Fashion isn’t just clothing anymore; with each season come new designs that challenge social norms, political ideology, and the extent that one can express a persona through woven fabric. Old guard critics contest that fashion should be recognized as art and collectors defend traditional definitions against a new wave of openness and appreciation for design in all its forms.
Whether or not fashion is art, it is undeniably a form of strategic communication, or the act of communicating in a rehearsed way to fulfill a goal. What one wears is the first, nonverbal way of communicating to others, sending connotative vibrations to those on the same wavelength. Because of its unique ability not only to convey aesthetic beauty but also the values and personal brand of its wearer, I believe fashion can also be considered a facet of the Communications field.
Strategic communication, by its nature, is goal oriented, as is fashion. “Vote with your wallet” has been around for decades. Since the 60’s, boycotts and have been a regular part of American culture, but they rarely expand beyond the one or two brands du jour. The act of purchasing clothing is knotted within politics, because it is a direct endorsement of the brand’s ethos and supply chain. In few other industries are brands as politicized as they are in the fashion world, because wearing an item of clothing is performative and necessary. To understand the power of ideology, look no further than the lucrative deception of greenwashing. Some brands want to appear as part of the ideological contexts of human rights and environmental movements to boost sales, knowing that there is an automatic audience built into slow and ethical fashion. In American politics, Trump voters happily donned uniform head wear, as did protesters at the Women’s March.
What we choose to wear impacts how others receive us. Unless you share photographs online, there are scant opportunities for your neighbors to see what brand of cereal you prefer; meanwhile, everyone you encounter on your commute or morning jog can see and judge your clothing. A Nike swoosh says athlete to some and sweatshop to others.
Even clothing picked for its comfort sends a signal of safety. One doesn’t choose a pair of Uggs just for comfort; sneakers are comfortable. You choose them because they carry connotations with them that appeal to the message you want to send. They say, “I’m like you, I like the same things as you” or “I choose sensible footwear”. Wild, conservative, powerful, nondescript, slovenly; all outfits send a message. Those messages are how we find our tribes, in-groups that bring comfort like a oversized sweater. All humans want to belong somewhere, and clothing and the norms surrounding dress are an essential part of the formation and maintenance of both culture and sub-cultures.
Fishnets peeping through the holes of a pair of well-worn jeans are not the same as black nylons under an A-line midi dress, obviously. What we wear becomes part of who we are in the eyes of others. Sexuality, morality, intelligence, and affluence are all judgments made of a person based on the fabric covering them. Clothing is an signal that is both emitted and received, and the intended affect is not necessarily the actual response. Like a conversation, one person says what he or she believe and that is then interpreted by the audience and read in the context of their own experiences. Those who can anticipate what an audience wants to hear can manipulate their reciprocal relationships with that audience. In a job interview, strategically chosen pieces of clothing convey obedience, conservatism, and work ethic; this parallels the process of choosing phrasing in a political speech to convey patriotism or hope. Strategic communication is a field that seeks to convey information in a way that moves the audience to act or think in a way congruent with the speaker’s intent. Clothing does the same.
Michelle Obama chose clothing that reinforced her message. She often wore American brands, collaborating with designers like Jason Wu to create custom pieces meant to fit her status, the context, and her message. She championed new and emerging designers that represented the America she wanted to foster. During the ’08 campaign, she famously made White House/ Black Market an essential sartorial choice for political junkies. The dress she wore was not only elegant and reserved, but it was affordable. I imagine her intent was to convey familiarity and authenticity, and it worked. That this political Olympian donned the garb of everyday woman caused my mother and me to explore the shelves of WH/BM often that year.
One can use fashion strategically to influence an audience, fashion, then, can be analyzed as a facet of the field of strategic communication just as advertising and mass media. Because it is so often relegated to the realm of women, the study and appreciation of personal aesthetic has often been unwisely disregarded. The way we choose to interact with the world and each other is incredibly influential, and it is part of what shapes culture.