Highlighting Fashion’s Power: A closer look at the impacts of fashion

Since humans have been wearing clothes (no, not loin cloths), fashion has manifested itself into distinct trends. These trends are often fleeting and rarely occupy more than a few weeks of social media exposure: low rise jeans, cowboy boots, athleisure, monochrome outfits, color clashing outfits. Regardless of the particular trend, the fact of the matter is that they all tend to come and go rather quickly. However, fashion trends can actually have a meaningful purpose that reach beyond what’s fashionable or what’s marketable at a given point in time. Fashion’s power is limitless, but there are a handful of special powers that are worthy of highlighting. 

Social Justice

One way in which we often see fashion trends making a difference are through the issues of gender norms and social equality; inequities in the standards of dress for different genders are palpable. For instance, take something like school dress codes. Young girls are relentlessly scolded and sent home for exposed shoulders and midriffs, but young boys can continue to walk the halls in tank tops and jeans that so desperately are in need of a belt. Beyond the walls of schools, male-identifying individuals being shirtless is normalized, while female-identifying individuals are punished for exposure for having visible breasts because of how sexualized the female body has become. 

Different fashion trends have paved the way to combat these inequities. Female-identifying folks have started to wear sheer shirts to fight back against the sexualization of the female body, and straight leg loose jeans have become popular to fight against the normalization of tight, hip-hugging skinny jeans. 

Fashion has also been used to propel social movements forward. Enter the Pussyhat Project: these iconic pink hats were designed and crafted in late 2016 in anticipation of Washington DC’s January 2017 Women’s March. The hats were meant to create a visual statement of solidarity, and allowed people who couldn’t be present at the march to still show their support for women’s rights from afar. They were fittingly named to destigmatize the word ‘pussy’ and re-empower it following remarks made by Donald Trump. 

Local designer Kent Stetson is a prime example of how fashion can be used to propel social movements forward and give back to valuable causes and organizations. As a handbag designer, Kent has a number of pieces that are dedicated to particular social movements, with the proceeds going to the respective organizations. For example, his piece “Judiciary” is a handbag with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent collar on it, and he donates proceeds from the sale of that piece to the ACLU. He also has a piece called “Peace for Ukraine,” which is designed as the Ukrainian flag with a sunflower. The proceeds from this piece are donated to Amnesty International. Kent not only believes it’s important to have his pieces to prompt conversations about justice, but he also finds it important to directly contribute to those causes as well. In his words: “An accessory can align and speak to a movement while also being mass propaganda to make a point against injustice.” 

Environmental Justice 

Sustainability has been a hot topic in the fashion world recently, especially with the popularity of fast fashion brands like Shein and Missguided. For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘fast fashion,’ it refers to brands that rapidly consume high volumes of trendy clothing. The consequences of fast fashion are immense: the factories are major polluters that not only emit greenhouse gasses at concerning levels, but the products they create flood landfills. Determined to fight these issues and better the planet, Charlotte von Meister and Danielle Sturm founded PVD’s The Nest. 

In establishing The Nest, Charlotte and Danielle carry out a number of missions – educating people about how to be a conscious consumers, offering professional decluttering and organizing services, rehoming unwanted clothing and home goods, and bringing people together to want to elevate sustainable style. 

Now, people don’t typically think of fashion’s power as being tied to environmental issues, but fashion does have a distinct power in that arena. Charlotte and Danielle note that fashion is a choice we all make every day, and these choices can affect the planet at large. Take their biggest inspiration, for example: Vivienne Westwood, “the mother of punk and a climate change rebel.” Through their own work at The Nest, Charlotte and Danielle embody Westwood’s message of protest against a system that doesn’t care much about consumerism’s impact on the planet. A way that they channel this energy into their work is making outfit repeating hot again. The trendiness of social media and micro-trends makes people feel uncomfortable or weird for repeating the same outfit, but Charlotte and Danielle don’t accept this judgment and reminds others that trends are all personal, and you should wear whatever makes you feel the most authentic version of yourself. 

Kent Stetson also has sustainable approaches in his work, as he often uses worn-in, pre-loved clothing to repurpose into new handbags. He spoke of using clothing like jackets and jeans to create new pieces in a way that’s both fashionable and sustainable. 

