How Activism Became Fashion’s Latest Must-Have

Activism in fashion
Radical style … Leomie Anderson, Adwoa Aboah and Cameron Russell. Composite: Getty Images

You can tell a lot about an era by its fashion models. In the 60s, the spirit of the youthquake was personified by the wide-eyed, Bambi-limbed Twiggy. In the early 90s, nothing said “sod the recession” like a glamazon who wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000. In the ensuing two decades, Kate Moss represented not just a waifish appearance but a sphinx-like attitude, espousing the motto: “Never complain, never explain.”

But in the social media era, something new is happening. In the age of protest and fourth-wave feminism, it is no longer enough for models to slink down a catwalk anonymously: silence is starting to look seriously déclassé. The hot thing in modelling is not a look, but a viewpoint. It is having a voice and not being afraid to use it. It is TED talks and open letters. It is Instagramming pictures from protest marches and hosting debates about intersectionality. It is campaigning for charities and founding NGOs. It is outspoken. It is woke.

Socially conscious models are popping up everywhere. On the current covers of i-D and Love magazines is Adwoa Aboah, a woman whose relatively small stature (5ft 8in) has done nothing to thwart her towering success. As well as appearing on catwalks and campaigns for Dior and Versus Versace, Aboah runs an initiative called Gurlstalk; her Instagram page intersperses backstage fashion show photographs with moving posts on her struggle with depression.

Many of Aboah’s contemporaries equally refuse to conform to the archetype of the taciturn model. In both Love and i-D, Aboah appears with Slick Woods, a spliff-smoking 20-year-old based in New York who said in a recent interview: “I’m definitely an out-of-pocket pick for a model. I say what I want and do what I want.”

‘With social media, we all have voices and opinions’ …Leomie Anderson, modelling one of her hoodies
‘With social media, we all have voices and opinions’ …Leomie Anderson, modelling one of her hoodies Photograph: PR company handout

British model Leomie Anderson runs a website that publishes articles by women (a recent one was titled: What does Brexit mean for women and marginalised communities?) and sells clothing with empowering slogans. One of her hoodies, with “This p***y grabs back” on it, was worn by Rihanna on the New York Women’s March in January. Last month, during a Q&A at a Mayfair-based pop-up women’s space to mark International Women’s Day, Anderson argued that outspoken models are helping change the fashion industry from the inside out: “When I was younger I was told, ‘Modelling is going to be harder for you because you’re black’, and I just accepted it,” she said. “Now, with social media, we all have voices and opinions. Before, if it wasn’t on the news, who was talking about it?”

Of course, this is not the first time that models have taken a stance – in the 90s, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford said they would rather go naked than wear fur – but back then only a handful of models spoke out, and only once they were famous. Now, speaking out can bolster your career.

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