Life&Style Writer Anya Logue praises fashion as a means of self-expression, rather than self-definition
Fashion matters. This immediately became apparent to Michelle Obama in 2008, thrust into the political limelight by her husband’s election. In the new Netflix documentary Becoming, Michelle describes the terrifying realisation that the clothes she wore at each public event ‘had the potential of defining me for the rest of my life.’ She explains, ‘Fashion for a woman still predominates how people view you, and that’s not fair, that’s not right but it’s true.’
This is deeply relatable not just for celebrities, but is something that any woman who has ever felt despair looking at her wardrobe for something adequate to wear can probably relate to. Men are not immune either – how often have you seen political commentary on Donald Trump’s hair rather than his policies? But it seems that women are almost universally more scrutinised for their fashion choices than men.
It is difficult not to become exhausted by the seemingly unrelenting focus on our looks. Some actresses have spoken up about their frustration, accusing the now infamous red carpet interview question ‘What are you wearing?’ of sexism. Amy Poehler started the #SmartGirlsAsk campaign in 2016 to encourage more questions focused on their careers or achievements rather than designers.
But people are interested in fashion. The fashion industry was estimated to be worth $1.78 trillion in February 2019, and it is only growing. The clothes we wear tell a story about our personality, whether we like it or not. Trying to turn the tide on this seems like an impossible task.
Instead, Michelle Obama thinks that you can find a way to ‘turn [fashion] into your tool, rather than being a victim of it.’ She decided that if people were going to talk about the clothes she wore, she would make them reflect the values that she wanted to promote. With the help of her designer, Meredith Koop, she began consciously picking out outfits that were clearly ‘forward thinking, embracing youth, embracing diversity’. Michelle turned people’s obsession with clothes into an advantage, reshaping the conversation to incorporate the messages that she wanted to promote.
Other women have found ways of making their fashion choices intentional. For example, the Green Carpet Challenge, involving wearing designers that specifically promote sustainable and ethical fashion, has been endorsed by celebrities like Jessie J, Emma Watson, and Olivia Coleman. Perhaps fashion does not have to feel like an irrelevant distraction from the ‘important’ things. Maybe the trick is to use fashion as a force for good.