Fashion and Politics. The symbolic representation of the power
Updated: May 28
An interview to our General coordinator, Prof. Maria Cristina Marchetti published on the website "Letture.org" (link ) translated by Ylenia Azzaro, as initiative of the editorial staff of the CSB project.
Prof. Maria Cristina Marchetti, you are the author of the book “Fashion and Politics. The symbolic representation of the power” edited by Meltemi: in which way is fashion functional to the symbolic representation of the power and of its stratification within society?
Fashion has to do with the process of social stratification and it responds, as pointed out by Georg Simmel, to the need of integration/distinction of individuals within society. It concerns the dimension of manifestations of the outward appearance that can often express, more effectively, the depth of human behaviours. Politics, for its part, has to do with the regulation of the associated living and it calls into question the great system of ideas destined to leave a mark in history. Since politics is the expression of the power, it needs to activate legitimation processes that often draw on the symbolic dimension, of which fashion is the fundamental expression.
The relationship between fashion and the symbolic representation of the power is difficult and controversial, subject to deep changes depending on historical epochs and political contexts, which calls into question the emotional dimension of individually and collectively acting.
What was the function of fashion within society during the ancien régime?
Fashion during the ancien régime is functional to the representation of a model of society which considered the preservation of the prestige and of the status its reason for being and which is applied to the model of court society, realized by Luigi XVI in the palace of Versailles. In fact, in this model of society, preserving the positions gained represents the primary purpose.
As Norbert Elias stated in the volume “The Court Society”, the ethos of status, self-affirmation tool of the upper layers, has always the upper hand on the ethos of economy, self-affirmation tool especially for the lower layers. Each item of clothing and furniture, shapes, colours, textiles, indicates the non-involvement of the nobility with respect to the carrying out of the most common activities. Particularly, the non-involvement in work activities, as pointed out by Elias, represents an exclusive source of prestige of the court society. This indicates more than the mere condition of rentiers: it underlines the refusal of the mercantile ethics which will distinguish the middle-class society, through the displacement of the struggle for the social prestige from the economic perspective to that more substantial, of the respect of etiquettes and of “good manners”. The court nobility has reduced its real chances of power to the exclusive benefit of the sovereign and, to defend itself, it has to appeal to what legitimate it as social class: the fact that it is the depositary of a system of unwritten rules which has its roots in the lineages of the ancient times and which is perpetuated through the ability of individual personalities.
What did it mean the French Revolution for fashion?
The French Revolution, as often happens in revolutionary moments, is characterized by a great expansion of trends for men and women, in the field of clothing, accessories, and headgear. In fact, it is possible to recreate the different historical stages of the Revolution starting from trends that came forward. Cockades, tricolour ribbons, studs, buckles for shoes highlight the reconversion of an entire production system to the needs of the symbolic representation of revolutionary power.
On a purely political level, clearly for the first time, the question of the symbolic representation of democracy and its institutions arose; first of all, the legislative assemblies and the political parties. This is a very important aspect, because democracy, contrary to absolute regimes, is based on collegial institutions and collective political players.
The symbols of the democratic power had to distance themselves from any form of liberty and whim that instead, was intrinsic to the absolute power and, in some ways, it was the essence.
The problem was representing the pluralism which marks democracy and the struggle for power that represents the essence, while keeping faith to the egalitarian principle.
This happened within the National Convention, where the clash among different political groups took place and where the first figures of political leaders stood out. Robespierre, Marat and Danton play out a contrast among political styles, non verbal languages, even before ideas.
The leaders of the Revolution were the first to understand the tendency to “personalization” and “spectacularization” of modern politics, with its ideological rhetorics and the frantic search for approval. They understood, as the historian Daniel Roche stated, the born of a new culture of appearance, which will definitely explode during the Directory phase, with the Merveilleuses and the Incroyables, young men and women coming from the middle-class (the jeunesse dorée) who crowded the Parisian salons.
In which way did fashion embody the class struggle?
The differentiation in social classes, resulting from the Industrial Revolution, couldn’t remain unaffected to the ability of fashion of activating identification/differentiation processes and integrating itself in social stratification processes. From this process two social classes originated - capitalist bourgeoisie and proletariat - which according to Marx’s analysis - are dialectically opposed in a radical dispute of the class struggle. From this point on, it is usual finding commonly used expressions which, describing a type of clothing of a certain social class, refer to the role that typology has in the production process (white collars, blue tracksuit) and will substantially remain unchanged up to the present day.
In fashion terms, a phenomenon highlights the changes introduced in this model of society: the retirement of man from the fashion scene. With Industrial Revolution, the western man puts on a sort of uniform that, starting from the colour, tissues and accessories, indicates the acquisition of a different social status, which refers to the role he has in the production process.
On the contrary, the working class clothing is marginally influenced by fashion: misery just allows a dress, often the same one used for sleeping. But, stylistic elements begin to emerge; they will make it recognisable and will contribute to build awareness of itself as an independent and opposite social class compared to the capitalist middle-class.
