“I always hijack my collections to talk about politics,” said Dame Vivienne Westwood backstage at her Spring 2014 menswear show in Milan last Sunday. This season around, Westwood pursued TRUTH. That was the boldface word: “TRUTH” printed under official portraits of the gentle-faced Bradley Manning, a former U.S. Army soldier who is currently awaiting trial after delivering classified materials to WikiLeaks. Westwood dedicated her collection to “poor little Bradley Manning” but he’s not all—India was an inspiration and the loose tunics and boteh prints were designed to say something about the plight of the Indian poor. “Read Arundhati Roy,” Westwood advised a questioning journalist.
Westwood’s TRUTH garnered accusations of slacktivism outside the fashion world and inside—fashion journalists did their best to say something of the circumstances of India and Manning, while doing their job and saying more about the clothes.
In interview, Westwood speaks like a movement leader, favoring grand statements on history, change, revolution and justice over any specificity. Fashion does this too: reduce complicated notions to slogan and trend. Westwood’s Spring collection is a mess of references: cheap Havaianas flip flops with linen suits, Indian block prints and Great Britain tartan, “harem” pants and prewashed denim. A mesh C-L-I-M-A-T-E sweatshirt gets tucked into white boxer briefs with a waistband that reads “too fast to live.” Many of the models wear little military berets like Bradley Manning’s own. Some get dog tags, some studded dog collars; tasseled costume jewelry, dotted neckerchiefs. The unbuttoned styling is very gay boy, but so is Bradley, although he’s partial to crossplay, and this is all very male.
The stories one could extract from the forms of Westwood’s show are complicated and political—the colonial history of paisley alone warrants volumes of study—but without narration, this kind of mix-and-match socio-political fashion can seem irreverent, obtuse and obnoxious. Westwood is happy to narrate though, and the best explanations of her political attire come straight out of her lovely outspoken mouth. In this video, from a public gathering in front of the US Embassy in London on June 1st, 2013, Westwood speaks in support of “poor little sod” Bradley Manning (“he’s fantastic!”) and rallies the radicals with her anti-Obama, pro-freedom remarks. She wears a fatcat politician’s pinstripe suit, oversized, and the same Bradley Manning TRUTH brooch she pinned to herself at the Met Costume Institute’s “punk” gala. At the gala, Westwood was cut off mid-Manning-manifesto by Billy Norwich, host of Vogue’s livestream. Reproducing the Bradley brooch for the runway may have been her reply.
Vivienne Westwood wasn’t the only designer to play with politics this Milan Fashion Week. Miuccia Prada, once upon a Leftist activist, put out a collection that’s best read alongside Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. “If you go to […] as a tourist, this is what you’ll see”: tropical prints, palm fronds, and polo shorts; ladies with leis, rubber-soled sneakers, and sunsets; models with sweaty brows and handheld luggage, helicopters, and camo print?
Ever vague, Prada told Cathy Horyn, “she wanted to question the idea of going on vacation. Instead of it being a fun-filled experience, it’s actually ‘menacing’ (her word) and maybe a little sad.” The collection was indeed titled “Menacing Paradise” and the soundtrack was cut with the violent purr of a copter’s rotor; picture Martin Sheen and This is the end. The shapes and tones of Prada’s Spring 2014 were of a ‘40s vintage. In an unconventional move, the designer chose to show both womens and menswear. “It’s a love story,” one runway attendee commented. “War and love,” Tim Blanks reports Prada saying.
With all the headway we’ve made in terms of LGBTQ rights this week, DSquared’s gay Treasure Island themed pride parade seemed like righteous political statement as well. The Canadian twins, Dean and Dan Caten(acci), are usually far from what I’d consider #relevant but their camp catwalk got me thinking: fashion is the only mass media where queerness is not only accepted, it’s assumed. Politics? No. Sports? No. Music? Barely. Hollywood? George Clooney, Tom Cruise, hello! As fashion becomes increasingly mainstream, filtered into the fields of film, art, and music, perhaps it will accelerate our shift to a Happy Gay Nation. Perhaps Double-D’s vanity is progressive after all.
Just as DSquared’s gay cabana boy fit the front page headlines, Turkish designer Umit Benan’s traditional foray gained complexity for the current affairs. Born to Turkish parents in Germany and raised in Istanbul, Umit Benan’s luxury menswear often converses with the sartorial history of his native home but this season it meant more because of the ongoing unrest in Turkey. For (Arab?) Spring 2014, Benan paid cartoonish tribute to the Ottoman gentleman, the “Efendi” or “Sir” of the Empire past. Percussionist Burhan Öçal played traditional music and the models wore masks drawn from the faces of old Turkish movies (moustache, fez hat). The reverential collection could not not bring to mind what’s happening in Turkey now but the contained setting seemed a world away, or at least as passé, as the Ottoman Empire.
For all of Vivienne Westwood’s goodwill, there was still something sick about her claimed reference of “poverty in India” and the high market clothes it inspired (modeled by bronzed Europeans, no less). How can a lineup of spray tanned male models have any effect on Indian economics? Or the judicial outcome of someone like Bradley Manning? Westwood’s two defenses, I think, would be: first, that we must work from wherever we are and that her (Westwood’s) power is in her market, fashion is her podium and her megaphone; and second, that everything is connected—that Milan Fashion Week is already connected to Indian wealth, just as Bradley Manning is to Lady Gaga and Obama to Anna Wintour. Westwood’s lead cause for the last many years has been “climate revolution” but she’ll make detours to support the likes of Julian Assange and Manning because the climate crisis was caused by the (her words) “rotten financial system,” which was enabled by the “rotten political system”; everything is connected.
Vivienne Westwood is, in the end, a humanist. Whatever the cause—Assange, Manning, global warming—her means is always empathy through knowledge (read, speak) and the goal is “justice”:
Everybody should have a fair deal; everybody should have the chance to life in this world. If we were evolved as human beings, we would hopefully be able to alleviate suffering in the world.
These days, it’s hard to get Westwood to actually talk clothes. When she does, it’s the same: “In the end, regarding fashion: buy less, choose well, make it last.” This is the best advice, and Milan’s Spring 2014 offers wise options for us to choose from. In his first collection at Ermenegildo Zegna, Stefano Pilati crafted elegant classics that look best worn in. Jil Sander’s either/or silhouettes—either wide shorts and short sleeves or slim pants and long sleeves—are built with staying power. And finally, at Calvin Klein, uniform dressing comes in a soothing ombre of blue.
Alleviating human suffering is not just a matter of taking to the streets, of discovering TRUTH, of redistributing wealth, it’s also about finding beauty anywhere we can. That can be on the subway or a runway. For me, the fabrication of beauty, so long as it doesn’t compromise another’s well being, is not only a worthy act, it’s just.