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fashion, politics, political fashion

Politics is the New Black

THE BABES BLUF breaks down the intersection of national security, foreign policy, and the clothing industry.

Words: Kate Hewitt
Pictures: Frank Uyt Den Bogaard

BLUF: Weighing in at $2.5 trillion dollars, the global clothing industry is responsible for sparking political discourse through its role in climate, consumerism, race, and human rights debates. An industry that once employed 1.8 billion people worldwide is seeing significant change with recent events but its role in national security and foreign policy is just meeting its potential. 

This past September, some Americans sat at home in their week-old pandemic sweats and browsed through social media or turned on E! News to relish in the couture and enchantment of New York’s 2021 Fashion Week culminating in the notorious Met Gala. Others mocked the absurdity of Hollywood’s elite showing up, unmasked in over-the-top garb while their assistants, paparazzi, and onlookers dawned facial coverings. The morning after the Met, papers and social media were splashed with one picture in particular: Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, or AOC, wearing a gown with the words “Tax the Rich” splashed in red. 

She’s a hypocrite! She’s a genius! She’s a fraud! She’s a legend!

Regardless of your take, she was exactly what fashion ultimately is: Political. 

“Fashion functions as a mirror to our times, so it is inherently political.” — Andrew Bolton 

Clothing and fashion, since nearly the beginning of civilization, have always been political. Whether being forced to wear something to signify your class (think: peasants vs. nobility), as a way to show your tribe or your heritage with pride (think: Native American tribes), or by selecting an item to show your support of a movement (think: Black Panthers, Suffragettes, Times Up). Uniforms can be imposed to impose conformity, while even a slight modification can be used to jab a system of oppression. The military wears uniforms to promote a sense of cohesion and belonging but they simultaneously convey rank, years of service, occupational specialty, etc. But even by choosing not to “participate” in the world of fashion, you’re still sorta doing so: Enter the cerulean speech from The Devil Wears Prada. 

“There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” — Lenin

One fact is undisputed: The fashion industry is huge — or at least it was. Pre-COVID, data showed it to be a $2.5 T R I L L I O N  industry globally, employing more than 1.8 million. But as the world was literally quarantined to their homes, the entire industry saw a reverberating effect of closing doors. In that same quarantine that swapped suits for sweats and heels for hoodies, two other shifts happened: The climate started to heal itself (and then reverted back) and the Black Lives Matter movement arose with ferocity. What does any of this have to do with fashion, you ask? Let me tell you. 

“Fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth.” — Environmental Audit Committee

Before COVID, the fashion industry contributed to an estimated 10% of CO2 emissions globally. But as less people were buying clothes and the ozone layer was literally starting to fix itself, another trend was emerging from the newest generation of consumers. Look no further than Levi’s new ad campaign, showing Gen Z recycling clothes, touting off statistics of an industry that has directly contributed to the pollution of the Earth given “clothing consumption has doubled in the last 15 years.” The campaign tagline and message: “When we buy better, we can wear longer.” An attempt to push back on waste in the fashion industry.

Governments around the world are being pressured to do more when it comes to fashion, whether it be about tackling fast fashion and climate change or to hold countries accountable for actions, be it inhumane factory conditions or illicit weapons programs. 

Over the past decade, thrift stores have become cool, it’s easier (and cooler) to consign than ever before. Companies like ThreadUp, the RealReal, PoshMark, ReBag, Depop, etc. have exploded. Clothing companies have also launched renting opportunities instead of buying, such as RentTheRunway. All of this is part of a trend to meet a political movement: The Earth is dying and what are YOU going to do about it? A 2019 McKinsey report predicts that “the resale market a decade from now could be larger than that of fast fashion — a cheering prospect if you fret about the millions of tons of apparel dumped in landfills annually.” 

Today, the way companies of any kind support political movements publicly is referred to as corporate social responsibility. Before the 80’s most brands stayed out of politics publicly. There wasn’t an appetite for it in consumerism. But, “As society became politically polarized, companies became more activist.” In the past decade, we’ve seen Patagonia commit to massive climate/workforce/supply chain changeHobby Lobby challenge a federal mandate of companies paying insurance for contraception before the Supreme Court, and retailers like Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods stopped selling some guns in response to mass shootings.

A Harvard Business Review study found that opinions of a company dropped 33% when it was said to have conservative values: “The company was not only seen as less committed to social responsibility and its community, but also as less profitable. Participants were 25.9% less likely to buy its products and 25.3% more likely to buy from a competitor. In addition, job seekers were 43.9% less likely to apply for a position there.” The reverse was not seen for companies with liberal values. A clear difference was also seen with gender,  “Women were nearly 10% less likely to buy products from the company after knowing about the political activity across the board.” This data point made me feel better about my 12-year crusade to never eat Jimmy Johns after I found out the founding family hunts endangered species; but, I digress.

The point is: Today, it’s more likely to be brand suicide to stay out of politics than to jump in. 

“Every time American designers are brought up, they say the same four or five names: Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein. They always omit Cross Colours and FUBU, as if these brands weren’t grossing a quarter-billion to over a billion dollars a year. They were never given credit for being as influential as they are.” — Pyer Moss

One prime example of how politics and fashion intersect took place when 2020 saw the US ignite behind the unjust deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor. Americans not just marched together in the streets but they also started putting money where companies’ mouths were — and fashion brands responded. For example, Nike featured Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign supporting anti-racism then had a powerful campaign telling the world, maybe for once, don’t do it. Major fashion companies like Nike, Macy’s, Burberry, Chanel, and Prada have all appointed diversity hires in the wake of BLM. 