Fighting Back Against Beauty Standards 

For years and years, especially with the development of software like Photoshop and the chokehold of the modeling industry, the concept of society’s beauty ideal has been an issue that has damaged the mental health of men and women everywhere. Commercials and magazines will advertise super thin women with accentuated breasts for companies like Victoria’s Secret, even though the majority of women in the United States don’t even fit in that size demographic. Other commercials will feature men with unrealistically large muscles showing off their love for Old Spice deodorant, when most of the men who use Old Spice don’t fit the bodybuilder standard. In the face of these unrealistic standards, the fashion industry has begun to fight back. Advertising campaigns have become more diverse and more inclusive, and more people are beginning to say ‘Fuck it’ and wear whatever the hell they want. 

Designer Karen Beebe (owner of Queen of Hearts and Modern Love in PVD) argues that your mood or feeling can be influenced by the confidence that fashion brings, especially in that it drives people to wear what they feel best in, regardless of their body type. Although we’ve been conditioned by the media to believe that there’s a ‘perfect body,’ there really isn’t one. Karen talks about the fact that you don’t need to be a size 0 or 2 to wear a bikini and be confident – everyone can be confident in whatever they wear, because society’s standards are simply wrong. She’s firm on the fact that we should be using fashion to say, “No, you don’t have the power to tell us what to be or how to be it.” 

Danielle at The Nest has experienced this pressure firsthand: “In our society, I see a big gap of respect for women who exude sexiness and also having the respect as a human being, and that opens up to an even bigger conversation when that woman is plus-size.” Danielle often had trouble finding clothing that allowed her to express herself to her fullest potential, since no one really carried the styles she wanted in her size. This pushed her to be more eclectic in her own dressing, and she was able to use her unique style to push against these barriers in the fashion industry. The Nest fights for this access as well, offering a range of sizes and styles. 

Standards of beauty and dress can extend beyond body size and into gender conventions as well. There are typical ideas of what men and women should wear, but recent years have seen more fluid styles of dress. Kent Stetson speaks to this point of how much more fluid gender and fashion has become. As originally marketing his pieces towards women and focusing on a more female-oriented clientele, over time he found that he was gaining a number of male clients as well. Having such a large clientele of both men and women extends pre-existing fashion barriers, and it’s great to see those being knocked down.

Local designer Amy Page DeBlasio also speaks to the point of the fluidity of fashion between genders. She has seen other designers pushing the boundaries of men’s and women’s clothes by creating more gender-neutral designs that can be worn by any gender. She herself has designed a lot of what would typically be considered as men’s clothing with more traditionally feminine prints, and vice versa with typical women’s clothing.

In the words of Charlotte and Danielle of The Nest: “We’re entering an era where androgyny is normal and style is not gender exclusive. If you want to wear a skirt or dress or pantsuit, DO IT. And we’ll be your dance mom gassing you up and taking pictures.” 

Redefining Professionalism 

When thinking of how people are expected to dress in a professional setting, some pretty distinct ideas typically come to mind – men are often dressed in a button down and pants (sometimes with a tie), or perhaps a nice collared shirt, while women are suited in pants (or a long skirt) with a blouse that covers the majority of the top half of their body. However, fashion trends recently have pushed the boundaries of what has been considered ‘professional,’ and a new age of professionalism is emerging. 

For instance, tattoos have always been a taboo subject in the workplace. I may be biased in my thinking here, but it seems to be that a large demographic of people in the rising generations are agreeing with the notion that having tattoos does not make one look less professional, and many workplaces are beginning to allow tattoos more often. 

Charlotte and Danielle of The Nest use fashion to redefine professionalism in their own ways. They acknowledged how frustrating the stigma is that someone can’t be both stylish and professional. As two female business owners, they refuse to ditch their self-expression and sexiness at the expense of running a business. In Charlotte’s words: “I am hoping to slowly chip away at the stigma that a woman can only be one: professional in a pantsuit, or sexy in a dress. I AM BOTH, I AM ALL.” To achieve her goal, Charlotte always makes a point to wear provocative outfits at parties held at The Nest that host local brands and businesses to support local makers. We can’t forget that, as Charlotte and Danielle state, “It’s possible to be a badass woman in business and also have amazing style – the two are not exclusive.”