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Fashion is political; but it can only create social change if we allow it to

Drag queen, Jackie Cox, gave the world a masterclass on how a garment can open the door to difficult political dialogue - but we have to be listening.

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Image Credit: Jerry Kiesewetter

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. As drag queen Jackie Cox turned the corner to face the runway on the main stage of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, snapshots of her outfit told the story of a decades old struggle, let alone one of a mere thousand words. The Iranian Canadian drag artist wore a red and white striped kaftan paired with a starred hijab. As the judges and viewers at home alike watched her walk the runway her voiceover explained how “you can be Middle-Eastern, you can be Muslim and you can still be American.”

Designed by Travis Ostriech and inspired by the “We the People” series by Shepard Fairey, her choice is outfit was an act of defiance. In a nation where it is seen as treacherous to burn the American flag, she instead flew the same flag proudly for voices targeted by Trump’s Republican administration. The provocation, however, hits a paradox as over 7000 miles away Iranian legislation maintains that homosexuality is punishable by death, as she outlined in previous episodes. Like so many, her identity threatens to be in limbo as it struggles to find a home in either Iran or contemporary American society. In an Instagram post, she wrote how her intentions were to “honour her Muslim friends and family” and make a “stand against the Islamophobia they had faced”.

Earlier in the season, Jackie Cox revealed emotively to guest judge and congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio Cortez that her mother, who emigrated to America from Iran, was continuously being told to “go back to where she came from” amidst the noise of the “send her back” scandal last summer. She thanked Ocasio Cortez for working “in solidarity with congresswoman Tlaib and congresswoman Omar” to defend the rights of immigrants. In a private moment backstage with the queens, Ocasio Cortez told the contestants that in her eyes they were “patriots”.

Guest judge of this episode, Jeff Goldblum has come under fire in the LGBT community for his comments on the outfit. “Is there something anti-women or anti-homosexuality about this religion?” he pondered in his critiques after asking her about her religious stance. Since airing, the Twittersphere angrily filled with remarks that if she had worn Christian imagery, as queens had done in the past, she would not have faced the same inquiry. This may be true, but these responses are still problematic. Goldblum’s comments were not in the style of harassment, nor was his tone accusatory. His valid questioning of Islam should not be hastily equated to Islamophobia. When fashion opens the door to difficult political dialogue, we have to be cautious not to silence debate that doesn't immediately bow down to the symbolism of the garment. Questions have to be allowed; it's how we learn as a society. We must be prudent not to take three steps forward, and two steps back.

The outfit spoke many sentiments, one of which emerges clear; fashion can be political. It is not only those on the left who have utilised this tool. When you envision Trump’s 2016 election campaign, which feels further back in history now than four years ago, our minds turn to the infamous red baseball caps. Trump stamped a message across an everyday piece of clothing, subconsciously ingraining the message into voters’ minds that he was the ordinary run of the mill businessman to “make America great again”. An item as mundane as a baseball cap became the very symbol of Trump’s political endeavours.

The 2018 Golden Globes hosted a similar phenomena. Attendees wore black in solidarity with the #MeToo movement after sexual harassment accusations against Harvey Weinstein became public. A year later, during President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, members of the Democratic Working Women’s Group wore white to honour the suffragette movement of the early 20th Century and to recognise progress made in women’s rights. The lesson is clear; gowns, caps and kaftans alike are more than seams and stitching, the items of clothing can be a form of societal expression.

The utopia of politics began as a profession for the noble with their hearts set to act on the voice of the people. A modern reality, however, is that for many politics can be a dark place. In a world where governance has become a high stakes game, every action we do can be political. With America gearing up for an election, this is true now more than ever.

Debate around hijabs and burkas in western countries remains divisive, complex and far from complete. But this is what needed to be achieved; a continuing, intellectual and inclusive conversation as opposed to policymakers placing the whole Muslim world into a box while crossing their fingers that they don't need to open it again until they leave office.

Simultaneously, we cannot isolate the issue to one sole outfit. Falling into this reductionist trap is exactly what the Republican administration is accused of. There are so many issues at play including oppression, individual choice and security as well as the regional history behind the garment. To even claim that fashion can be political is a privileged statement. Fashion is a form of self-expression and in some parts of the world, this remains a luxury. What we can do, and indeed should do, is allow Jackie Cox to open our eyes to the ongoing struggle for acceptance in a country historically deemed the shining beacon of hope and democracy. The American dream is not yet for all.

Fashion can be an instrument of societal and political change, but we the people have to let it. We have to be listening. Jackie Cox walking the runway in a traditional kaftan and hijab in the style of the American flag spoke volumes. It was political, it was beautiful, and it was drag. If it made viewers uncomfortable; good. That means it's time to sit up and pay attention.

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