On paper, the word “liberation” carries a meaning as simple as the act of reaching freedom. The decision by the Fashion and Student Trends club at UC Berkeley, or FAST, to choose this word as the prompt for their spring 2017 fashion show (last Sunday night in Pauley Ballroom) was driven by the oppression felt by many students after the outcome of the recent election — transforming the prompt’s meaning from an abstract noun to an intimate feeling.
Fashion, like most artistic mediums, allows one to communicate feelings on a deeper level than language does, because the process of defining and explaining it depends on shapes, sounds, colors and body language — all things more visceral than words. But by extension of it being a live experience, a fashion show takes this one step further — specifically expanding the power of the art it is showcasing by giving it a forward momentum. In Sunday’s show, the soundtrack, walking pace and models’ changing facial expressions all contributed to an understanding of the designers’ intentions behind their creations.
Some of the most standout collections that were sent down the runway made special use of the one-off-ness of the night to enhance the meanings embedded in the designs.
Mariko Stenstedt’s exploration of professional wear — inspired by Jessica Bennett’s “Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace” — led her to direct her models to take off their sunglasses midway through their walks, changing our impression of their attitudes from cool indifference to summery spunk in an instant, and showing the power and influence that clothes and uniforms have in the way women’s personalities are understood in the workplace. Katie Revilla used plaster to construct statuesque dresses for her models, which she then liberated them from, leaving them in oversized white t-shirts and using their increased mobility to explicitly comment on the burden of others’ expectations. And perhaps most dramatically and poignantly, Zackary Harris examined body censorship and the expectations we hold for people’s identities based on their physical appearances and body types. He covered his models’ faces with silver masks, only to remove them for the final walk to reveal the models’ beautiful uniqueness.
But even designers who didn’t make explicit changes to their collections mid-show imparted powerful messages. An often-recurring interpretation of the “Liberation” theme was a direct social commentary on sexism.
Two notable designers in this vein were Leilah Talukder and Meghan Martin. Talukder’s strongest look featured large hand appliques placed over a long bodycon dress — indicating all the places women are often touched without consent — while a central piece in Martin’s collection was a wire-frame skirt with the words “not your bae” woven into it.
Jinnie Rhee also chose a more forward approach to the prompt, but with an emphasis on the soundtrack — a sound-mixed composition of music from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” Demi Lovato’s “Confident,” and a voiceover of sexist comments — which sharply contrasted with her flowy pastel designs, a tangible display of classic femininity.
Other designers however, such as Queena Li, explored a more nebulous concept of liberation rather than centering on a direct social critique. Li’s collection featured pieces with frayed edges and clunky plastic aprons; her designs were firmly rooted in unconventional shapes that created a metaphor for finding something beautiful in what is traditionally considered ugly or undesirable. Her models maintained fierce expressions as they posed, resolutely refusing to smile or concede to a common standard of beauty.
But ultimately it was what the club’s members were able to create together that is particularly impressive. Each different interpretation of “Liberation,” while specific and personal to each designer and beautiful in their own right, contributed to a larger understanding of the significance of the night. In a blend of specific bluntness and broader philosophical interpretations, Sunday’s show presented a beautiful composition of what liberation means to students here and now.