Vanessa Friedman

Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic, the New York Times

The first time I really started to see fashion as a means of discussing larger issues was the 2000 presidential campaign with George Bush and Al Gore. It was the first time I understood the way public figures use clothing to manipulate perception in a very conscious way. I had moved to London and was freelancing at the time, so perhaps that distance gave me a different perspective. Whatever the reason though, it was my Damascene moment.

A widely dispersed story at the time (that later turned out to be wrong) was that Al Gore was being told to wear softer, more feminine colors to make himself seem more approachable. Meanwhile, there was no question that George W. Bush was using cowboy boots as his personal signifier. Together, the two made me realize, "Oh, these clothes, which are great, interesting aesthetic objects, are also strategic tools for communication."

Roland Barthes talked about this idea of fashion as semiology, most clearly in his book The Language of Fashion. I had studied some of his work in school, but all of a sudden it seemed relevant to the modern world in a practical way I’d never seen before. It really changed how I thought about everybody I saw, from models on the catwalk to guys who run companies to my colleagues to electoral candidates.

In the years since, combined with the rise of social media, these signifiers have become exponentially more powerful. There’s a lot more awareness today about messaging spins and marketing, and I think clothes are a part of that. We ignore it at our peril.

The election set me off in a whole different direction, analytically and critically. It made me approach fashion in an entirely new way; it gave the topic depths and dimensions that made it endlessly interesting.

—As told to Chavie Lieber

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