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Controversy and couture: politics meets fashion

Annika Skorski
Upon hearing the word “fashion,” external features and one’s perceived public image come to mind. Public figures of the 2010s and 2020s such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Serena Williams and Lady Gaga have challenged this limited view of style through fashion reflecting one’s beliefs and sparking needed conversations about sexuality, class and race.

Shuttering cameras, bright flashing lights. Amid a crowd of A-list celebrities at the 2021 Met Gala, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ascends the iconic red carpet with the words “tax the rich” printed boldly across her dress. Eager reporters line her path, leaning over the perfectly trimmed topiary to get a better glimpse at the year’s newest looks and themes. 

Multiple figures have turned to fashion as a form of activism in the past, using style as a tool to bring awareness to social issues. This has become increasingly important in today’s interconnected world. The Met Gala and other widely broadcasted occasions – such as sporting events and award shows – have become regular venues for advocacy.

Although the media marveled at Kendall Jenner’s sheer Audrey Hepburn-inspired gown and Lil Naz X’s triple gold Versace looks, Ocasio-Cortez’s “tax the rich” dress sparked long-lasting conversation.

Ocasio-Cortez is a left-wing politician and representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, known for her polarizing progressive stance on America’s wealth gap and climate change. It comes as no surprise that she chose to display this statement, rather, where she displayed it, the occasion and setting of the Met Gala.

Ocasio-Cortez wore a white, off-the-shoulder gown by Brother Vellies. Her decision to wear the dress at a glitzy venue alongside celebrities willing to pay $35,000 for a ticket has her critics calling out the irony and hypocrisy of the slogan at such an event.

Despite backlash, no one can dispute Ocasio-Cortez’s success in promoting her campaign to reduce financial inequalities in America. By using a high-profile event that is broadcasted globally as her platform, she was able to reach the Met’s millions of viewers. After all, there is no better way to catch the eye of the cameras than one of the media’s favorite subjects: fashion.

However, this technique of drawing attention to politics on the red carpet is not unique to Ocasio-Cortez. Serena Williams achieved the same feat on the court during the 2018 French Open, the second of four annual Grand Slam tennis tournaments. She opted to wear a sleek black catsuit that drastically contrasted the traditional tennis whites of her competitors. Per USA Today, Williams said the Black Panther-inspired outfit was a tribute to women who overcame difficult pregnancies as she had experienced severe complications during her pregnancy with Alexis, her  4-year-old daughter. 

Photo courtesy of Williams S./Wikimedia Commons

According to an article from Insider, the purpose of the catsuit’s fitted design was to help increase blood circulation while playing and was critical due to Williams’ history of blood clots. Following her pregnancy, Williams discovered she had a condition called pulmonary embolism in which blood clots travel to the lungs.

Despite the medical aid and inspiration the catsuit provided, the catsuit was banned from the courts on account of violating proper tennis etiquette. Although Williams did not react to the banning, her fans pointed to the white spandex suit worn by Anne White during the 1985 Wimbledon tournament. 

White was told not to wear her suit to future matches as well, but the public applauded her beauty and courage in challenging the status quo. The contrast in reactions, however, proves it was less about the suit and more about the athlete herself. 

Throughout her career, Williams has consistently been on the receiving end of vicious criticism regarding her appearance and features. Whereas her white tennis rivals are rarely subjected to the same race, sex and class prejudice, per Vox Media.

Williams was simply wearing what allowed her to play to the best of her abilities and showing appreciation for mothers everywhere. In this case, the underlying statement was from the public’s overwhelmingly critical reaction that exposed the harsh, unforgiving nature of professional tennis.

This list of fashion statements would not be complete without mentioning Lady Gaga’s meat dress. Over a decade after its debut at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, Gaga’s raw beef ensemble is still discussed. 

Multiple figures have turned to fashion as a form of activism in the past, using style as a tool to bring awareness to social issues.

However, the dress’s lack of visual connection to her cause often leads to the misinterpretation of her statement. Her dress was intended to challenge the U.S. Military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, a law passed by Bill Clinton in 1993 allowing gay Americans to serve in the army under the condition that they remained closeted. Gaga explained her dress’s weak connection to the cause during an interview with Ellen DeGeneres following the VMAs claiming that the meat component of her outfit represents the threatened rights of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Although the law was seen as liberal and progressive at the time, celebrities like Gaga began to publicly speak out against the outdated restrictions. Gaga’s message was drowned in the public’s shock from the absurdity of simply wearing raw meat, losing the efficacy of her intention. 

Certainly, there are varying degrees of successful advocacy when it comes to political dressing. A lesson pulled from Gaga’s ensemble at the VMAs is the importance of having a visual aspect that links to your cause. Ocasio-Cortez’s widely broadcasted gown is a perfect example of this as her back became a billboard for change after viewers read her message which fueled America’s longstanding tax debate.

Fashion has proved to be an effective communicator because it plays into our most fundamental and primary sense: vision.

Fashion has proved to be an effective communicator because it plays into our most fundamental and primary sense: vision. Since its beginning, fashion has been used to individualize people, classes and cultures. Whether it is a conscious choice or not, the way a person chooses to present themselves to the world conveys who they are and who they want to be. 

As the world analyzes their every move, celebrities, athletes and politicians have an even larger platform to amplify their principles. Just like politics, misconceptions and discrimination in the fashion industry are commonplace and often the downfall of positive advocacy. Fashion has the possibility to be progressive and start much-needed conversations. First, we must look past headlines, our biases and sometimes even meat to ask ourselves how we can change for the better.

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About the Contributor
Annika Skorski, Lead Opinions Editor
Annika Skorski (’25) is the Lead Opinions Editor for The Standard. She joined the newspaper in Grade 9 because she enjoys connecting with the global community by reporting on current events to challenge and broaden others' thinking. Outside the newsroom, she leads Model United Nations, loves to read and participates in varsity volleyball, tennis as well as community partnerships.

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