What do you wear to save the world? The blue tie or the green one? The giant flaming panda bear costume or the more understated (but still tacitly menacing) clown suit?
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Attendees at the U.N. Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen have many critical decisions to make in the coming days—decisions that could have grave or revitalizing consequences for our planet, children, future—not least of which is how to dress.
So far, the semiotics out of Copenhagen Chic have split into (melting) poles.
On the one hand are the protesters, carrying on in the proud tradition of WTOs and G-20s past. They brought homemade posters and plenty of nontoxic dip-dyes to stain their fingers green, all the better for hoisting them up to wire photographers like jubilant Iraqis after their first election. They brought supermodel Helena Christensen, who looked chic and subversive in a warm knit hat and a “tck tck tck” T-shirt, representing a coalition of nonprofits working to combat global warming. Even though the forecast calls for snow, they took off their shirts, a la Eva Perón’s descamisados, because sometimes removing clothes in the name of political conviction is more powerful than putting them on.
On the other hand are the badge-holders, the 15,000 delegates and 5,000 journalists who arrived last week in 1,200 limousines and 140 private jets, burning up enough energy in transit to power an entire village for a few weeks. To telegraph their commitment to the cause, many have worked to incorporate an array of earthy colors into their wardrobe, from sea-foam to cerulean. Prince Charles and Sen. John Kerry both wore pale blue ties (the color of a pollution-free autumn sky). U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon opted for lime-colored candy stripes. And then there were the twin, tan figures of New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, our bi-coastal Captain Planets, both in power suits and shimmering green neckwear as if to shout, “We’re taking this seriously!” It’s not exactly a severe emissions reduction, but at least it shows they’re thinking.
“Dress is highly charged,” says Hazel Clark, a dean at Parsons The New School for Design and head of a new MA program in fashion studies. “It can take on a lot of responsibilities in terms of representing causes, even if the relationship between the actual form of dress and the cause can be very loose.”
If your goal is to lodge concerns about climate change in everyone’s heads, she says, outlandish costumes can be a very effective strategy, even if the message isn’t perfectly clear. Why are they fake-immolating panda bears instead of, say, polar bears? That’s not the point. What matters is that people see fire.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.