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Fashion Activism

“She likes it when clothes have this message, which I think is good or not good, I’m not sure. I’m a bit sometimes bored by it.”

Andreas Kronthaler

Besides creating eye-catching things to wear, fashion designers have often used their work tool to highlight social and political messages. In the 1980’s, Katherine Hamnett (in a now iconic image) can be seen shaking Margaret Thatcher (the then-Prime Minister) by the hand, with ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’ emblazoned on Hamnett’s chest. This reference was to a recent poll on the stationing of nuclear missiles in the UK, without electoral consultation.

In more recent years, Chanel’s feminist catwalk protest and Christian Dior’s ‘WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS’ t-shirts have firmly pushed the equality issue into the mainstream, whilst Jeremy Scott has voiced his distaste for the current political situation in America. Some of these have been criticised as pure gimmickry engineered to garner column inches and popularity. However, on the flip side, there are those designers who remain steadfast in their beliefs, season after season. Take Stella McCartney for instance, she has always been a staunch opponent of animal cruelty, refusing to use animal products in her designs.

Amongst all of these, however, stands out one particular individual, a designer who incorporates activism not only into her fashion designs but also into her public and private life, gaining media attention for her protests on and off the catwalk. Dame Vivienne Westwood could easily be described as a great master in the use of fashion as a means for social commentary. However, she also looks beyond her designs, taking herself out onto the streets to protest.

Besides her initial influence in the Punk scene in the 1970s, she has, amongst other things, protested at the Paralympics by launching Climate Revolution (having skipped the rehearsals in order to keep her intentions under wraps), stripped off for PETA, and delivered a box of asbestos to David Cameron for Christmas. The latter suggested that fracking, the process of extracting gas by drilling into subterranean rock, will be the next big public killer.

Westwood has been fiercely opposed to fracking for some time. This controversial process has been back in the news recently, with the re-starting of the procedure near Blackpool, seven years since fracking last took place. Since it was restarted on October 15, various small tremors have been measured, drawing the attention of the media. Westwood added to this media coverage by joining the activists outside the gates of Caudrilla’s site in Little Plumpton. Breakdancing to Abba’s Dancing Queen, a clever jibe at Theresa May and the recent Conservative Party Conference, she invigorated protestors and gave the press something else to write about.

But that isn’t to say that everyone views Westwood’s deeds positively. Indeed, like marmite, Westwood often evokes a love vs hate response in people. Her belief that:

“I’m here guys because I’m going to save the world from climate change. I’ve got a plan and I’m the only person who’s got a real strategy of something easy to do” can come across as entitled and out-of-touch. There may be many who feel that the government isn’t doing enough, but has she the right to say that she’s the only person who can save the earth, when there are so many people passionate about their environmental activism? And yet, in ‘Vivienne: Punk, Icon, Activist’, released this year by Lorna Tucker,she is visibly uncomfortable when discussing her work.

However, there is no denying that, over the course of her career, she has helped to highlight a number of causes. Her bullish, forthright opinions give gravitas to what she says and grabs media attention, even if, at times, it is merely to scoff at her.

Interestingly, Andreas Kronthaler, Vivienne’s husband since 1992, states in the film that he is sometimes bored by the political messages in her clothing designs. The film makes apparent that Andreas is the one person that Vivienne actually listens to, and they clearly adore one another and work well together, but, when it comes to politics, she clearly doesn’t take his opinion on board.

Sure, some designers do attempt to get a message across in their designs which is politically in vogue, and they may truly believe what they are shouting about, but it is Westwood who, time and time again, pushes against the establishment. She does this even to the extent of preventing the opening of more shops, to avoid her business from growing into something capitalism would be proud of!

Her bark may be in a soft Lancashire accent, but she seems to genuinely believe that her bite is strong enough to stimulate action.

Visuals courtesy of Vogue and Dazed & Confused

About Our Author: Katie Calvert's background is in fashion and textiles with a first class honours degree in Fashion Communication and Promotion and experience in trend, PR and events. She decided to take the plunge back into education in 2015 to complete a Master of Arts in Multimedia Journalism. Using these newfound skills and her love of fashion and culture, Katie has been freelance writing for over a year.

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