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The Politics of Style in 2016 – VICE
Looking back at 2016, it was inevitable that our contentious presidential election, featuring polarizing icons Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, would sear itself into the fabric of American style. We all watched as our media pundits fixated not just on the policies and perspectives of the presidential candidates, but also on the clothes they wore and why. We saw identity politics stretch from the campaign trail out to the closets of everyday citizens and the runways of New York Fashion Week. And we witnessed the way hats and T-shirts and sneakers became an ideological battleground for Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, SJWs and alt-righters.
Since so much has happened at the intersection of style and politics this year, we thought it’d be good idea to take a trip back down memory lane and revisit some of the most significant events of 2016 that involved our politics and the way we express ourselves through the stuff we wear.
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL
We’ve always been interested in what American politicians wear and the signals those clothes send, from the towering presence of Abe Lincoln’s hat to the freakout over Barack Obama’s sharp khaki suit. Fittingly, in 2016 the wardrobes and appearances of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were almost as hotly discussed and dissected as the clothes of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
Long before Hillary Clinton put her bid in for the White House, Americans have been fixated with her wardrobe. From her early days as a lawyer in the 70s, Clinton has defied gender stereotypes with her adoption of pantsuits over skirts and dresses. Over the years, the two-piece sets have have empowered many and angered some who felt she should dress more “feminine.” Tim Gunn once famously claimed she was “confused about her gender.”
Hillary Clinton participates in the Democratic Candidates Debate on January 17, 2016 in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Because of this past controversy, through much of the 2016 election season, it seemed as though Clinton was trying to take the spotlight off of her clothing. Instead of her usual brightly colored pantsuits, during the Democratic debates she opted for a muted colors of navy, brown, and black, much like her male counterparts. In January, Venessa Friedman of the New York Times claimed that the presidential candidate had ended the chatter over her style by “boring everyone into silence.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the gender-driven obsession with Hillary’s look was reignited. Following the Democratic candidate’s speech on income inequality in June, her outfit made almost as many headlines as her proposal for fixing the economy. A big part of the internet’s fascination was over her Armani jacket’s $12,000 price tag—regardless of the fact that Trump’s go-to suit designer, Brioni, can cost as much as $17,000. Before accepting the Democratic nomination in July, “What will Hillary wear tonight?” was the top-trending search term on Google associated with her name.
But, Clinton’s suits weren’t just a point of controversy, they became a symbol of solidarity for her supporters. Prior to election day, a Facebook group with millions of members called “Pantsuit Nation” revealed their intentions to wear their power suits as an ode to Hillary. Its social media accounts were flooded with pictures of people donning their pantsuits as they headed to the polls.
Donald Trump arrives at the USA Thank You Tour 2016 at the Wisconsin State Fair Exposition Center December 13, 2016 in West Allis, Wisconsin. Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump was also no stranger to creating buzz with his look. Throughout his campaign, the president-elect got plenty of flack for everything from his Cheeto-colored tan to his idiosyncratic combover.
The media even launched investigations into how he could master that unnatural hue of orange skin. According to the RNC’s makeup artist, the recipe involves a mixture of tanning beds and artificial tanners. His mystifying combover was another stumper. Over the years, there has been plenty of speculation over the evolution of Trump’s locs and it continued through 2016. His signature blonde hairdo had people likening him to everything this year, from a fur-covered Gucci shoe to a Chinese pheasant with an uncanny resemblance. Many have accused his strange-looking mop of being a wig, but he attempted to debunk those rumors in September by letting Jimmy Fallon aggressively tousle his hair on television.
Much like Hillary, Trump was also criticized for his suits. Even though he is willing to dish out thousands on one outfit from Brioni or famed New York City tailor Martin Greenfield, the fit always seems to be off. The Washington Post’s fashion critic Robin Givhan perfectly described his suiting as, “a little too roomy, the sleeves a tad too long. So much so that they look cheap.”
Despite becoming winning the election in November, it doesn’t look like being the president-elect has improved his fashion sense. In December, a powerful gust of wind revealed that our future president uses Scotch tape to fasten his tie together.
As he prepares to take the keys of the White House from Obama, let’s hope he also inherits Obama’s tailor.
Tee-shirts supporting either US Republican presidential nominees at Philadelphia International Airport on October 20, 2016 . Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
This election cycle, presidential hopefuls didn’t just battle on the debate stage and in TV campaign ads. They also duked it out via their supporters by using their bodies as walking billboards. Never before in electoral politics have we seen candidates spend more money on branded merchandise than the most recent presidential election. In January alone, Clinton spent approximately $147,399, while Trump dished out $912,397 on promotional goods. All together, the six candidates that were still in the running in January 2016, spent $2,228,204 on campaign products in that month alone.
“Usually, bumper stickers would be the most popular form of support for a candidate, but this year it was different,” said Michael Cohen, a retail expert with NPD, a group of market research experts. “The ability to merchandise it, billboard it through that merchandise, and raise money selling the merchandise was also unlike any other.”
