It was the year politics took over our closets, and clothes went beyond products to become positions.
From the moment in early February when Beyoncé strode onto the field at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., for the Super Bowl 50 halftime show followed by an army of backup dancers in outfits that paid homage to the Black Panthers to perform “Formation,” a song that was called the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, it was clear “fashion statement” was going to take on a whole new meaning in 2016. No longer was it enough to simply tell others what you believed; you had to show them, too. And the simplest, most powerful, most public way to do that was via what you wore.
In a world of white noise and factional cacophony, a world where the first line of communication is visual, clothes are our shared language. Whether you like what you see or not, you can read it.
Once upon a time “political dress” meant the dress of the political class. In 2016, it became a term donned by everyone — and damned by some. Practically every month.
In April, Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for women’s rights, fired the first salvo at what became the fashion lightening rod of the summer: the Burkini. Ms. Rossignol scolded designers from Marks & Spencer to Dolce & Gabbana for catering to the Muslim market by offering full-body swimsuits and high-fashion hijabs, accusing them of “promoting women’s bodies being locked up” to bolster their own coffers. Soon Pierre Bergé, the outspoken co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, stepped into the fray. A particular item of dress had become a symbol of the debate over the balance between enlightenment values and civil society, and whether freedom includes the freedom to wear whatever you want.
By August, the issue had gone global and viral. Islamic women increasingly demanded they be accorded equal respect and treatment when it came to their clothing choices. The fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Olympic athlete to compete for the United States while wearing a hijab. Then Anniesa Hasibuan, an Indonesian, became the first designer to pair a hijab with every look of her show during New York Fashion Week. Condé Nast International started Vogue Arabia.
It was but one sartorial story in a summer where wardrobes spoke as loudly as any words (and in turn spurred a lot of them).
In May, in a nod to the opening of Cuba, Karl Lagerfeld took the Chanel Cruise show to Havana, becoming the first brand to stage a show in the country. The decision was not without controversy, since the average Cuban wage at the time was $25 a month and the brand had, it admitted, “zero business” there — but the trip did serve in focusing the attention of the 1 percent, at least for a moment, on the island nation.
In June, British designers began to publicly declare their anti-Brexit stance using London Collections: Men’s as their soapbox, with one designer, Daniel W. Fletcher, not only staging a sit-in outside the official show site but also dressing his protesters in “stay” hoodies and T-shirts, and the Sibling designers Sid Bryan and Cozette McCreery likewise donning slogan tees to take their post-collection bows.
In July, W.N.B.A. teams led by the Minnesota Lynx and then the New York Liberty started swapping their usual uniform warm-ups for black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogans #blacklivesmatter and #Dallas5, among others; despite individual and team fines from the league, the players persisted. Around the same time, a photo became a national symbol when a young woman in a flowing sundress faced down police in Baton Rouge, La., at a protest over the killing of Alton Sterling, and the visceral visual contrast between the storm troopers’ black riot gear and her graceful, nonrevolutionary summer frock crystallized the fault lines developing around the country.
That month was also the election of Theresa May, who became Britain’s second female prime minister, causing a torrent of stories about her fanciful footwear, which she proudly proclaimed was a tactical “icebreaker” in high-level meetings. And it was when Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
Standing onstage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Mrs. Clinton made history as the first woman to be a major party nominee for president, but in case you missed the import, her white Ralph Lauren pantsuit underscored the message. It squared the circle first drawn by suffragists in 1913 when they adopted white as one of their signature colors, and later traced by Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in 1978 when they wore white to the women’s rights march on Washington, and then by Geraldine Ferraro with her white suit accepting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1984.
And so it went.
By September, there was no holding back: The look of autumn was the look of the American election. New York Fashion Week kicked off the day with a benefit for Mrs. Clinton featuring a runway show for which Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue, was a host; Ms. Wintour wore a dress designed by Jason Wu featuring a mosaic of the different states in varying shades of blue. Opening Ceremony recast its presentation as a “pageant of the people” featuring not only models in shirtdresses and bomber jackets but also Natasha Lyonne and Whoopi Goldberg talking electoral issues — both accessorized by Rock the Vote volunteers. In Paris, Stella McCartney splashed female empowerment and antifur slogans such as “Thanks Girls” and “No Leather” over her lace and cotton loungewear.
In October, the “pantsuit power” flash mob, 170 dancers strong, took to the streets in New York’s Union Square wearing, natch, a rainbow of pantsuits to demonstrate their support of Mrs. Clinton; the resulting video has been seen over 91,000 times.
Official “Pantsuit Power” flash mob for Hillary Clinton
Video by Today World
And on Nov. 8 those women who intended to vote for the first female president adopted both sartorial stratagems, and went to the polls in pantsuits or white or both to cast their votes. You didn’t even need to see the boxes they checked on their ballots to know where they were coming from.
Though their candidate lost, the point remained, embedded in the fabric of social media and, now, recent history. The year may be over. But the change in our wardrobes — the change in how we think about the fabric of our lives — is just beginning.