2016, the year of political fashion statements

White pantsuits, red caps, Black Lives Matter shirts, and beauty pageant burkinis — fashion this year was anything but bipartisan.

by Hannah Ongley
21 December 2016, 10:45pm

The year's first unforgettable fashion moment was both immensely powerful and unnecessarily divisive. Beyoncé's visual tribute to the Black Panther Party during her Super Bowl performance came less than 24 hours after she broke the internet with a celebration of black women — "Formation," a music video that showed her sinking a cop car in Gucci and recouping a plantation in French couture. Bey's Super Bowl ode to Oakland's revolutionary anti-police brutality organization earned rapturous praise from fans and a ludicrous rant from Blaze troll Tomi Lahren. In August, Beyoncé ratified her new CFDA Fashion Icon Award — which she had accepted while wearing a hat straight off her Formation tour — by walking the MTV VMA red carpet with the Mothers of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

"Formation" was given a haunting remix (courtesy of Total Freedom) on Hood by Air's fall/winter 16 runway a week after the Super Bowl. Shayne Oliver had recently arrived home in New York after spending a year and a half in Italy, and his anarchic, ferocious show was fittingly inspired by the founding fathers. The models wore wigs curled to resemble those of Colonial men (and particularly judges) in the 17th and 18th century. "I was fetishizing the idea of going outside America and coming back," Oliver told us backstage. It seemed the refugee crisis was also heavy on his mind. Russian artist Slava Mogutin — who sought asylum in the US after facing LGBT persecution in his home country — walked the runway holding up a puffer jacket like a banner after a battle victory.

Americans were hardly the only ones sensing a changing nation this year. Rei Kawakubo called her fall/winter 16 collection for Comme des Garçons "18th century punk," referring to a time of revolution — and of yet more sculptural gentlemen's wigs. Hers were piled high, painted black, and paired with floral-patterned sartorial sculptures that at once brought to mind armor, fancy furniture, and the possibilities of the Industrial Revolution. Not quite the same breed of rebellion as the post-Soviet designers Kawakubo stocks at her Dover Street Market boutiques, but equally relevant to a transforming world.

The idea that fashion is inextricably tried to social movements is hardly novel. We've assigned more research teams to analyzing why hemlines get shorter in times of economic crisis than we have FBI agents to investigating Trump's ties to Russia. "Hemlines have hit their lowest since the 1929 Great Depression!" proclaimed the Daily Mail three months before Barack Obama was elected for a second term in 2012. Four years later, the link between fashion and politics is stronger than ever. The still-sitting President's historic trip to Cuba in March — the first time a U.S. President had visited in nearly a century — took place only two months before Chanel staged its most extravagant and controversial show yet on the communist island. Guests dined at Havana hotspot La Guarida, where the POTUS had eaten a few weeks prior.

Britain-based VIPs had barely touched down on home turf when the looming Brexit referendum started to cast its shadow. Central Saint Martins grad Daniel W. Fletcher staged a show-slash-demonstration in which models wearing "Stay" shirts carried European Union flags. Christopher Bailey of Burberry joined over 100 business leaders in signing an anti-Brexit letter in the London Times, and O.G. punk icon Vivienne Westwood posed on Instagram in a t-shirt urging young people to vote. The nationalist climate that led to the split didn't just heat up in Britain either. Meanwhile in France, Muslim women were being arrested for wearing burkinis — which the Mayor of Cannes called "the uniform of extremist Islamism" — on public beaches. Yves Saint Laurent co-founder Pierre Bergé lashed out at brands like Dolce & Gabbana that create Islamic clothing and headscarves.

Opening Ceremony spring/summer 17, photography Mitchell Sams

A more optimistic sense of urgency pervaded the spring/summer 17 shows in September, when it looked like the U.S. would get its first female president. Opening Ceremony's alternative beauty pageant at New York Fashion Week was funny, poignant, and a call to arms. Designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon even installed voter registration areas in the venue. In Europe, Bouchra Jarrar and Maria Grazia Chiuri debuted their first collections for Lanvin and Dior respectively, and became the first women to storm the top ranks of French couture houses in decades. Chiuri showed t-shirts reading "We should all be feminists," a quote from Beyoncé-approved author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Back in America, Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg were designing t-shirts for Hillary Clinton's campaign merchandise.

Clinton's iconic pantsuits became a way for her to prove she wasn't a humorless puppet of the establishment. The Democratic nominee described herself as a "pantsuit aficionado" back in the dark ages (or golden age) of 2013 when she joined Twitter with a killer bio and an avatar borrowed from the beloved "Texts from Hillary" Tumblr. "Hillary Clinton joins Twitter, sounds human," declared the Washington Post. While Trump supporters left the house in their red hats, Democrats of all genders announced they were #withher by wearing pantsuits to the polls in honor of America's first female presidential candidate. Many wore white, the official color of the suffragette movement, and the hue Clinton chose for the pantsuit she wore to accept the Democratic nomination in July. The show of pantsuit solidarity was masterminded by invite-only Facebook group Pantsuit Nation. The group had organized a "Pantsuit Power" flashmob one month prior to election day, for which Clinton supporters raided thrift stores all around New York City.

For better or much worse, the most game-changing garments of 2016 weren't necessarily rooted in good design. No one understood this better than Donald Trump with his Make America Great Again baseball caps, the best assessment of which came not from any fashion publication but from fellow ball cap enthusiast Michael Moore. "They laughed at them for selling hats," Moore said on Late Night with Seth Meyers a month after the devastating election result he had predicted months earlier. "It wasn't a joke to [Trump]. He knew they'd go out there in that ball cap." El-P of Run the Jewels later vowed not to wear red hats ever again, calling them a "trigger of stress and fear and a sign of ideals" that he didn't want to represent. "red hat thing is no joke," he tweeted on November 13. "few white friends told me about realizing POC/women seeming nervous around them and it dawning on them: red hat."

They say art imitates life, but in the case of one of this year's most prophetic films, it might be the other way around. Jeremy Saulnier's neo-Nazi horror Green Room is terrifying not simply because it's gory, but also because its hardcore punk antagonists are the people we don't often see in films, on runways, or even in the streets. And in Trump's America, white supremacy isn't wearing ripped jeans and a leather jacket in the back room of a DIY band venue — it's being normalized in articles about its leaders's "dapper" suits and polite way of eating togarashi-crusted ahi tuna. Punk as a vital, status-quo-flipping counterculture, meanwhile, can be a thrifted pantsuit, a Black Panther Party bodysuit, or a burkini and hijab. It's all about finding something to believe in.


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Instagram

Hillary Clinton
Donald Trump