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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Fashion as a political statement

March 3, 2016
Growing up in a post-Communist country, Sabine Kejlova shares her experience of expressing political views through fashion in a regime dominated society.

We live in the world where fashion no longer means a political statement. Even the dullest celebrities wear Dr. Martens and pay hundreds and thousands of pounds to get the perfect punk rock style with high fashion couture of Vivienne Westwood. Fashion doesn’t really reflect their lifestyle or attitude. ‘Effortlessly cool’ became everybody’s style aspiration.

There is no doubt that you can blame the Communist regime for many things. Growing up in a post-Communist country, I must admit that putting the effort into your look wasn’t considered a chore. It was your statement, your attitude, showing which side of the barricade you were standing on. The only difference is that subcultural identity you subscribed to wasn’t stocked on the highstreet.

Showing your political statement through fashion was one of the only ways to express your anger and rebellion. You couldn’t address regime directly for fear of spending the rest of your life in a tiny cell. You needed to hide your views in poetry, music, art, literature or fashion. We didn’t have Elle or Vogue. Conde Nast​ didn’t expand in the Eastern block to tell us what to wear. There were no role models and being ‘cool’ wasn’t our aim through style. All we got was a sewing machine, illegal music records and a blind adoration of Western freedom.

The most fitting nickname my parent’s generation would probably be ‘The Denim Generation’. Denim garments were an absolute rarity in the Czechoslovakian communist market. It was the connection to the rich West and became the uniform of all anti regime efforts. Denim Jackets were customized in various ways with patterns and prints which made the wearer stand out even more.

Having long hair, a beard, Chelsea boots, round sunglasses and the omnipresent cigarette wasn’t a hipster trope, but the style statement of someone who genuinely hated communism. Tattoos weren’t a symbol of individuality, but usually a souvenir brought back from the months and years (depending on how lucky you were) spent in jail for being inconvenient to the regime.

As you couldn’t buy much in traditional clothes stores and shoe shops were only selling two types of shoes ­ brown or black, you had to be inventive. Everybody was his or her own fashion designer. Writing your own slogans on your t­shirts and colouring it yourself if you planned to stand out from the Socialistic uniformity. Everybody who wanted a unique style had to make it with their own bare hands, and it goes without saying that the regime hated it. Individuality was the thing that the communistic regime was by threatened the most. Marxist ideology when misinterpreted keeps everybody the same and brainwashed. If you tried to be different, you usually ended up in the dustbin.

It’s true that times have changed. Everybody can wear a biker jacket and it doesn’t mean anything. My parents changed their alternative, hippie, intellectual, whatever look for functional lingerie, gore tex and a comfortable compromise. Who would now be dressing in such a determined way and be prepared to suffer for the style as a result? The answer is ­ nobody. Instead they cut their hair and quit smoking because the world doesn’t need more like James Dean. The battle was won, communism is over and we were granted a new beginning with buying our identities in H&M like the rest of the world.

While writing this article, I’m sitting in a West London cafe and listening to some young UCL student complaining about the flaws with his golf club. Is this what are fighting against now? I am not surprised that it’s so difficult to find somebody whose fashion style is a political statement nowadays. Dear lord, how would you express rage against a policy in your golf club? Wearing casual tweed instead of cashmere? Trainers instead of brogues?

Well, maybe that’s the issue. While trying and failing to chase the individuality, attracting attention and expressing some statement with your look is actually becoming more and more difficult. To be fair, stepping outside the crowd in communist Czechoslovakia might have been risky, but definitely not difficult. The majority of people were wearing the same boring stuff very similar to the design of their living rooms, so looking different didn’t need such extraordinary effort. You just simply tried not to look like your couch. Today, on the other hand, even if you decorate your head with a plant pot, people will barely look at you. In communist Czechoslovakia all you needed was the right fabric, for girls, a top revealing one shoulder and sometimes just a crazy colour of nail polish. And when I say crazy I actually only mean blue. Having blue (or any different than natural) nails was immediately considered an anti­regime action and influence of Western culture.

Nowadays seeing real political statements on catwalks almost resembles seeing a Lochness Monster. It’s rare and mysterious. When Vivienne Westwood showed her support to Scottish independence in her collection for S/S 2015 everyone summed up her action with words ­ yes, that’s Vivienne, she does that from time to time. But what about other designers? Maybe they are right, maybe haute couture and high fashion design doesn’t have anything to do with political statements. Maybe politics depends on individuals. So, look in the mirror and try to think. To which extent does your own fashion style succeed to express your political statement? Welcome to the United Kingdom of Passive Aggression.

Sabine Kejlova