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Politics of Clothes: When Nationalism Meets Fashion by Han Sung Lim

Political leaders communicate subtle or overt messages through their apparel. President Justin Trudeau attracted attention when he wore a rainbow pair of socks with the words “Eid Mubarak” – “have a blessed holiday” in Arabic – sewn on them, to a Toronto Pride movement, which was hosted during Ramadan. President Trump’s campaign message “Make America Great Again” stands out on red t-shirts and ball caps, which Trump allegedly spent 3.2 million dollars on, according to Federal Election Commission Filings.

But, Trump isn’t the only one who has promoted nationalism through fashion. In 2017, President Xi Jinping invited Trump to Beijing, showcasing traditional Chinese musicians dressed in Hanfu costumes. President Xi has recently promoted Hanfu, clothing of the ethnic Han majority, which is believed to have been worn before western imperial invasion, as part of an holistic efforts to reestablish traditional virtues in the populace. The market for Hanfu is growing rapidly, some saying that it has millions of – mostly female – followers.

It’s hard to claim that one shouldn’t promote a worldview or an idea through clothing. Often, clothing is inextricably entwined with the socio-political vision of an artist, such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee who led the Save the Saree movement to make Indian garment and culture more widely popular and quoted that “nothing fosters nationalism like national clothing.”

The fashion consumer adds another layer of personal meaning by wearing the clothing in their unique experiential, cultural and social context. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example, entwines her femininity onto her Nigerian apparel, which embodies “an ethos of clothing as pleasure than status” and brings relief with the “casual presence of sleeves.” This philosophy of fashion is just as valid as the philosophy of fashion as a medium of status, strength or empowerment, promoted by women like IMF President Christine Lagarde and Nancy Pelosi, who communicates political authority through her Armani wardrobe. Likewise, clothing is self-expression, which, some can argue, deserves protections akin to those conferred by freedom of expression.

In light of international criticism towards China’s oppressive policies to the Uighurs and Tibetans, and concern that such nationalism can turn into chauvinism against such minorities, one can argue that clothing like Hanfu may help foster preexisting ethnic tensions. Some reports say that in addition to preventing Muslim Uighurs from fasting during Ramadan, Chinese authorities are cutting women’s long conservative dresses in public. Historically, Chinese dynasties such as Qin and Han imposed strict policies on what fabrics and colors people of different classes could use in their clothing, reinforcing classist divide. As research shows that economic development of a minority region is correlated with the minority’s degree of integration with the central Chinese state, Uighurs and Tibetans’ resistance toward Hanfu could be met by broader ethnic Han hostility.

Yet, one should note that no one person or political community holds enduring monopoly over the meaning of clothing. Similar to his love of Volkswagen, Adolf Hitler promoted Lederhosen, leather breeches worn by men of the Alpine, and Dirndl, a bodice and pinafore dress commonly worn by working women. Decades later, the Christian Social Union and liberal pro-refugee Greens party in Bavaria rebranded the clothing with their nationalism, and nowadays teenagers and young adults go clubbing in them.

If such is true, then political leaders, artists, fashion consumers and the general populace all hold important roles in determining the values that certain clothing bear. Although the German government cannot forcefully put Thor Steinar out of business for building its brand on Neo Nazis, Angela Merkel, Karl Lagerfeld, German women and men can chose not to buy their products or re-appropriate its brand to serve a different set of values. 

Han Sung Lim is a Sophomore at Tufts University studying International Relations and Film and Media Studies. 

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