“They’re just clothes.”
So goes the claim I’ve heard from an innumerable count of friends over the past few years. I don’t agree with this statement, and, given the fact you’re reading this article, you probably don’t either. Despite my belief in the power in clothes, it’s easy to lose track of just how significant they are. There’s no better example of this silent, elusive power than in politics.
In 1970, Louis Althusser published Ideology and the State Apparatus. It was a text that pierced a resonant question: how are ideologies and perceptions naturalized? How do we come to accept the dynamics and rules of the societies we live in? In the text, Althusser—a Marxist—links the construction of our lives to the preservation of class power. Ideology, he argues, is the set of cultural ideas and beliefs that reproduce the conditions of production necessary for keeping the bourgeoisie in control.
Every level of society is implicated in this attempt at reproduction, from the police to schools. According to Althusser, it’s not possible to reproduce power without performing more covert forms of control. Althusser reveals how schools, the church, media, and culture at large contribute to the preservation of social order; they are, he terms, Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs).
If we agree with the French theorist, it becomes possible that fashion, too, is a tool for expressing and maintaining political ideologies. Fashion is, in fact, one of the more interesting tools of power to study. Its significance is both visual and personal. While fashion exists in a broader image world, it’s also ideology’s closest contact with our bodies. Both are important dimensions, because both construct realms in which fashion can enact and naturalize political work.
It’s relation to the image world is the source of its power in determining what is trendy; fashion works with advertising, politics, media, and cultural norms to develop standards of appropriateness. On the level of the body, fashion prescribes codes for how to reveal the body and for how one body will relate to another. Fashion isn’t all that different from a cultural medium that sends us subliminal messages. Along with the other institutions that make up our world, fashion is encoded with the interests of those in power. Fashion absorbs us into a broader ideological system; it “interpellates,” as Althusser would claim.
Minimalism has been particularly resonant as an example of fashion’s ideological function. Its openness to different goals makes it the perfect aesthetic mode for political repression. Its tenets can also be manipulated and molded to fit a broad range of political aims.
This use of minimalist fashion to signify political affiliation has gotten some significant airplay in cinema and TV. Helmut Lang-esque suits frequently signify modern, utopian societies; more often than not, they are also implicated in the political workings undertaken to make these utopias a reality. In the movie Aeon Flux (2005), clothes signify an allegiance to social order. The gentle lines, neutral colors, and flowing silhouettes connote compliance. The Keeper, a character who is the gatekeeper of power, is dressed in an all-white cocoon. Aeon Flux, contrarily, is shown in a strappy black ensemble throughout the entire film. Her rebellion is played out on the level of her clothes.
Film representations provide the perfect medium for thinking about the way clothes contribute to broader ideological goals. Because most films have an endpoint that must be reached within the span of a few hours, every detail works towards its realization. The clothes, in a good film, play a role. Althusser’s ideological apparatuses work similarly, in their aims towards the preservation of current power structures. They “function by ideology,” Althusser writes. In other words, they’re driven by an attempt to maintain and sustain the status quo.
While analogy to film representation is fruitful, it’s necessary that we understand the function of fashion—as an ideological tool—in the real world as well. In China, the mid-1960s heralded the start of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which picked up where his disastrous, genocidal Great Leap Forward left off. The Cultural Revolution was conceived as an eraser, designed to wash away traces of the feudalistic past and the customs it left behind. The revolution was not televised, but it was certainly aestheticized. Propaganda art, music, and theater launched China into to throes of violent regional conflict.
Clothes were also part of this movement. Traditional dress, in Mao’s vision of the future, was at odds with his future goals. It touched each of the “Four Olds”: old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. The need for a new sartorial aesthetic became apparent. This birthed the military uniform as a mode of both popular dress and political allegiance (if they are different). As historical scholar Xurong Kong argues, the military uniform was the fashion of the moment. It was the ideal expression of the ideology dominant at that time.
Its plain, minimalist style subsumed individuality and expressed socialist collectivism. Minimalism, here, was a reaction against both the anti-socialist dress of the West and the pro-feudal connotations of traditional Chinese garb. The minimalism of the military uniform was engaged and praised; the bare simplicity of the gray and military green cotton rendered it ideal as a vehicle for ideological expression. Mao’s utilitarian gray suit also became an icon of collectivism. The clothes worked towards the preservation of Mao’s grip on power and his cult of personality. To me, no moment in history better exemplifies the interplay of fashion and ideology. Further, no moment better exemplified how minimalism’s value has been exploited in complicity with ideological projects.
The 90s were also a high point for the creation of a “look” that expressed an ideology. One thinks of the “Everybody in Cords” and “Everybody in Vests” ads that Gap produced in 1995. They featured groups of 20-somethings singing remixed hits from previous decades in a quasi-ironic drone, while wearing the latest arrivals of the brand. The videos are stellar and rich. They bear striking resemblance to the way ideology has always been constructed. Showing everybody in vests is its way of presenting a new normal. It is frank in articulating a normative style of dress, an idea of how people should dress, a conception of cool.
Ironically, the “democratic” and minimalist fashion of the 90s proposed that what was being sold were “just clothes.” The jacket you (along with everyone else) would buy would fit seamlessly into your life and signify your normalcy. But as Althusser’s ideas suggest, such a succinct relationship with fashion is impossible. Nothing is just “just…”.