Politics and Fashion

Spring fashion. It just sounds refreshing. One pictures a warm breeze, freshly picked strawberries, and fake-baked supermodels strewn about a cool beach somewhere magical. It’s that place where miniscule bikinis topped by weightless linen clothing are standard 24/7, and sunscreen is second only to over-marketed Ralph Lauren perfume.

But can this image of the new spring fashions evolve to produce something meaningful, something understood by the masses (rather than just mindlessly sold to them at a high profit margin)? Annually, the time comes when the auburn scarves and the black canvas boots must be replaced by the lighter, more airy colors of the pre-summer months. As such a replacement is indeed a routine one, it becomes difficult to see fashion and clothing as anything but a cycle of re-printed and re-sewn fabrics. However, there has to be something more to spring fashion. Its existence is far too pervasive to not have some common ties with society as a whole.

It may be said that a society can be broken up into cultural, political, and economic sectors. Fashion, while typically regarded as a monotonous measure of wealth and supposed cultural superiority, may actually be able to unite these three sections. On a straightforward level, clothing is a societal trend whose success is decided by its rate of purchase by consumers. It is related to economics. Moreover, while definitions of “culture” change from individual to individual, most will agree that fashion, a notion faintly abstract and serving as a measure of society, traditionally falls under the cultural sector. Finally, fashion unites the previous two groups to that of the political realm by, at times, incorporating the themes behind contemporary political movements into the clothing worn by citizens on the street.

How do these three parts of society become one under spring fashion? The major ideas this spring emphasize military and Victorian trends, underscored by what InStyle calls “icy, metallic embellishments,” like costume jewelry and a turn toward rich hues. Colors such as aqua, turquoise, and clementine orange highlight details on cropped blazers and Bermuda shorts that mimic a reduced military attire theme. “West Coast designers,” says Women’s Wear Daily, “are going for sleek, sophisticated looks this season, from sharp blazers and comfy sweaters to chic dresses and tops.” Moreover, trends this spring bring to light the advent of the all-white outfit, where relaxed cotton tanks (such as a rib boy beater tank by American Apparel, which you can find in Shadyside) are paired with detailed, pronounced, Victorian-style balloon skirts. Designer label Bottega Veneta unites the professional military attire with this all-white trend in its spring line. (see photo at left). As commented on by Style.com, “With their eyelet, lace, and openwork embroidery, spring’s white [fashions] are devotional exercises in needlecraft.”

Traditionally, military-inspired clothing is banally olive green or brown in color, and features oversized pockets and too many utility zippers to count. But this season, designers have been influenced by the more ornate, feminine appeal of the clothing of the Victorian era. The fashions fostered by this movement were demure, highly form-fitting, and appealed to an image of the supposed “ideal” pear-shaped woman.

So what results from the union of these seemingly opposite looks? For the trend, “think fluid, not baggy. Ungussied, yet not exactly simple,” says Women’s Wear Daily. The military bomber jacket, (such as the leather version from Roberta Weissburg Leathers in Shadyside (see photo at right), is toned down towards the fitted blazer look of the Victorian era, worn with pinstripe tops and skinny shorts. An example of this look can be found at BCBG Max Azria in South Side Works. (see photo at far right).

All of this season’s looks are complemented by the heavy, earth-toned jewelry influenced by the military look. That is, multiple layers of metallic-hued and white chains emerge, draped heavily around the neck to be instantly noticed in contrast to the simplified rayon knits and linens populating the spring fashion scene, triumphant in their crisp natural white hues. This costume-like jewelry is reminiscent of the ornate strands of gold and jewels of the Victorian era, which are now mockingly reduced to plastic, at such stores as Urban Outfitters at South Side Works, or ostentatious in silvers and stones, at such stores as The Culture Shop in the South Side.

