The Fashion History of Activism - Clothing a Generation of Rebels With a Cause
In the world of activism, the clothes you wear can be the strongest form of communication for the things you do. Once the words from your outcries have faded away from the ears of your audience, the image of your ''uniform'' is one of the last memories that still remains. To some, that memory will provide comfort in knowing that you are on the same side as them; to others, an inspiration to follow in your footsteps. The colors you choose say something about your values, the silhouettes set the tone of your unspoken message to the world; everything you wear becomes the embodiment of your rebellion. The fashion history you leave behind tells the story of your protest.
In this kaleidoscopic world, where no two people are the same, clothes can become a symbol of unity among those who wear them by weaving their shared hopes, dreams, and struggles into each specific item. On its own, one person's outfit can't accomplish much, but on the streets, it creates a bond and a strong sense of camaraderie between other people in the same clothes, who are fighting for a common cause to bring about some sort of change in the system.
The Fashion history of feminism - a match made in heaven
More than 100 years ago, the Suffragettes chose to use the stereotypical depiction of female fashion for their own cause. The message was clear: we don’t need to dress as men to get what, until now, only men have had – the right to vote. All members of the movement were encouraged to wear feminine dresses and include three signature colors in their closets: purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope. Women displayed them proudly on the three-striped regalia across their chest, or on subtle accessories like badges or hat ribbons.
Today, there’s a diverse palette of ways to express the urge to fight gender inequality. In the Western world, the pink “pussyhat” became a symbol of feminism after Donald Trump became the president of the United States. The initial idea was to breathe a new meaning into the word “pussy”, making it an ally of women in the political process. Knitting a hat for a protest became a way of channeling discontent with the system into something productive.
In the East, the punk band “Pussy Riot” became known as a feminist power team on the streets of Russia. Their neon aesthetics contradict everything accepted by Russian culture. Hidden under bright balaclavas, wearing neon tights even in the coldest of weather, the members of the band resorted to guerilla performances in order to draw attention to all the drawbacks of authoritarian regimes. Members of “Pussy Riot” have successfully demonstrated that women in the Far East are also facing a different set of gender issues since gender equality is seen as a threat to the whole political system. Their boldness reminds everyone that only bold acts can challenge the “status quo” in countries where power lies in the hands of a select few. Their shocking, punk uniform has forever been written into fashion history, an icon of protest and rebellion.
Black Panthers: the white knights of the fight against racism
During her Superbowl performance in February of 2016, Beyonce´ and her crew of dancers didn’t have to say anything in order to activate the masses into an uproar against racial discrimination. Instead, their clothes did all the talking, and took us back to the early post-Malcolm X era, when the Black Panthers were formed and fought against the recurring incidences of police brutality towards black people in the United States. It was this same issue of police brutality that motivated Yonce´ to show up in a signature Panther look because of the case of 26-year old Mario Woods who was shot dead by the police in San Francisco in December 2015. Woods's death is just one out of many cases which have been rampant in the states over the past few years and caused people worldwide are to turn to history to remind officials that racism won’t be tolerated.
Back in 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed “The Black Panther Party“, a black nationalist and socialist organization, established with the goal to ensure the safety and welfare of people of Afro-American origin. Their outfits reflected the seriousness of their ideas: a black uniform, to make them appear as a solid block of unified people; dark shades, to cover their faces so their loved ones would remain safe; and a black beret, to counter the green ones worn by the military, but also to channel some French revolutionary spirit into the movement. It was a time for natural to be accepted, and for black to be beautiful.
At the same time, it was a vivid and positive example of people embracing their culture, roots, and color in order to fight those who believed in the supremacy of the opposing color in the spectrum. Many members of the group embraced their natural hair, wearing afros and curls. The terrorist hate group Ku Klux Klan was known for their all-white robes and sharply pointed face masks with eyeholes. The costume successfully managed to hide the identity of the person committing the hate crimes, as well as frighten the ones being tortured. “Black Panthers” refuted all stereotypes of the time, including the one that is still present today: that white color symbolizes light and positivity, while black stands for darkness and evil. Thanks to the Black Panthers, the world knew that the tables were turned - and so were the colors. The style of the Black Panthers is regularly evoked in performances and art today as it holds an important place in fashion history.
There is a color for everyone: LGBTQ movement
Who made the rule that you need to choose colors for your movements identity anyway? By embracing all of them, you are also sending a message that it is okay to be whatever you want to be and to love whoever you want to love. Enter, “the rainbow flag”, a symbol of the LGBTQ movement. The flag was designed by Gilbert Baker, an artist, and drag queen, in 1978. The flag has since been a symbol which proclaims power and unity, while the rainbow is a natural phenomenon full of bright colors, which homosexual people have traditionally identified with. Oscar Wilde was among the Londoners who expressed their sexuality by wearing a green carnation on the lapel of their jackets.
In Australia, yellow socks did the trick. And until the flag was created, a pink triangle was an international symbol of the gay community. However, it had a negative connotation, because the Nazis used it to denote people they considered to be "sexual deviants“. The flag was a light of positivity, where each color had a meaning: pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, blue for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for the human spirit. However, since it was impossible to find hot pink fabric dye at the time, Baker decided to give up on it. He also renounced indigo, in order to achieve an even number of 6 shades. With that, a perfect symbol had been attained.
In the more radical spheres of socio-political activism and protesting, fashion is usually characterized by an intentional visual distinction by those that don't have to dress in a way that differentiates them from those that do. The 'Sans-Culottes' were the lower class commoners of the French Revolutions who became militant partisans that are now widely regarded as the true sons of the revolution as seen in Eugene De Lacroix's 1830 painting 'Liberty guiding the people'. Culottes were the luxury silk knee-breeches worn by the upper classes of the day while the Sans-Culottes wore normal long pants - the name Sans-Culottes simply means without breeches. At the height of the revolution, even the upper classes began wearing regular long pants in order to show solidarity and support for the new French republic. The Sans-Culottes attire comprised of long trousers, a short-skirted coat, a red Phrygian cap known as a liberty cap and sabots (a shoe with a thick wooden sole).
Contemporary counterparts of the Sans Culottes include The Economic Freedom Fighters of South Africa, a radical Marxist Leninist political party whose uniform is red jumpsuits which symbolize solidarity among the low-income working class. The party is consistently seen at all of their protests in parliament or on the streets dressed like workers in red jumpsuits, red shirts, red hard hats or red berets. Their choice of red as the primary color for their uniform was inspired by various communist parties and also by a police massacre of mining laborers that occurred in South Africa in 2012.
Masks, hats, berets – all of them compose the subtle layers of an activist’s fashion story, one that is far from shallow or insignificant. So, whether you are just sporting a “The future is female” T-shirt in the office, or wearing your colors proudly in the streets, just remember that the most important aspect of this story is to live up to the symbols you are embracing. After all, they are the witnesses of the constant fight for the human progress. Make sure you contribute to it.