It’s not just about hiring and representing diversity and inclusion in brands. Black fashion designers and brands were shared on social media and finally recognized (even if as just a start) for their endless contributions to fashion. Cross Colors and FUBU paved the way for streetwear in the 1990s and celebrated Blackness in fashion. But African Americans have been influencing fashion long before the 90s. For example, see A Study of Eight: Eight stories about the ignored American history and people who are “considered change agents, having a positive effect on the fashion industry.” Their stories are just a glimpse into the untold story of the forgotten influence of Blacks on the global fashion industry. 

A lack of diversity and inclusion is similarly mirrored in America’s national security and foreign policy professions. According to the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act of 2017, minorities represent only 22% of the overall officer rank in the military — almost half of minority representation (40%) of enlisted forces. The diplomatic side of things doesn’t fare much better. A 2020 Government Accountability Report found only 32% of the Department of State’s workforce are racial or ethnic minorities. In senior Foreign Service officials, representation of African Americans is actually falling: 7% in 2002 to just 3% in 2018. By the end of 2020, only 3 of the 189 ambassadors representing the US abroad were filled by African Americans and four by Hispanics — the lowest number since the Ford administration. 

“No matter what clothes you’re wearing, someone made them. Do you know who? And how? The newest form of political fashion is to be able to tell that story.” — Livia Firth 

We’ve covered how the clothing industry is impacting climate change — climate change is recognized by 70% of international governments as a national security concern. We’re tiptoed into race and partisanship — both recognized as systemic issues threatening America’s national security. We’ve briefly chatted about consumerism, noting that what and how much we buy impacts the very fabric of our society,  as economics and national security are directly linked.

But what about human rights considerations? The examination of who makes our clothes and where, and by what ethical standards, also has everything to do with security and policy. Before there were mainstream conversations about diversity in fashion design or how clothing consumption impacted climate change, I remember hearing about the horrible conditions in factories around the world making the clothes almost everyone in America is wearing. Look at your shirt label. What does it say? “Made in America”? Unlikely since Americans collectively buy almost 20 billion clothing items a year but only 2% of those items are made in the good ol U S of A.  

The concern over ethical standards and human rights in the clothing industry has been making headlines and news stories periodically for decades. In 2012, more than 300 people burned to death in a clothing factory fire in Bangladesh. In 2013, more than 1,000 people perished when another factory collapsed in Dhaka. Of course, plenty of other incidents never make the national news: A 2012 Chinese clothing factory fire, a 2015 Chinese shoe factory collapse, an Egyptian clothing factory fire. As of 2019, the monthly average pay for someone in the clothing industry ranged from $26 in Ethiopia to $1,764 in Belgium. What’s the average globally? A meager $470 a month. 

The shock of these tragedies and countless others, coupled with reports of terrible labor conditions and poverty wages has sparked a movement to understand not just who designed them and what that company stands for but, more importantly, about who physically is making your clothes. This is where the “Who Made My Clothes” movement comes into play. The company’s mission “to unite everyone in the fashion industry, from the designers, makers, distributors and wearers, to work together toward changing the way clothing is sourced, produced and consumed.” The mission empowers consumers to not just ask questions about the where, how, and who of clothing but also pressure companies to think about these factors as well. Encouraging the public to reach out to companies and ask them #WHOMADEMYCLOTHES? has now become a norm.

Enter foreign policy as well. The textile industry has been a target for international sanctions throughout history for a variety of reasons. In January 2021, the US banned cotton imports from China’s autonomous region of Xinjiang over allegations of forced labor of Uighers. A similar move was considered by the EU in 2018 with the Rohingya crisis of Myanmar. 

Fun (of f*cked up) fact: Even North Korea and Iran have had their textile industries sanctioned as whole system pressures against their nuclear and missile programs — it’s a lot, I know. 

Governments around the world are being pressured to do more when it comes to fashion, whether it be about tackling fast fashion and climate change or to hold countries accountable for actions, be it inhumane factory conditions or illicit weapons programs. 

Love her or hate her, what AOC did at the Met Gala is exactly fashion in its purest form. It was a political statement on a national stage by a controversial individual, causing a stir which sparked a debate that prompted millions to discuss her, the event, her dress, and whether or not the rich attending that very event should be paying more in taxes. The controversy took on a new life when a report came out that its own designer might not have even paid her fair share of taxes. Just a few hours and a couple pictures snapped of a dress created a moment that will be forever a part of the American lexicon — a perfect example of what makes fashion inherently political. 

“Access to the press, governmental bodies or educational institutions is variable, but everyone has access to their own bodies. Fashion is, thus, one of the most readily available political tools.” — Dr. Jonathan Michael Square

“As consumers we have so much power to change the world by just being careful what we buy.” — Emma Watson

That’s all for this one, babes.

No pressure. No bullshit. Just, THE BABES BLUF.

THE BABES BLUF (bottom line up front) is a different kind of current affairs and lifestyle blog that talks about issues in a way women (and men!) can relate to and enjoy. To read more from THE BABES BLUF, visit and subscribe to never miss a #BLUF, and check them out on Twitter or Instagram. For more THE BABES BLUF pieces, see here.

Kate Hewitt


Kate Hewitt currently works in national security and is the founder of THE BABES BLUF, a current affairs and lifestyle blog with a monthly column for Inkstick Media. Previously, she was a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow and Research Assistant with the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution focused on nuclear security and strategy issues. She also served as a Community and Organizational Development Adviser in Peace Corps Moldova and held internships with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Energy Northwest. Kate was a recipient of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Rieser Award (2018), an N Square Nuclear Security Innovation Fellow (2018), and a Farsi Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellow (2017). She has authored articles, reports and book chapters on national security, foreign policy, and the importance of women in STEM and national security — the latter of which is a passion of hers that she exercises by sitting on the Board of Advisors for Girl Security. She holds an M.A. in Global Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a dual-BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Gonzaga University.


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