Be Your Own Stylist: Protest Aesthetics

Issue #10: The Many & The Few - Assembling the political

"In a Post-Truth era defined by an incessant focus on the self-styled individual, and in light of the seemingly inexhaustible co-option of the signs and symbols of ‘collective action’ in advertising, what has become of the body politic?"

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Exemplified by the now widely criticised, and quickly recalled, 2017 Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner as the leader of an ambiguous movement that resembled Black Lives Matter, the signifiers and aesthetics of protest and activism have often been employed as a marketing tool. This trend, although recently manifested by Pepsi, is not so much a recent development as the most recent example of the ever-expanding phenomenon of the commodification of dissent1 or the consumption of dissidence2 popularised in the ‘90s. In a Post-Truth era defined by an incessant focus on the self-styled individual, and in light of the seemingly inexhaustible co-option of the signs and symbols of ‘collective action’ in advertising, what has become of the body politic?

In 1984, Jerry Welsh, the former head of marketing for American Express, coined the term ‘cause-related marketing’ (CRM). The initial campaign saw American Express pledge a penny to the Statue of Liberty restoration project for every use of its card, and a dollar for most new cards issued in the United States—earning them an almost $2 million (USD) turnover from that campaign alone3. As Welsh told the New York Times in 1987, ”the wave of the future isn’t checkbook philanthropy. It’s a marriage of corporate marketing and social responsibility.”4 Through association, businesses are then able to position themselves as progressive or at least within a certain political milieu in order to create a brand identity that makes consumers/clients, in turn, feel good about associating themselves with. A step further again, is that this brand association has come to constitute our entire activism or protest. Meaningful activity is replaced by the instant gratification of a purchase/donation, digital signature, a like or a retweet—allowing you to associate yourself, your brand, with a cause instantaneously—either directly to the cause or indirectly through a brand which is already associated with a cause. In the case of the latter, the consumer’s status, preferences and aspirations are indicated by simple brand association. The consumer is effectively then able to equate buying a handbag, a lipstick or an art work with being part of the solution/supporting the cause.

There is a darker underlying ethos inherent in this trend which seems to say that agency or freedom itself means the ability to consume, as empowerment becomes dislocated and reconfigured as choiceBefore Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi advertisement, she featured in Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel Spring ready-to-wear runway show in 2015. The runway choreography was structured around the aesthetics of a street protest, with the (traditionally attractive, white) models holding megaphones and placards with slogans such as ‘BE YOUR OWN STYLIST’, ‘FREE FREEDOM’ (a rumoured reference to ‘free the nipple’), ‘MAKE FASHION NOT WAR’, and ‘TWEED IS BETTER THAN TWEET’. Among the more ambiguous statements were those with a more feminist agenda with such as ‘LADIES FIRST’, ‘WE CAN MATCH THE MACHOS’, ‘BOYS SHOULD GET PREGNANT TOO’ and ‘HISTORY IS HER STORY’. As the ‘be your own stylist’ placard perfectly illustrates, the current regime of subjectivity makes deviance from the norm, normative itself—a “conformist tyranny of originality, distinction and self-fashioning.”5 In this sense, the contemporary subject is more in line than ever with fashion design.

In a post-runway interview, English retail fashion heavyweight, Marigay McKee, commented of Lagerfeld, “What about what he represents? And today, it was all about girl power. It’s so on trend, it’s so now. He’s always so relevant. He picks a subject that is relevant to society as well as to fashion”. Given this glowing review, it is hard to believe that prior to this runway show, Lagerfeld had quite the opposite reputation, spurred on by comments such as “only fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television” objected to seeing skinny models on the runway. All in all, a largely successful rebranding exercise.