The economic power has an innate adaptability, as demonstrated by its recent development.
The world of digital economy gives the impression to have overcome the contrast class on behalf of informality. The 4.0 economic power orients its action towards an understatement lifestyle, which shuns luxury and ostentation, in line with openness values and horizontality of network.
The model is that Steve Job, Apple founder, launched in the ‘90s, - dark high-necked pullover, jeans, sneakers - then, followed by other digital economy companies founders, who want to be the guru of the new web religion, rather than the leaders of contemporary capitalism.
Which forms does the relationship between women, fashion and power have?
The relationship between women, fashion and power is a rather discussed topic and contradictory in some ways. Simmel had already highlighted that “for women fashion was, in some way, the surrogate of a social position within a professional status” that instead was guaranteed to man.
The greater resistance to the change of female roles meant that women considered fashion as a suitable tool to make up the participation deficit in social life and in management of power.
From the historical divide between man and woman about the different way to deal with fashion, the divide between fashion and power originates: stability, authority, competence together with the exercise of power (particularly, political and economic one) would appear to be in contrast with the frivolousness and the mutability of the outward forms carried out by fashion.
The female power dressing phenomenon refers to the use of male dress codes by women who strive to have positions of power. There are women who first hand hold power (heads of state and government, presidents of international bodies), first ladies, heads of state and government’s wives, able to carve out an autonomous role with respect to that one of the well-known consorts.
Margaret Thatcher, first woman to be nominated Prime Minister (from 1979 to 1990) and leader of the English Conservative Party, introduced a power dressing model, intended to influence generations of women in power: a pant suit with a strict cut, often blue (as the colour of the English Conservative Party) refined with light shirts and a pin or a pearl necklace.
What news did 1968 introduce about fashion?
It’s difficult to identify a perspective which could explain the many processes of change introduced by the cultural revolution of 1968: politics, music, cinema, fashion, art and literature have been affected by a wave of renewal which called into question the western societies and more.
Above all, an aspect emerges strongly: the role new young generations and subcultures had in events of the decade from the end of the ‘50s to 1968. This aspect is a sign of a deeper change that affected society from the early 20th century and, more significantly, from the second post-war period: the birth of young people as an independent generation on the social and political scene.
The young subcultures will carry on, compared with adults generation, a symbolic codes inversion, through an extreme decorativism, used to subvert the aesthetic bourgeois order and its sexual morality. The body can be freely showed and there are no differences between the two genders, thanks to the unisex coming.
Even if some inspiration designs are often common and contaminations are frequent, the 1968 had different forms on both sides of the Atlantic. The hippie subculture, which dominated the American scene, with its references to the psychedelic culture and the ethnic clothing, partially influenced the european experience, mainly marked on the philosophical level by the existentialism and the situationism, and with a strong ideological connotation.
In fact, in 1968 in Europe were adopted political fashions which symbolically represented the opposing parties, intended to influence the political representatives and intellectuals’ dress codes up to the present day.
Desert boots, parkas and jeans became the uniform of the political left; the political right had a style which didn’t refuse fashion elements - cigarette trousers, leather jackets, sunglasses - according to the best tradition of the middle-class.
Which is the relationship between fashion and politics within modern representative democracies?
The main theme is that started by French Revolution: representing democracy, its pluralism and its institutions, beyond any personalization of politics, proper to non-democratic regimes. But, it is clear that also democratic institutions need a symbolic dimension which necessarily refers to individual personalities who play institutional roles.
Added to this is the fact that, in a political post-ideological phase like the current one, it is necessary to rebuild a system of differentiation of positions which on the contrary is, as a matter of fact, very fell through. So, the relationship between fashion and post-ideological politics dematerialize in the contemporary variety of ways of being and appearing, providing the representation of a fragile power, constantly exposed to the instability of emotions. The symbolic codes mix and overlap the mass society codes, chasing the collective imagination of citizens-voters who, at least partly, are tied to an ideological vision of politics and élite from which, on the contrary, they distance themselves.
More and more frequently, the symbolic representation of the political power has to deal with the economic and media power, of which it has the modes of operation. The same analytical categories of modern politics, elaborated from a western perspective on the world, are in trouble facing the necessity of interpretation of contemporary political phenomena: the rise of new world powers, the redefinition of the global geopolitical order, drive out from the model of western democracies and the symbolic representation of the power, put in place for at least two hundred years.
Maria Cristina Marchetti is Associate Professor of Sociology of Political Phenomena at La Sapienza University of Rome. She also teaches Sociology of European Integration. She deals with social change topics and political processes, with special reference to European social integration and
governance of its institutions. She also dealt with analysis of cultural processes and fashion phenomena.
Article translated by Ylenia Azzaro, social media manager of the JUMP Team and member of the editorial staff of this blog.