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'Fashion and Politics' Exhibit Opens at FIT

New Museum at FIT exhibit "Fashion and Politics" considers important themes such as nationalism, feminism and class.

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Fashion and politics come in many different forms.

Consider the star-studded dress imprinted with an image of Hubert Humphrey’s face, an 1889 American flag-covered costume and the red Naughty Monkey shoes similar to the ones Sarah Palin donned for the Republican National Committee — all of which are featured in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s new exhibition “Fashion & Politics.”

The 100-piece show, which opened Tuesday and runs through Nov. 7, highlights how fashion has often mirrored history over the past 200 years, and in doing so explores important themes such as nationalism, feminism and class.

“Fashion and politics have many layers of meaning more than the sartorial choices made by candidates, election T-shirts or campaign buttons,” said Jennifer Farley, who curated the show with Melissa Marra. “They reflect how people thought and behaved in the past during social and cultural changes.”

The design of several items on display pledged support — pure and simple — such as an Oscar de la Renta scarf emblazoned with RFK’s initials, a 1956 white cotton dress with a red “IKE” print, a Mars of Asheville’s paper dress covered with oversize stars and a “NIXON” print, and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac’s sequined dress with an image of President Obama’s face.

Other items touch on long-forgotten issues. An 1805 reticule bag spells out “sugar war,” an apparent reference to France and Britain’s struggle for control of the sugar-growing colonies in the Caribbean. These hand-beaded accessories were often marked with significant personal or political events. Other blasts from the past include a 1943 Vogue cover that reads, “Take a Job, Release a Man to Fight” and a 1933 handkerchief that reads, “Repeal the 18th Amendment. More Beer Less Taxes.” A cry for freedom of a different sort can be seen in a white suit circa 1914-1916, a popular look with members of the suffrage movement looking to show off their unity in parade marches.

There are also more contemporary pieces such as replicas of the Thakoon “Kimono” dress Michelle Obama wore when she went on a state visit to France with her husband this year, and a version of the Jason Wu sheath she wore for her Vogue cover. By chance, the museum also has the Isabel Toledo ensemble the First Lady wore for the inauguration in a separate exhibition dedicated to Toledo — one flight below.