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2nd May 2023

Making a statement: Fashion in politics

From Minion suits to social movements, find out why fashion in politics has been making a statement for so long.
Making a statement: Fashion in politics
Photo: Sam Fry @ Unsplash

LeadMCR has concluded for another year. Students or recent post-graduates ran to stand as representatives for the student body, in a range of roles that are aimed at improving the student experience. In particular, the role of Activities and Cultures Officer is highly competitive.

This year the role was won by Robbie Beale, who had already successfully occupied that position through 2022/23- and helped contribute towards great change within his role.

However, he made a significant change from his election campaign this year, compared to his last. Beale donned a Minion suit, complete with Minion trousers, a Minion blazer, and a Minion tie. Robbie took to the university campus a week before the election wearing the now infamous Minion suit and asked people for their votes.

Now, you might be wondering what the significance of the Minion suit is, or how does it really matter in the grand scheme of the LeadMCR elections? Well, some might say that the Minion suit caused such a commotion amongst students on campus, that it may have even contributed towards the success of Robbie’s re-election. Wearing something as out-there and eye-catching as a Minion suit in order to gain attention for your political manifesto and your electoral campaign can be considered a stroke of marketing genius.

Not only were people interested as to why the current Activities and Cultures Officer was walking around in a Minion suit, but people also found it memorable. This was an article of clothing that allowed people to associate Robbie’s political campaign with the Minions and its role within pop culture and on social media.

The suit was even worn on stage by Mark Lai, its original owner, during Robbie’s acceptance speech on the night of the election results. Not to mention, the student occupiers created a congratulatory banner for Robbie which included a Minion on it.

The success of the Minion suit in the case of student politics prompts a discussion of the importance of fashion in politics. It begs the question, how has fashion been political in the past?

In recent years, fashion and politics have begun to join hands, with the focus on fashion as a part of political commentary and social campaigns rising to prominence in the 21st century.

For example, there has been a strong emphasis on Black Lives Matter in the last half decade and along with it the rise of controversial ‘T-shirt activism’ which sought to express solidarity for the cause. However, its use has been criticised for  ‘virtue signalling’. It is seen as allowing the wearer to gain ‘social morality points’ by expressing their ‘solidarity’ for the cause whilst doing little or nothing to prompt change or bring tangible benefits to the campaign or rights they claim to support.

Examples of T-shirt activism include celebrities and athletes wearing powerful statements whilst taking part in events or live sporting events, such as LeBron James wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt in reference to the murder of George Floyd, or Lewis Hamilton wearing an “Arrest The Cops Who Killed Breonna Taylor” t-shirt, in reference to the murder of Breonna Taylor.

Prior to the prominence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in fashion, there was a clear embracing of gay rights activism in fashion throughout the 2010s with similar slogan t-shirts and pride collections. Most notably from Levi’s, who collaborated with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender charity Stonewall in 2015.

Though, since that collaboration, it can be said that recent attempts to adopt gay activism in fashion are once again virtue-signalling efforts from brands seeking to capitalise on the celebration of Pride month.

Another significant example of fashion in politics in the 21st century was the MAGA hats made famous by ex-President Donald Trump. The red ‘Make America Great Again’ hats became a symbol for all things that Trump stood for and spoke about in his rallies, including racist stereotypes and inciting hatred for groups that Trump and his followers viewed as ‘less than’.

In 2018, the #MeToo Movement made headlines at the Golden Globes where many of the stars who attended wore all-black on the red carpet to call out the misogyny of Hollywood that has existed for so long.

The powerful social movement against sexual abuse, sexual harassment and rape culture, advocated for women’s voices to be heard. Actresses like Reece Witherspoon, Viola Davis and Oprah Winfrey (to name a few) wore all-black to stand against the oppression and sexual exploitation of women in Hollywood and the film industry.

Lastly, one of my favourite examples of fashion in politics was Stormzy‘s Glastonbury Festival attire, made by none other than notorious graffiti artist Banksy. The stab-proof vest represented the problems with Britain’s knife crisis that has claimed many lives over the years, and made a point of exposing how the media has been inconsistent in its coverage of the deaths- as well as often failing to portray the victims as people with families.

Overall, it’s clear that fashion has been meaningful in politics for some time, and as trivial as wearing a Minion suit for a student election may seem, it follows the same discourse of wearing something to make a statement. No matter how big or small the issue is, standing out with fashion is an effective and immediately recognisable visual cue that brings attention to the wearer or cause without anyone even needing to speak.

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