How runway shows and fashion campaigns become a voice for what is happening around the world

From Princess Diana's revenge dress to the statement red pins worn by celebrities at the 96th Academy Awards, here's a fashionable reminder to look between the seams.

Harper's Bazaar India

For the 96th Academy Awards, celebrities including Billie Eilish, Mark Ruffalo, and Finneas O’Connell were spotted wearing red pins, not just as accessories, but as a symbol of solidarity. The pins had a deeper meaning—a call of action for a ceasefire in the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, and advocating for peace in Gaza. Fashion can become a powerful tool to narrate stories and make impactful statements about socio-political issues. However, this concept is not new. Most of us remember Princess Diana’s iconic revenge dress, designed by Christina Stambolian, which changed the way a woman was expected to behave after a divorce. Meghan Markle, following in her footsteps, is also known to send out definitive statements with her outfits. A great example would be the emerald green Emilia Wickstead cape dress she wore to the 2020 Commonwealth Day, right before her retirement from her royal role. Things are not so different when it comes to brands. Using runway shows and strong campaigns with a well-thought-out message are probably the best ways to tap into the consumers’ emotions and talk about issues that matter.

Designers like Alexander McQueen have delivered stellar runway moments—the Spring 1999 show where robots spraypainted the all-white tube gown adorned by Shalom Harlow, an idea which was way ahead of its time and yet delivered a stirring message. The fashionable performance explored the dichotomy between nature and technology, the human and the artificial. Making these connections today would be easy, considering the inception of ChatGPT, which has sparked concerns about human creativity. On the other hand, there is the 2023 Coperni show in Paris. A dress was spray-painted onto Bella Hadid on the runway, a sci-tech couture blend that garnered massive discourse on social media while advocating for an alternative future.

Billie Eilish at the 96th Academy Awards
Billie Eilish at the 96th Academy Awards

These runway presentations can read gimmicky, but the intention is not just to get numbers on Instagram. An Italian sustainable luxury brand might ring a bell in this context. AVAVAV’s 2024 Milan Fashion Week showcase was inspired by online trolling and they brought the premise of ‘trashy comments’ to life. The audience threw garbage at the models and the designer got face-pied! This was not the first time they experimented with such a theme, their previous shows have narrated stories of stress, the fake-it-until-you-make-it energy, and more. Labels such as Sunnei amplified ‘judging is an instinct’ as their runway motif. The thought was that since each one of us is assessing the ensembles internally, why don’t we share our opinions out loud? 

a model in a Alexander McQueen gown in 1999
A model in an Alexander McQueen gown in 1999

Thom Browne headquartered in New York, a brand initially renowned for their menswear, has successfully curated some of the best runway episodes, one particularly playful collection comprised of bold hues, and teddy bears, and was a play on proportions. This 2022 set was aimed at connecting us to our inner child. Batsheva Hay, an American designer, is not one to shy away from sending out a message. Casting middle-aged women for their runway show, and highlighting the problem of invisibility was a daring manoeuvre.

With John Galliano’s Maison Margiela Spring/Summer 2024 collection, which was breathtaking, the doll-like aesthetics were paired with voluminous hair, pencilled eyebrows, and a characteristic walk choreographed by Pat Boguslawski, that embodied a sense of peculiarity. And to top it all off, the rain rendered the fabrics see-through. And the audience got a front-row view of the models’ pubic hair (which were merkins or pubic wigs that sex workers once wore). One could see it as a theatrical spectacle or a celebration of individuality. Still, it was undoubtedly a fusion of art and fashion that would break the conventional confines of perception going forward. Even though fashion as a narrator can be unreliable, or complex, it still holds a mirror up to the moment. It reminds us to read between the seams, and discover how much clothes can tell.

Lead Image: A model for Avavav runway show at the Milan Fashion Week S/S’24 in Italy. Courtesy:

This article originally appeared in Harper's Bazaar India, 2024 April-May print issue.

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