How do you make an event focused on global extinction look palatable and media-friendly? How do you look good—fashionable, even—while hoping no one will notice? That’s the challenge for world leaders and dignitaries attending the UN’s Climate Change Conference, also called COP26, which is currently ongoing in Glasgow, Scotland.
The clothes are not the point. Everyone understands this. But those who speak, or merely show up, understand the power of silent communication. No one wants to be accused of focusing on frivolity, or for caring too much about the high-polluting fashion industry. But they still have to get dressed for work. And so they’ve come in their “save the planet” finery.
Queen Elizabeth II, who did not attend due to health concerns but sent a video message, unofficially set the dress code in video remarks played at an evening reception. The queen wore her go-to pearls, yes, but also a fern green dress and brilliant butterfly pin. It wasn’t quite eco-warrior, but it followed the queen’s wardrobe M.O. perfectly: keep calm, dress brightly, and send a message with what you wear.
Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, also piled on the green while arriving at the conference. She threw a black cape over her shoulders too, which matched her black opera gloves. Perhaps nothing says “rich person” more than showing up to a conference about the world burning in opera gloves.
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez have been Instagramming their way through the summit as if it were a free vacation.
“I snapped this photo during a brief walk—a reminder of how the natural world is so stunning and beautiful, and that we must do our part to protect it,” Lauren Sanchez captioned a photo of her beau, the second richest man in the world. It appeared that Bezos was doing his best attempt at a Succession tech bro Halloween costume. He looked spry and rested—a perk of getting to fly to a climate conference on a private, $65 million Gulfstream jet. (Bezos did take to the COP26 stage and announced a donation of $2 billion, or about 1 percent of his nearly-$200 billion net worth, to conservation efforts.)
“Flying into the weekend,” Sanchez captioned a selfie where she smiled into the camera while wearing a crochet bra top, huge sunglasses, and a floppy hat. She posed with Prince Charles “at Dumfries House, his lovely home in Scotland,” while wearing a white wrap coat which recalls the one Meghan Markle put on to announce her engagement to Prince Harry.
Bezos had attracted controversy by claiming in a speech that he had realized how vulnerable the Earth was while ripping through its atmosphere in his phallic space rocket.
Both Bezos and Sanchez discussed conservation with delegates from Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Bolivia. According to Bezos’ Instagram, they did a lot of “listening and learning,” which roughly translates from PR-speak to “absolutely nothing.” OK, that might not be fair. Sanchez, in an Elizabeth Holmes-esque black turtleneck and ponytail, did a lot of smiling and nodding.
Greta Thunberg, who was not invited to speak at the event and joined a protest outside, might call all this “blah blah blah,” as she did when calling out world leaders for not taking greater, more drastic action on the climate crisis. The 18 year-old appeared on the August cover of Vogue Scandinavia. She later tweeted, “Many make it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibility, spending fantasy amounts on campaigns portraying themselves as sustainable, ethical, green, climate neutral or fair. But let's be clear: This is almost never anything but pure greenwash.”
And so she came dressed to stand with the crowd of demonstrators, in a hearty black fleece, face mask, and backpack. Thunberg was mobbed by a crowd of photographers and press, and was escorted out of a train station by police. It was nearly impossible to see her among the throng of bodies.
Thunberg stood beside fellow young demonstrators including Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Dominika Lasota from Poland, and Mitzi Tan from the Philippines. There were plenty of bucket hats in the crowd of protesters, some tie-dye, plus chunky sweaters and scarves.
“They’re just pretending to take our future seriously,” Thunberg later said to a crowd, adding that she would not be placated by, “Whatever the fuck they’re doing in there.”
As if to prove Thunberg’s point, breathless coverage of what Kate Middleton wore to the summit, such as the People headline shouting how the Duchess went “From Casual to Dressy at Day 1 of the COP26 Climate Conference: See Pics!” feels especially shallow for an occasion such as this.
The Duchess’ “casual” attire, which she wore to meet a group of boy scouts, included brown combat boots, black skinny jeans, and a green puffer vest. Her “dressy” option was a cobalt blue tea-length frock by the British label Eponine, which cost around £2,400 according to the Daily Mail. There was nothing flashy about the look, which whispered a desire to blend in, to not call too much attention to itself.
The outfits that did the most talking seemed to come from the protesters outside; members of activist group Extinction Rebellion demonstrated outside a JP Morgan wearing blood red outfits and toting “No More Fossil Fuels” signs. Others wore oil cans over their heads to mock the industry, or dressed up as ghoulish, ghostlike “oil slicks.”
Unlike those inside the conference, who dressed to blend in or make an anodyne statement about living green, these costumes demanded attention, and action.