By Natalia Cordon '22; Photo by Pascale Richard
September 11, 2001, catalyzed the US economic recession. Upon witnessing or experiencing the traumatic terrorist attacks, Americans reflected on their material possessions and weighed their value to the intangible parts of life that also brought them joy– watching Sunday football with family, eating a piece of cake at a birthday party, etc. This phenomenon translated to a withdrawal in consumerism and correspondingly poor economic performance that President George Bush sought to combat through a series of financial campaigns disguised as counterterrorism efforts. With a particular focus on the revitalization of freedom and “proving” that the terrorists had not hindered the American spirit or way of life (aka egregious shopping excursions), Bush and equally aloof state and local figures perpetuated the notion of “refusing to give terrorists the power” through their financial decisions.
Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, collaborated with the Bush administration on the “Fashion for America” project, which mobilized Americans to reenter and contribute to the US economy by purchasing a quintessentially American white t-shirt with a drawing of a heart being sewn back together printed on the front. The low price of the t-shirt was a strategic decision because it encouraged hesitant consumers, now enlightened and aware of the joy of immaterial goods and experiences, to buy it. For only $22.50, this purchase modestly lured Americans back to their consumer habits but assured that it was all for a good cause considering that all proceeds would go towards the Twin Towers Fund, a foundation that assisted families of rescuers in the 9/11 attacks. Not only the price but also the message of the t-shirt helped restore the participation in the economy; the two halves of a heart mending together signified the United States post-9/11, traumatized and heartbroken, while the stitching assured the hearts eventually would merge, recover, and America would be back where it was before and more potent than. American Patriotism emanated from this campaign, and Wintour and Bush pioneered a blueprint for mitigating terrorism in the sense that the campaign reduced fear and lifestyle changes following the 9/11 attacks.
Particularly in the case of 9/11, fashion presented a visual opportunity to contrast the Western woman with the Afghan other. Media outlets across the United States misconstrued the burqa many Afghan women wore as a symbol of oppression and captivity. Women living in the United States who wore a burqa were either affiliated with terrorism and subject to heightened surveillance or patronized by their Western neighbors who assured them that it was “safe” to take off their burqa. Although much more can be said about burqas and terrorism, here, I seek to highlight the significance of fashion and its relationship to terrorism when considered separate from consumerism. Nevertheless, when thinking about women who choose to abide by specific guidelines for their clothing, it is important to consider that many do not align with hegemonic American styles. Thinking about the 9/11 t-shirt, which claimed to be “for Americans” and “Freedom-evoking,” this plain, state-sponsored garment still excluded the population who cannot wear short sleeves or who still cannot afford $22.50; these are predominantly people of color, who not only experience intensified suspicion about their participation in criminal activity, but also lack the resources to “prove” themselves to white America. Fashion, as visual and economically potent as it is in combatting the moral and financial recessions after a terrorist attack, is still inaccessible to people. While a garment can evoke freedom and patriotism, it is not a panacea for national unity, especially in a diverse nation like the United States. Nevertheless, fashion continues to operate as a vehicle for nationalism in contexts outside of terrorism; though artistically beautiful, it can only do so much to encapsulate a national body.
Pham, Minh‐Ha T. 2011. “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36 (2): 385–410. https://doi.org/10.1086/655979.