Home » Opinion | In New York Fashion Week, clothes are a lens into America’s priorities

Opinion | In New York Fashion Week, clothes are a lens into America’s priorities

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Opinion | In New York Fashion Week, clothes are a lens into America’s priorities


During last week’s State of the Union address, I found my attention diverted by one weird detail.

It wasn’t any policy proposal of President Biden’s or alarming statistic about fentanyl. What I couldn’t stop thinking about, as the cameras panned the House, was Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s lemon yellow dress, with its nearly skintight cut and gigantic, butterfly sleeves.

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Why so bright? Why those sleeves? Can anyone sitting behind her see? Why wear that … tonight?

After all, clothing carries meaning. Sinema was trying to say something — but what?

In D.C., fashion is rarely the first thing on anyone’s mind, as the ill-tailored suiting so common to our halls of power attests. Elsewhere, however, careful attention is paid.

As it happened, just a few days after the president outlined his priorities in the political Capitol, New York Fashion Week set out to do the same in our cultural one. I went there to ask this season’s attendees — designers, models, photographers, street style stars — what fashion has to say about our current moment.

Claude Shannon, the MIT professor known as the father of information theory, drew a distinction between data and information. Data is normative — the events we expect. Information, however, is created when an event deviates from the norm — the surprise holds meaning.

A sea of blue and gray suits is normal. A canary yellow dress is a surprise.

The $350 billion U.S. fashion industry creates one of the country’s strongest exports: Levi’s are soft power, the cowboy hat an internationally recognized symbol. Theories abound as to whether hemline lengths or lipstick colors reflect the national mood — or can actually predict it.

“These days, your pocketbook is political. How much money you have is political. So what you buy says something,” fashion photographer and filmmaker Nigel Barker told me.

He noted that recent seasons have been marked by clothes that might be called “boring.” “But it seems wrong,” he said, “at a time when most of the world is affected by the Ukraine war in one way or another, and we’re coming out of a pandemic, and we’re maybe in a recession, to show things that are out of people’s reach and imagination. You have to appeal to the zeitgeist.”

What’s more, adornment has always been used to make statements that might not otherwise be said at all, to proclaim allegiance, to critique the norm, to poke fun or provoke anger.

Again and again, people told me how fashion is a marker of identity — especially in a climate in which many identities feel newly under threat.

“I don’t think you can remove yourself from what you stand for,” said Phillip Lim, whose award-winning label was sponsoring a Fashion Week show in a gallery on the edge of Chinatown. “For me to exist as an Asian American-led brand is politics itself. To be successful as an independent designer but also one of AAPI heritage, it’s the ultimate form of protest.”

Said designer Terry Singh: “I have a little girl, and I make clothes for myself and versions for her — because when we go out, she would say, ‘I want to wear what you wear.’”

His striking collection combines traditional Western suiting with the Indian dhoti. The skirts, beautifully pleated and tailored, challenge staid definitions of masculinity.

“There’s something about the connection between a father and a daughter,” he said. “We’re one and we’re unified, wherever we go. We’re the evolution of everything that came before us, the pain and struggle that every family before us went through to get us here. I want to dress you for that, for what they’ve worked for.”

There will always be those who insist fashion doesn’t matter, that clothing is superficial and those who care about it silly or snobbish. But in the clothes we wear, the way we do our hair, our makeup or accessories, all of us convey something about who we are — and what we think.

Fashion speaks. And it’s wise to listen.

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