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If looks could kill

Fashion and politics mix and clash at a new show at the Design Exchange

Japanese designs from Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. Credit: Eugen Sakhnenko

Can the right outfit start a revolution? That’s the question posed by Politics of Fashion | Fashion of Politics, a new exhibit at the Design Exchange, guest-curated by former Fashion Television doyenne Jeanne Beker.

“The show opens with some examples of groups who are vocal about causes related to clothing, particularly PETA and Femen, as well as designers who are particularly active around issues, like Vivienne Westwood, whose recent work is drawing attention to climate change,” says Jeremy Laing, who designed the environment housing the show. “From there, the exhibit looks at subcultural movements, starting with the ’60s youthquake and hippie culture and moving through the decades to punk, as well as skinhead culture, exploring the role clothing has played in defining such groups.”

For couture junkies, there’s plenty to gag over in this exhibit, which features work by queer fashion giants Jean Paul Gaultier and Alexander McQueen. “Gaultier’s work in the show — skirts for men, underwear as outerwear — reflects his propensity for subverting and playing with notions of propriety, ‘good morals’ and ‘good taste,’” Laing explains. “The McQueen pieces are used to explore the synthesis of royalist and military influences in the work of a designer who was, himself, an anti-royalist and a pacifist.”

While the exhibit features work by sartorial heavy hitters like Rei Kawakubo, Issey Miyake, Stella McCartney and Mary Quant, it also saves room for work by underground icons. “I particularly love the pieces from Joey Arias, who sent a jumpsuit he used to perform in as well as Klaus Nomi’s space tuxedo costume,” Laing says. “RuPaul’s red patent-leather Mac Viva Glam outfit from the ’90s is a treat to see. Klaus, Joey and Ru are part of a section that looks at permissiveness around gender play in nightclub culture.”

And what about that revolution? Can fashion really effect change, or is it all just playing dress-up? For Laing, the answer is clear: “From mayoral campaign T-shirts to a women’s basketball team pulling out of a competition instead of abandoning their hijabs, clothing plays an active role in the sociopolitical landscape.”