Political message in fashion: the context, content, and decoding.

Fashion is not only used as a tool to express one’s tastes, but it is also utilized in ways that reveals one’s political and social stance. As we have seen in one of professor Portwood-Stacer’s pinterests, one of Beyonce wearing a shirt that is imprinted with Obama’s face, there are explicit displays of the relationship between fashion and politics. And there are those more implicit and complex concepts of style that conveys political discourse. Different fashion styles contain not unilateral but rather multiple connotations that can be translated in various dimensions. The same clothing and material placed in a different context would be decoded in an entirely different manner. It is also important to notice that the interpretation of fashion not only depends on the context and the content, but also the receiver and the sender. In this sense, it is worthy to acknowledge how style politics have evolved over time and how some of these styles have been reappropriated into mainstream culture.

One specific style in history that we’ve examined is manifestation of the ‘zoot-suit.’ The zoot suit was worn mostly by second-generation immigrants of Mexican youth, who were known as the ‘pachucos,’ and they sported a baggy and colorful suit look, as one of Lailley’s images depict. http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547883385/ These young men utilized a specific style to express their transgressive and resistant attitude towards the mainstream control. The documentary and Cosgrove both describe how their fashion statements were associated with delinquency and petty crimes, which provoked the racial attacks of American sailors against the Mexicans who wore zoot suits, as shown in Catherine’s pinterest. http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547881320/ However, Cosgrove also argues that the zoot suiters did not become targets just because of their delinquency, but due to their explicit disruption of the order of rationing. “The zoot-suit was a moral and social scandal in the eyes of the authorities, not simply because it was associated with petty crime and violence, but because it openly snubbed the laws of rationing.” (80 Cosgrove) The zoot suit gave the aliented youth a sense of subcultural identity and ethnic pride, yet at the same time were considered to be a dangerous signifier to those outside of their community. As we have seen in several examples like the music video and the pinterest images, http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547881204/ http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547881266/ the mainstream culture appropriated the zoot suits into the popular terrain. Along the way of reappropriation, the historical meaning is lost, and what is left is the non-threatening and commodified piece of fashion statement. In addition to the pinterest posts, I would like to add an image of reappropriation of zoot suit in mainstream media. http://images5.fanpop.com/image/photos/24600000/The-Mask-the-mask-24621703-700-1029.jpg In the film The Mask, Jim Carrey transforms into a witty and rebellious character when he wears a mysterious mask, and each time he does so, he wears different colors and types of zoot suit. As much as the character adopts an arrogant and rebellious posture, in the end he becomes the hero of the film. So here, the appropriation of the zoot suit has converted its meaning to be presented as heroic, comic, and approachable.

Another subcultural fashion that involves political signifier is the styling of African American hair. In her essay, Mercer discusses the state of ‘natural’ hair and ‘artificial’ hair, and the social norms that considers European features to be beautiful and ‘good.’ She says that the ‘natural’ style that the African American culture prides in them, like Afro and dreadlocks, are not in fact ‘natural’ and it is just as shaped and ‘cultivated’ as any other hairstyles. As much as hair is an ‘ethnic signifier,’ it has politicized the texture and form of Black hair, thus enhancing European beauty standards and devaluing blackness and Black hair. Catherine and Lailley posted images of Oprah and Beyonce who conformed to the Eurocentric beauty norms that straight hair is beautiful, and altered their appearance according to that notion. http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547891383/ http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547883715/ However, another point Mercer argues is that the common knowledge that African American women are imitating the style of White and European hair is in fact misleading, and instead, many White styles are derived from the elements of Black hair. For instance in this image, a British white model is wearing a curly hair that resembles the Afro. http://imagesgonerogue.com/preview/08/lilycphoto.jpg We see that Afro is no longer an exclusive hairstyle just for a specific ethnic group, and that it’s original meaning is depoliticized. The mainstream uses reappropriation and commodification of the Black hairstyle to create the ‘New world stylization.’

The fashion of the anarchists is more directly related to politics. Their transgressive attitude towards mainstream and capitalist society is stylized by common black hoodies and non-hygienic looks. They wear the same black hoodie to assert their belonging in a politically active group and their allegiance to their belief as shown in Lailley’s post http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547883516/ However, professor Portwood-Stacer also notes that some anarchists choose not to wear the distinct ‘black hoodie’ look because they understand that stylistic resistance does not necessarily bring about political change. “As John Clarke et al. (2005) and others argue, style cannot alter political structure. Though they may symbolize a deeper commitment to political resistance, acts of stylistic resistance “‘solve’ but in an imaginary way, problems which at the concrete level remain unresolved’”” (13 Portwood-Stacer) Catherine also explains this shift in one of her posts, http://pinterest.com/pin/470415123547880805/ that many anarchists are drawing away from the stereotypical appearances that they are meant to dress as. And like the zoot suit and Black hairstyles, the anarchist fashion is prone to reappropriation. One example of this can be seen in the conventional fashion industry.  http://i56.tinypic.com/155qfef.jpg These are black hoodies created by a luxury brand called Chrome Hearts. We can see that many subculture fashion become part of the mainstream product as they become consumed by the public. Potentially, wearing this hoodie could come across as expressing anarchist values, because of its ruggedness, yet it depends on the context and setting in which these are worn. In Asian cultures, wearing a black hoodie does not signify any political meanings or interpretations. Professor Portwood-Stacer quotes Hall, where he says that the decoding process can genuinely take place with the assumption that the receiver has similar understanding as the sender of message. “By asymmetry, Hall is referring to the ideological mismatch that may exist between encoders and decoders which
results in audiences making a different meaning than the one intended by the producers of a text.” (13 Portwood-Stacer)

The political messages behind fashion cannot always be interpreted one way. Like any other fashion statements, these signified fashion and hairstyles must be examined and analyzed more closely for us to understand their meanings and purposes. Our role is to pick up on different codes and translate them within the context of different historical and cultural backgrounds, without which the message would be incomprehensible.


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