After the immense popularity of girl-power advertising, coming to the fore with the advent of mid-90s pop group Spice Girls, by 2015, it showed no signs of slowing. But far from being the first instance of girl-power consumerism, Spice Girls represented a far older branding strategy, named by Robert Goldman, Deborah Heath and Sharon L. Smith in 1991 as “Commodity Feminism” in their paper of the same name, which analysed advertisements dating back to the early ‘70s. But the craze wasn’t confined to feminism; it encompassed activism and oppositionality on many different fronts and their expression via fashion design. Created by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren for their ‘Seditionaries’ collection in 1976/77, the ‘DESTROY’ t-shirts featured a swastika and an inverted crucifix under the word ‘DESTROY’ and the Queen’s severed head on a postage stamp. The imagery was clearly born out of the punk movement and more specifically a response to the rise of the right wing and the National Front in Britain. Although the 1960s saw a few ‘MAKE LOVE NOT WAR’ peace symbol and Black Panther Party t-shirts, Rock ‘n’ Roll music merchandise, Coca-Cola and Budweiser probably got to the human billboard first—or were at least contemporaries. It was not until later, in the 1980s, that Katharine Hamnett’s slogan designs such as ‘SAVE THE WORLD’, ‘STAY ALIVE IN 85’ and ‘CHOOSE LIFE’ saw the slogan tee gain tremendous popularity. Hamnett told The Guardian in 2009 that her t-shirts were “a way of people aligning themselves to a cause. They’re tribal. Wearing one is like branding yourself,”6 which set the pace for the kind of ‘ethical capital’ so inherent in contemporary regimes of subjectivity and self-fashioning.

From Westwood’s punk roots to her 2011 ‘Ethical Fashion Initiative’ (produced in collaboration with the Ethical Fashion Initiative of the International Trade Centre – a joint body of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation), to her 2013 ‘Climate Revolution’ Spring Collection at London Fashion week and beyond, Westwood revolutionised CRM in fashion. Particularly with regard to her Ethical Fashion Initiative collaboration which features designs created using recycled canvas, reused roadside banners, unused leather offcuts, and recycled brass, produced in Nairobi’s biggest slum, Kibera. Ethical fashion stands in the colonial tradition of White Charity and despite explicitly stating on their website that “this is not charity, this is work”, this initiative earns the Westwood brand much sought-after ‘ethical capital’. As Elke Gaugele notes in her essay On the Ethical Turn in Fashion, it also sits in the history of industrialisation, that saw textile labour as a social instrument of gender and class distinction. Rather than dissolving these hierarchical structures, they have become “redefined and adapted by the neoliberal global economy under the signs of ecology, social justice, and ethical consumption.”7 A process illuminated by Westwood’s unpaid and overworked interns.8

Again, this decades-old concept is more popular than ever, with Dior’s ‘We should all be feminists’ slogan t-shirts popping up for $940 in 2016 and again last year with ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’—the latter taken from Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay of the same title, which was featured in the notes from Artistic Director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, and given to guests at the runway show. The slogan tee became a season must-have with Haider Ackermann’s t-shirts appearing with ‘Be Your Own Hero’ and ‘Silent Soldier’ and later again, Prabal Gurung and Ashish featured phrases like ‘The Future is Female’ and ‘Love Sees No Colour.’ The exorbitant price tags on slogan t-shirts comes then to construct the ‘good consumer’ much like the ‘good activist’—a young, white, educated, middle-upper class individual.9 In Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, they suggest that global capitalism is now characterised by “ethical, political and moral values, which at the same time creates new forms of supremacy”10—the elitist and conformist totalitarianism of moral distinction.

In many cases, no clear position need be taken if there is no reputation in need of mending as with Lagerfeld. Take for example, Rimmel’s 2015 lipstick advertisement featuring the same street-protest setting and stand-alone statements, ‘Ready for a revolution?’ coupled with ‘NO COMPROMISE!’ Like the Chanel runway earlier that year, this advertisement also featured Georgia May Jagger, a self-described feminist11 and riot-girl12 with an added rock-chick cachet thanks to her father, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. In this case, the mere association to a general counter-culturalism or interest in personal freedoms was sufficient. Likewise, with the more recent example found in Pepsi, although strongly referencing the Black Lives Matter movement (and earlier civil rights/’flower power’ protests), the only real statements in the advertisement were equally vague: ‘Join the conversation’, ‘Peace’, ‘Live bolder, live louder, live for now’. As Jacques Rancière points out, “ethics is a fashionable word,”13 and so are its nebulous references.

Before appearing explicitly on the runway, there were countless references to protest in fashion editorials. A more extreme example being the fashion pictorial “Black Block White Riot” by Krzysztof Herholdt for Fiasco Magazine in 2010, which featured gas masks, brick-throwing, camouflage makeup/protest grime, helmets and one photo even depicting the model’s head being forcibly pressed to the ground by an assumed police figure. Likewise, its precursor by four years, Steven Meisel’s “State of Emergency” fashion editorial for Vogue (2006), depicted sexualised police brutality and a comparable image of a model’s head being forced onto the windscreen of a car by several masked riot police and another being held to the bitumen by her neck. What is noticeably a more recent development, is how quickly (often immediately) social justice movements or actions are converted into hashtags and marketable items. After all, it was only five days after the emergence of the global #MeToo campaign, spurred on by the ousting of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s predations, that jewellery label Adornia debuted the ‘Me Too Lariat Necklace’ in its online store.

