distinguished trend through the years is the impact fashion has on the political realm. The question is, can fashion be political?

“I think they [fashion and politics] coexist, fashion is influenced by politics, politics is sometimes influenced by fashion and it’s been this way for hundreds of years now,” said Meghan Shouse, senior studying apparel, merchandising and design at Iowa State University. 

Some view fashion as an outlet for expressing your political views and others envision fashion as a statement to call upon societal issues. Whichever it may be for you, the two, fashion and politics, accompany each other.   

“Fashion definitely has its spotlight in politics when the media decides it should and the people decide it should,” said Shouse. “Fashion is influenced by politics because of social issues.” 

Fashion dates back to the 19th century with Charles Frederick Worth as the first fashion designer in 1858 to receive credit for his garments according to the Met Museum. Since the 19th century apparel and accessories have become a fad or classic wardrobe pieces but one aspect that hasn’t changed is the evolution of protest with fashion.

“It’s a main talking point especially for women,” said Shouse. “When Hillary Clinton was running for president it was all about her pant suits, so much so that I am a part of a Facebook group that I joined when she was running called ‘Pantsuit Nation.’ Obviously, it is not so much with men but then look at the tan suit Barack Obama wore that caused outrage for some reason, which is bizarre to me.”

From masks to braless statements to vocal tees, there is a new wave of activism. 

“Women not wearing bras is controversial, especially women with larger chests,” said Shouse. “Women with smaller chests are more accepted, as a fashion statement but if a woman with a larger chest doesn’t wear a bra then it’s gross and unprofessional even though it’s just our bodies.”

Take a look back at memory lane on how influential politics and fashion have occurred in pop culture and through the media. 


The iconic meat dress Lady Gaga wore to the 2010 MTV Music Video Awards started the decade off with a bang. From head to toe, Gaga was cloaked in chunks of meat. Some may have assumed the meat dress was vocalizing the hard truths that PEETA stands by or in protest for animal rights. But in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres, the dress made of raw meat was in response to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Gaga used her platform when accepting the video of the year award to protest against the government’s restrictions on the rights of gay soldiers.


Athletes do more than dribbling a basketball or throwing a hail mary. Athletes have used their platform for the love of the game to protest against societal issues. NBA star, Derrick Rose, sported a T-shirt that spelled out “I CAN’T BREATHE” in response to the death of Eric Garner who was choked by a police officer. 

The grand jury ruled to not indict the officer. After Rose wore this T-shirt while warming up, other famous NBA stars like Lebron James wore this T-shirt in response to police brutality. Most recently, after the Black Lives Matter movement athletes of all sports stood up for Black lives with names of victims killed by police brutality. 


During the 2015 VMA awards, Black Chyna and Amber Rose walked the red-carpet hand and hand in a jumpsuit and gown with a print of slurs associated with slut-shaming. The two were clapping back at their haters who harass their profiles on social media with negative comments. The dresses displayed exactly what their followers said about them. 


During the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump went big or went home for his campaign. It’s a known fact that a campaign isn’t a campaign without a slogan. Trump’s slogan was “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). Everything you can imagine from T-shirts, to ball caps to hoodies embellished with MAGA. One item, in particular, was MAGA red hats. Trump spent beyond $325,000 on the MAGA red hats according to The Guardian. 


In 2016, the Pussyhat Project was launched by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman but it wasn’t until the 2017 Women’s March when this feminist symbol up roared the streets of cities marching for women’s rights. The coincidence of the Pussyhats and the 2017 Women’s March is it coincided with the beginning of former President Donald Trump’s first term. The Pussyhat brought its attention to light with women supporting women in solidarity all over the globe. 

“The one I identified the most with was the Pussyhats, the pink-knitted hats everyone wore at the women’s marches,” said Shouse. 


While families were being separated at the border and the public rally cry over this, former First Lady Melania Trump boarded her flight to Texas to visit a detention facility in a flamboyant jacket with a hidden message. Her choice of attire made the public question her standpoint on helping children in need. The first lady faced criticism after wearing an army green jacket by Zara that stated on the back, “I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO YOU?”. 


The year when awareness for gender fluidity influenced designers like Jonathon Anderson to create non-gendered designs and for streetwear stores like H&M to offer unisex lines. Billy Porter was daring enough to ignore the fashion norms of gender and wear a tuxedo gown by Christian Siriano at the 91st Academy Awards. Other famous stars in Hollywood like Harry Styles and Jared Leto are known for their out of box gender-fluid outfits. 


2020 seemed to be the year everyone insisted on going out and voting and educating college students and the younger generation on how impactful their vote could be. At the 2020 Billboard Music Awards, Lizzo accepted the Top Song Sales Artist award in a loud, camp-like one-shoulder black dress with the repeated words of “VOTE.” Designed by Christian Siriano, this dress came out of his VOTE collection in September.


The democratic women of the Congress delivered a powerful message when the group united and wore white in honor of the Suffrage Movement. The women linked arms as they sent a message to Trump’s administration during his State of the Union address. The color white honors the importance of 1920 when the 19th amendment was passed, which granted the right for women to vote. 


At the 2021 Inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, famous political leaders wore a significant, vibrant color: purple. Purple was the color of the day for its symbolic meaning. It’s the color of royalty but most importantly the color of unity. As history was in the making and the country in the biggest political divide in years, the color could not have presented more awareness for what the world needed the most.

Dr. Jill Biden wore a violet ensemble while others like former First Lady Hillary Clinton strutted a lively violet pantsuit. Former First Lady, Michelle Obama captured the audience’s attention in a rich plum turtleneck and wide-leg pants and a trench coat. The Vice President herself flounced in a purple trench coat.

If you think this is it, think again, fashion and politics are on the brink of the horizon as more societal issues are raised as concerns.

“I love it [fashion and politics], it’s my favorite thing,” said Shouse. “Even in the way I dress people know my political leaning. I think it’s very telling sometimes in how people dress and where they lay on the political spectrum.” 




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