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Emma Sjoberg, Tatjana Patitz, Heather Stewart Whyte, Fabienne Terwinghe and Naomi Campbell,1994via

Fashion’s most iconic political statements

Models stripping off for Peta, Rick Owens’ statement on sex and Gaultier’s men in skirts – here are the fashion moments that made the world take notice

As the date of the UK election draws nearer, politicians have turned their attention to fashion and pop culture in an attempt to wrest the youth vote. David Cameron has claimed Kardashian kinship, Nick Clegg has starred in an “Uptown Funk” election anthem, and the Labour Party has channelled Katharine Hamnett with their “Hell Yes” slogan tee. These recent antics come as no surprise – fashion and politics have long been linked. Last week we paid tribute to Dame Vivienne Westwood’s best protests, one of the great masters of using fashion as a vehicle for social commentary. Now we turn our attention to other designers who have used their clothes to shine a spotlight on important issues. From men’s skirts, anti-terrorist slogans and Pussy Riot films, to penises on the catwalk, feminist runway protests and reflections on wartime hardships, here are the most memorable political statements in fashion history.


AW95’s “Highland Rape” show by Alexander McQueen saw the iconic provocateur present one of the most controversial fashion collections of all time. The display was undeniably confronting: bruised and battered models stumbled across the runway with disoriented facial expressions, clothed in barely-there tatters of tartan and lace. The show offered striking comments on both femininity and British ancestry. McQueen hit back at suggestions of “misogyny,” explaining that he wanted to empower females by portraying (and thereby drawing attention to) “the way society sees women, not how I see them.” Beyond the show’s obvious connotations, the distressed models were also a metaphor for England’s “rape” of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries – an “ethnic cleansing” by British forces that the fiercely patriotic McQueen wanted to ensure wouldn’t disappear into the annals of history.


The pioneer of the political slogan t-shirt, Katharine Hamnett’s bold words printed on oversized tees have been mouthpieces for some of the most topical issues of the past four decades. Perhaps most famous was her first design, stating “Choose Life”, but a later slogan (“Use a condom”) also caused a stir when Naomi Campbell took to the runway in 2003 with it in sequins across her sheer halter top. Hamnett has walked the walked as well, donning her tee exclaiming “58% Are Opposed To Pershing” – a reference to a recent poll on the stationing of nuclear missiles in the UK – when she met then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. (A photo of the encounter was the year’s most widely-published image.) Other influential designers have followed Hamnett’s lead and reaffirmed the political power of the slogan t-shirt, including Westwood (“I Am Not A Terrorist”) and, more recently, Christopher Shannon (“Save Me”).


Fashion’s enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier caused a sensation when he sent men down the runway wearing skirts in his 1984 Paris show “And God Created Man.” Opinions were sharply divided at the time: editors from Vogue and a string of other publications infamously walked out in disgust, while French designer Daniel Hechter excitedly exclaimed that the event was ”the most important thing to happen in fashion in the past 20 years!” Gaultier denied that the collection – which saw male models don plaid skirts and platform sneakers, as well as things like sarongs and tank tops – was an attempt to provoke the establishment. Instead, he cited traditional male uniforms from around the world as his inspiration: the Scottish kilt, the Samurai hakama and the long aprons worn by Parisian waiters. Men’s skirts have since featured in the collections of designers such as Walter Van Beirendonck, Vivienne Westwood and Comme des Garçons


Iconoclast Alexander McQueen broke new ground with his 1998 guest edited Fashion-Able issue of Dazed, whose cover story featured models with a range of physical disabilities. McQueen – an advocate for wide-ranging, alternative forms of beauty that went beyond what was being shown on catwalks – collaborated with Nick Knight and Katy England for a shoot that saw models dressed in bespoke designs from Rei Kawakubo, Hussein Chalayan and  Philip Treacy. Katy England later recounted the moment when model Catherine Long, upon looking at images of herself draped in a one-sleeve dress, exclaimed: “I never thought I could look so beautiful.” That went to the heart of Fashion-Able – an edition which, in England’s words, “proved that beauty can be found in difference.”


