The power of wearing white: clothes haven’t flexed this degree of rebellious muscle since punk

white wednesdays
A young Iranian woman takes part in #WhiteWednesdays  Credit: My Stealthy Freedom 

“Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”

I’m nominating this quote as peak Diana Vreeland. What we wear is almost always, in one way or another political, without us noticing. Do we broadly follow the ‘rules’, or fall in with them?

Most of us don’t have to take sartorial risks to the extent that those brave Iranian women posting pictures of themselves wearing white this week have. In defiance of Iran’s all-black rule they’re a reminder of the ways in which the tiniest gestures can become a mass movement. How cool, in every sense, to be able to borrow, even temporarily, some of the privileges of Iranian men, who are permitted to enjoy wearing white whenever they fancy.

Arguably clothes haven’t flexed this degree of rebellious muscle since punk. Watching the pantsuit (as Americans insist on calling it, despite supposedly being great marketeers) transmute into a female rallying symbol last year beats tracking the stratospheric ascent of handbag prices.

Hillary Clinton in white Ralph Lauren Credit: EPA

And what about feminist slogan t-shirts or pussy power pink beanies? Whether we aim to look affluent, deliberately grunge down, settle for a classic fudge of expensive under-statement or subscribe to any of the above without realising - these things become habitual. And they’re often rooted in attitudes to wealth and class that took form when we were teenagers or younger.

It’s not just women. From reclaiming pink or grappling with the dilemma of whether or not the tie has become Too Tory (George Osborne seemed to think so on Andrew Marr’s sofa on Sunday) to dissecting Jeremy Corbyn’s gradual adoption of his smart M&S suit (capitulation to capitalism or a sign of late-onset maturity?) men have entered the sartorial maelstrom of politics with a small c.

A women's suffrage parade in 1915.  Credit: Bettmann/Getty
Hillary Clinton got with the white programme in the final months of her campaign. Ultimately it didn’t too her much good.

As for white – it’s quite a strange synchronicity that it’s also very fashionable on the catwalks, don’t you think? Then again, white is wonderfully ambiguous. Brides, druids, devout Muslim men on Fridays, Hindu brides, Buddhist mourners, Kundalini yogis, Zoroastrianist priests, many observant Jews on the high days of Passover and Selichot, and the first wave of suffragettes all wear or wore white. It symbolises goodness, but also passive resistance (Gandi, the Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White, a group founded in 2003 by the wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents protest their the imprisonments by wearing white on Sundays).

Oscar de la Renta's SS17 collection featured many white looks. 

It’s the colour of peace, power and surrender. In most societies, it’s also quite look- at-me. There is no way the poster of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever would be seared forever into our consciousness if Travolta who originally pushed for black, had got his way. Tom Wolfe wears white, always. He claims that rather than an affectation, this began because where he came from in Virginia, gentlemen always wore white in the summer and when he first arrived in New York, he couldn’t afford to buy another other suits. Ditto Leslie Kenton, the beauty guru who says her 50-year passion for white seeded when she was broke and bought the simplest clothes she could find, which she constantly tossed in the washing machine. “White not only inspires me,” she writes on her blog, “It is so simple to wear and it calms my overly intense nature. I loved it then when I owned only one white dress and I still love it now.”

It’s striking how even in 2017, white has overtones of purity despite the gargantuan cleaning bills, bleaching agents and general high maintenance. The trick is to go for sustainable, washable fabrics – and, unless you’re aiming for an ashram vibe, to break your outfit up with black, tan, navy or khaki accessories. Gold can look blingy.

Gwyneth Paltrow wears a caped Tom Ford gown to the Oscars in 2012. Credit: Wireimage

Even then, the effect may not be quite what you intended. White does strange things. Marilyn’s outrageous breeze-jacking in The Seven Year Itch looks oddly angelic, thanks to the halo of white pleats billowing around her. Others have tried to exploit white’s innocent qualities only to find their outfit became transparent under flashlights (Princess Diana’s cotton nursery teacher skirt) or makes them look like a moderately competent midwife (Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars) when they were aiming for Hollywood glamour.

Hillary Clinton got with the white programme in the final months of her campaign. Ultimately it didn’t too her much good. Perhaps Melania’s tan simply sets white off better in the eyes of many voters. That’s the trouble with using clothes to political ends – sometimes they take on views of their own.