By May, Trump had invested $4.3 million on merchandise, in comparison to Clinton’s $1.4 million. In the thick of his campaign, Trump was spending nearly $2 million on a slew of red, white, and blue gear emblazoned with his controversial slogan “Make America Great Again” that he sold on his website. To put it all in perspective, Obama only spent a total of $1.3 million on swag during his entire 2008 campaign.
But the Donald wasn’t the only one pushing pro-Trump goods. As the Republican nominee made his way across the country in 2016, so did independent vendors selling anti-Hillary gear. Similar to Trump’s campaign, the merch was filled with hateful slogans like “Trump That Bitch” and “Hillary sucks but not like Monica” plastered across the chest. Many Trump fans loved the hateful merch, making it a staple at his rallies around the US. These bootlegs reportedly made the dealers hundreds of dollars a day.
“It wasn’t good enough to support your choice on the car, it had to be shouted and discussed,” said Cohen. “By wearing your support, it brought on conversation. It went with you wherever you went and didn’t stay in the parking lot.”
Although not on Trump’s level, there was plenty of pro-Clinton merch being shelled out, too. Styles like the red “everyday pantsuit tee,” which featured a screen-printed version of Hillary’s suit jacket and the iconic “I’m with Her” tee became popular designs for her supporters. Clinton also enlisted designers like Diane von Furstenberg, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, and Joseph Altuzarra to create a more fashionable range of merch for her. Still, her investment in apparel was dwarfed by her competition.
By October Trump had reportedly spent $13.5 million dollars on merchandise, with a hefty $3.5 million spent on “Make America Great Again” hats alone, which is more than he spent on polling or direct mail.
The unofficial Trump merch market was also booming as election day grew closer. It appeared the D.I.Y. designs were growing even more popular and getting even more offensive, too. After “pussy gate,” one woman was spotted wearing a shirt that said “Trump Can Grab My…” with an arrow pointing to her crotch, a man on the street was photographed donning an “I wish Hillary had married OJ” tee, and a father attending a rally with his children sported a “Hillary is a Cunt. Vote Trump” shirt.
A 22-year-old Home Depot employee received death threats for wearing an “America Was Never Great” hat and a nine-year-old was banned from wearing his signed “Make America Great Again” hat to school because it was attracting negative attention.
As the campaign raged on, it seemed the presidential candidates couldn’t say anything without it being turned into a wearable product. After Hillary referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” during her speech at a LGBTQ gala, the slogan “Deplorables for Trump” was printed on a T-shirt. When Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman” during the final debate, merch with the viral comment flooded sites like Etsy and Amazon.
While politicized clothing was being embraced by those wanting to showcase their support, it was also making them targets. A 22-year-old Home Depot employee received death threats for wearing an “America Was Never Great” hat and a nine-year-old was banned from wearing his signed “Make America Great Again” hat to school because it was attracting negative attention from other students.
After the election, it became clear that supporters on both sides aren’t willing to give up their politically-driven wardrobes. Clinton fans designed new shirts with slogans like “I’m still with her.” And days after being named president-elect, Trump sent an email to his supporters urging them to pick up their “piece of history” in the form of his official MAGA hats and “big league” T-shirts. Fans continue to crowd around the gift shop in Trump Tower, where his T-shirts sell out regularly. Even irrelevant celebrities like Kid Rock joined the Trump merch train in December, releasing a line of tees and hats just in time for the holidays that say ridiculous things like “Make America Badass Again” and “God, Guns, and Trump.”
But even though the election is over, the contention around all of this politically themed merchandise has not ceased. In November, a man in New York City was allegedly choked because of his MAGA hat.
THE FASHION INDUSTRY
A model walks the runway at Namilia fashion show during New York Fashion Week. Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Fashion Week: The Shows
From designers to retailers, those in the fashion industry weren’t shy about broadcasting their political alliances—and Clinton was the clear favorite. Early on in the campaigns, designers like Marc Jacobs, Tory Burch, and Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osbourne of Public School joined forces with Clinton to create a collection of unisex tees inscribed with messages like “Make Herstory” and “Women’s rights are equal rights.” The shirts were sported by some of her most influential fans in fashion from Kendall Jenner to Anna Wintour.
Wintour, the infamous editor-in-chief for Vogue, was one of Clinton’s biggest celebrity supporters. Not only did she act as a style consultant throughout the Democratic nominee’s campaign, which might explain some of Clinton’s style choices, she also hosted fundraisers around the world from Washington D.C. to London. One star-studded event hosted by Wintour in New York City raked in $2 million in one night. Her co-sign of Clinton also lead to Vogue‘s first-ever presidential endorsement.