Where else can you find evidence of the military-gone-Victorian trend in the Steel City? While Pittsburgh may not be known for its particular creativity on the fashion front, it is in fact home to country-wide chain stores as well as bohemian-style clothing boutiques. It is at these eclectic shops that the simplified all-white and natural-colored top and bottom trend, complemented by boisterous metallic aqua- and orange-shaded jewelry, is easily spotted. The Culture Shop boasts long, flowing skirts easily paired with cotton tank tops, mounds of silver and jewel-toned necklaces and bracelets designed to be stacked up one’s arm, and other clothing designed and imported from East and South Asia. It is such bohemian clothing that sparks the trend of fashion molded from linens and other relaxed fabric textures, a trend paralleling and often incorporating the suit separates look fostered by the union of the military and Victorian ideas. Avalon Exchange, a well-known Oakland shop specializing in the re-sale of contemporary fashion items, could also be home to such eclectic clothing.

Pittsburgh also possesses stores presenting the military-Victorian trend from a preppier angle. The Pittsburgh Jeans Company, located in the South Side, provides a costlier, more tousled version of Abercrombie and Fitch attire. Worn-out denim attire is standard and embellished, and solid cotton tank tops are packaged and sold to the buyer as an image of Pittsburgh-gone-glam. This simplified version of the relaxed look is further perpetuated by South Side Works’ Urban Outfitters, where an alternative version of the pinstripe separates suit is found in cotton gaucho pants and solid, dark-sand-colored Bermuda shorts.

With the military-inspired look so prevalent, we must question: Why is it pervading our culture? What is so appealing about resembling a daintier version of a government officer? In this, the beginning of the 21st century, American politics is centered upon the controversy surrounding the pros and cons of being involved in a war in the Middle East. As average citizens are becoming involved in the debate, voicing their opinions on how the war affects them in their daily lives, the political sector of society is evolving from solely involving the dictators of American social hierarchy (the government) to integrating this previously dominant voice with that of the people. The people, traditionally thought of as singly composing the cultural section of American society, have now broken the barriers between the three political, economic, and cultural sectors.

Fashion exists as a societal notion that is reserved for those interested in physical aesthetics and uninvolved in “real” political movements and culture. However, if we are noticing this growing breach in the long-established separation of fashion and politics by the military influence in clothing, is fashion more dynamic than previously thought? Of course those studying its strictly aesthetic, seasonal evolution will say yes. But what about the majority of the population? The movement towards bridging these cultural and political realms, through the power of economic consumer purchase, is one that is recognized by high-label designers and the chain-store owners alike. Nevertheless, for real change to occur, the impact of a movement or event should be acknowledged by the general population of the society.

How can this happen? The change must be gradual, as is any sort of effective cultural resistance. The introduction of the military style of clothing, in this Victorian-style way, with heavy costume jewelry and lighter fabric colors, has been slowly diffusing throughout the fashion industry. When the notion of the war in Iraq first became well-understood and openly discussed by citizens, the hackneyed olive greens and browns began to infiltrate the fashion culture. Now, after a few years, the real motives behind the military look are coming into play: All are involved, even young female fashionistas seemingly unassociated with the politics of the war. The look is prevalent in society, and if informed, everyone can understand how this bridge between politics and fashion paints a picture of a unified social view.

And what of the relaxed look? Does it work in conjuncture with the military-Victorian trend in society, or does it fight it? The all-white look in soft linens and flexible rayon knits suggests a look towards a purer alternative to the dark colors of war. “Thankfully, wearing white after Labor Day is no longer a fashion faux pas,” comments Karen Johnston of InStyle. Then again, the movement could be in conjuncture with the military awareness trend by consumers looking for inspiration in clothing from a globalized perspective — textured linens and rich jade and orange hues suggest a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influence. Furthermore, it may be possible that a turn toward naturally-colored clothing is just a seasonal change in the world of fashion, and is simply coincidentally popular at the same time.

Regardless of the specific interrelations of the major trends in fashion at any given moment, it is fabulous to note how conducive our current society is to the use of fashion to break down the border between aesthetic culture, economics, and politics. So get out to Shadyside, the Waterfront, or the South Side, and explore what fashion Pittsburgh has to offer.