As social goals become repositioned as lifestyle choice, subculture, dissent and resistance can more easily and quickly become commodified and incorporated into the status quo. As such, protest and activism need to be constantly re-inventing new forms of resistance. Despite the long history of the co-option of protest in advertising, the unprecedented negative reactions to the Pepsi commercial seem to indicate an increasingly more media/advertising literate public. However, the pressure on the personal contribution of individual choices to make considerable change remains and speaks to a deeply ideological individualistic persona whose freedoms are reduced to naked assertions of power and entitlement. The very idea of ‘society’ or the collective is disavowed in place of demands for protection against personal experiences of injury, fear or violated rights. Such an approach is particularly apparent in the U.S with extreme right wing conservatives (or Trump) claiming constitutional rights such as ‘freedom of speech’ in order to clothe their oppressive neo-fascist beliefs with a ‘freedom fighter’ persona. Likewise, by being seen liking, sharing or retweeting a politically motivated article on social media, individuals are able to equate their own media brands with a cause or causes that position them favourably amongst their peers, followers or publics. A comparable surface-level relationship to activism as Lagerfeld has to feminism.

Related to this individualistic approach to change, is a clear focus on visibility which has become a way to fulfil “the need for change while ignoring the politics of that change,”14 inciting critiques from writers like Sarah Schulman, who have declared visibility as a failed strategy for cultural change—provoking containment rather than equality.15 Visibility also relates to experience, and experience is necessarily subjective—rooted in categorical specificity and thus, identity politics.16 Indeed, the emphasis on experience, particularly as related to individual trauma, arguably precludes analysis of the collective struggles that create the conditions of those experiences, ensuring that the emphasis is never on the workings of the system and its historicity, but always the person. Whereas, in the 19th century the emphasis was on hearing the voice of the oppressed and making it heard17, the shift from the inaudible to the invisible reflects an ever growing image economy and seems to go hand-in-hand with the construct of the constantly visible (surveilled) and individualistic (neoliberal) subject.

With the blunting of collective issues in lieu of a tireless focus on the self-fashioned individual, the body politic has all but faded into obscurity. While advertising often creates (rather than merely responds to) the desires of a public, it is important to remember that the problem is much more all-consuming than advertising itself. The visual signifiers of protest today exist as the illegitimate, fifth-generation descendant of some mythologised ‘original image’ that came to be understood as action, but was never synonymous with it. Under neoliberalism, protest is to action as the image is to reality—representationally, rather than ontologically, associated. The self-regulating, entrepreneurial actor now bears the heavy burden of inciting, performing and enforcing massive structural change through a power that they are only representationally endowed with. Arguably, the real power resides in a collectivity that now feels dissolved under the sign of the personal brand and its related ‘causes’—or, at least pushed to the brink of another re-invention.

Works cited:
1Thomas Frank, Art as Lifestyle (Monocuturalism), The Baffler, no. 4, 1993.

2Tom Holert and Mark Terkessidis, Mainstream of Minorities, Kiepenheuer & Witsch Verlag Ko?ln, 2006.


5Ilka Becker, Life Which Writes Itself: Retrospecting Art, Fashion, and Photography in Bernadette Corporation in ‘Aesthetic Politics in Fashion’ (ed. Elke Gaugele), Sternberg Press 2015, p. 77. See also: Ulrich Brockling, The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject, Sage, 2016, p. 281-301.

6Emma Sibbles, Get it off your chest, The Guardian, 2009.

7Elke Gaugele, On the Ethical Turn in Fashion, in ‘Aesthetic Politics in Fashion’ (ed. Elke Gaugele), Sternberg Press 2015, p. 220.

9Jacqueline Kennelly, Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 89.

10Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Published by Verso 2017.

11Leisa Millar, Georgia May is a feminist, ELLE UK, 2013.

13Jacques Rancière, The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics.

14Grant H. Kester, Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage, Published by Duke University Press 1998, p.41.

15Sarah Schulman, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, Published by The New Press 2012.

16Grant H. Kester, Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays from Afterimage, 1998, p.86.

17Anne Emmanuelle Berger, Queer Turn in Feminism : Identities, Sexualities, and the Theater of Gender, Published by Fordham University Press 2013, p.84.