Of course, Trump is no stranger to the industry himself. In 2004, he launched a line of suits and men’s dress clothes called the Donald J. Trump Collection, which is sold at department stores around the country. But his ties to the fashion world seemed to do more harm than good in this election. Macy’s publicly dropped his line in June of 2015, after his offensive remarks about Mexican immigrants and refused to bring him back in 2016. The Trump Collection also faced backlash early this year when it was discovered that many of his dress shirts, suits, and jackets were made in countries like Indonesia, China, and Mexica—which came off as a direct contradiction of his rhetoric about creating more jobs for American citizens.
Following Trump’s presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in July, brands started coming forward to express their distaste for him. Brendon Babenzian, the former Supreme creative director who launched his own brand Noah in 2015, announced on social media that he would give any Trump supporters their money back.
“For those of you in the comments who said you feel strongly enough to not shop with or support us, we will gladly accept your Noah merchandise back for a full refund,” Babenzian wrote on the now-deleted Instagram post.
International retailers like American Apparel also got political with a “Make America Gay Again” collection that included a range of apparel emblazoned with the new take on Trump’s slogan and rainbow flags. Even Urban Outfitters took sides this election by selling anti-trump shirts with slogans like “IDK NOT TRUMP.” Their first run of 300 shirts reportedly sold out in 24 hours.
When New York Fashion Week rolled around in September, the fashion industry was getting more vocal about the 2016 election and their fear of a Trump presidency. Instead of presenting a traditional runway show, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony put together a “Pageant of the People.” The designers wanted to use their platform to discuss the importance of issues like LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, and the Syrian refugee crisis. The topics were addressed on stage by famous guests like Rashida Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, and Diane Guerrero, who also simultaneously modeled OC’s latest collection.
Kerby Jean-Raymond, the designer behind Pyer Moss, also used his NYFW show to make a political statement. The presentation titled “Bernie vs. Bernie,” used the dichotomy between Sanders’s socialism and Madoff’s capitalism as inspiration. The collection, which was a take on the Wall Street uniform with pieces like deconstructed suits was meant to offer commentary on the election, capitalism, and the economy. However, Raymond refused to use any references of Trump in the show. “I won’t make any graphics about him. I won’t give him any more fame,” he told Fashionista.
Other designers were more explicit with their anti-Trump stance. R13 opened its NYFW show with a red and white silk mini dress emblazoned with a “Fuck Trump” print, it appeared again on a pair of pants and sweatshirt in the collection. “To all the Trump supporters…#sorrynotsorry,” the brand wrote on Instagram prior to its show.
Photo courtesy of Pyer Moss/Chapter 2
The Berlin-based brand Namilia also used its Spring/Summer 2017 collection to voice their stance on Trump. Several of the pieces throughout their NYFW presentation featured images of the Republican nominee dressed in bondage and being dominated by women with the words “Take Down Trump.”
“We had these references of chains and fetish and we thought who else do we want to take down and chain to the ground, and it just hit me—Donald Trump,” said Nan Li, the co-founder of Namilia told me after the show. “In Germany you would never see a T-shirt with the Prime Minister on it, it is just so scary that here Donald can become an idol,” added his partner Emilia Pfohl.
Despite Trump’s win in November, the fashion industry’s protest of the former reality star didn’t stop. Several designers made it known that they would not be providing clothes for his wife Melania. Sophie Theallet, who has dressed Michelle Obama, wrote an open letter explaining her refusal to dress the former model and future first lady:
“As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next first lady. The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the values I live by,” Theallet wrote. She also called for other designers to follower her lead, while Tom Ford shared that he has been refusing to dress Melania for years.
Some Americans called for a boycott against stores that carried not only Trump’s merchandise, but also his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line, which included big name retailers like Nordstrom, Amazon, Neiman Marcus, and Lord & Taylor.
But not everyone was protesting a Trump win. Following election night, New Balance’s vice president of communication Matt LeBretton told the Wall Street Journal, “We feel things are going to move in the right direction” under Donald Trump. Many were so outraged over the comment, which was apparently made in reference to Trump’s opposition of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that they threw out and even burned their New Balance sneakers.
Conversely, the Daily Stormer, a neo-nazi site, was so pleased with the sportswear company’s support for Trump that they proclaimed their sneakers “the official shoe of white people” and urged its readers to buy its sneakers and apparel.
While New Balance became a signal for “white power,” wearing a safety pin became a symbol inclusivity. Following the devastating election, Americans took cues from the UK and adopted the safety pin to show their solidarity with people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community. The idea originally came from a woman named Allison, who implemented the safety pin campaign after Brexit, when marginalized groups felt they were being targeted. Although the act came with some criticism, thousands of people across the US sported the silver accessory—including LeBron James on the latest cover Sports Illustrated.
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There’s no telling how essential fashion and style will be to our political discourse as we enter the Trump era in 2017. But considering Trump’s daughter Ivanka is emailing “style alerts” to her followers after interviews with 60 Minutes to hawk expensive style accessories, and men’s fashion icon Kanye West is kissing up to the president-elect at the Trump Towers, it seems like we’re headed for another year where our style is fueled by unprecedented nature of our politics.
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