The fashion world sounded a defiant response to Russia’s curtailing of LGBTI rights when Gareth Pugh, Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben created a series of short SHOWstudio films featuring an array of balaclava-clad designers, models, editors and photographers. Released to coincide with the opening of the Sochi 2014 Olympics and made in support of Amnesty International, each black and white “Proud to Protest” film begins with an imposing figure in a balaclava (a nod to the uniform of Pussy Riot the Russian punk rock protest group who were jailed in 2012 for performing in a church). The mask is then removed to reveal the silent protester’s identity, whether it be Kate Moss, Katy England, Henry Holland or Shayne Oliver. This powerful display of solidarity emphasised the need for a unified challenge to Russia’s human rights abuses, which hit a new low when the Duma passed anti-gay propaganda laws in 2013.


“We’d rather go naked than wear fur,” read the tagline above the heads of Naomi Campbell and four fellow models in Peta’s iconic 1994 campaign poster. The black and white image was one in a series of glamorous shots which gathered together the most recognisable supermodels of the 90s, including Christy Turlington, Elle MacPherson and Cindy Crawford. The campaign represented a dramatic change of tact for the world’s largest animal-rights group: instead of attacking fur wearers with things like paint and fake blood, they sought (successfully) to make ethical fashion racy and cool. The organisation has featured a host of fashion industry heavyweights in subsequent campaigns, including Stella McCartney and Westwood (who last year was filmed speaking in the shower in the name of vegetarianism).


Karl Lagerfeld sent the fashion world (and the Twittersphere) into a tailspin when he staged a feminist protest march for Chanel’s SS15 show. Megaphone in hand, Cara Delevingne led an army of rioting models down the Boulevard Chanel, chanting words of empowerment and brandishing signs like “Feminist but feminine” and “Ladies First,” in one of the most overtly political fashion shows of all time. Dismissed by critics as a publicity stunt, Lagerfeld defended the display by saying it was “right for the moment,” adding that he “likes the idea of feminism being something light-hearted, not a truck-driver for the feminist movement.” The show tapped into Chanel’s long history of championing female independence: founder Coco Chanel was a trailblazer for liberating the female body in the post-World War I era, introducing silhouettes that countered the restrictive corsets then in favour.


Master of kink Rick Owens caused a stir – and earned himself a slightly unfortunate nickname – when his AW15 show saw flashes of full frontal male nudity on the catwalk. Although the social media reaction suggested it was one of fashion’s most provocative moments in recent history, the hints of flesh were surprisingly subtle – Dazed’s Susie Bubble said that she “hardly noticed” until someone pointed out the “dick flaps and the undie holes,” adding that the display was in no way gratuitous. Backstage, the man behind it all commented that “Nudity is the most primal gesture – it packs a punch. It’s powerful. It’s a straight world now. It says something about being independent.” The disproportionate response to the show proved Owens right, reaffirming the fact that nudity – and especially male nudity – remains somewhat of a taboo in mainstream spaces.


British-Turkish Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan tapped into the horrors of wartime displacement with his transformative Afterwords collection for AW00. The collection had personal resonance for Chalayan (whose family were caught in Cyprus’ ethnic cleansing in the 70s), and was made all the more poignant because the recent atrocities of the Kosovo War were at the forefront of the world’s mind. Chalayan was particularly focused on resourcefulness – on the need to gather as many personal belonging as possible – when fleeing war-torn homes. As such, the show created a living room in which models turned chair covers into clothes, and chairs into suitcases. For the finale, a model moulded a wooden table into a skirt. It was a unique meditation on the devastations of war, and offered a taste of Chalayan’s remarkable ability to craft metamorphic garments.


Paris Fashion Week AW15 fell in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and famously-vocal designer Walter Van Beirendonck executed a beautifully poised show in response to the acts of terrorism. Though one male model bore an appliqué with the explicit directive “Stop Terrorising Our World,” in general the collection sought to counter the attacks indirectly, by presenting a diverse ode to beauty. Signs such as “Warning: Explicit Beauty” and “Demand Beauty” were interspersed with Egyptian eye makeup, bright colours, and a recurring eagle motif (a symbol of resilience), in what was a timely reminder of the wonderful visual things the world has to offer. “We have the need and the right to see beautiful things around us,” the designer said after the show. The collection also critiqued the censorship of artists, with necklace tokens referencing the removal of Paul McCarthy’s ‘buttplug’ sculpture from a Paris square last October.