The history of fashion is the history of resistance itself. Fashion is one of the ways people consciously/unconsciously express their frustration from something/everything in the present society, and/or suggestion for the better.
To wear something or not to wear it, to wear something against the segregation society demands, to wear an existing clothes in a totally new way… all these are statements.
The mood of society, the world, and time shape people’s fashion.
The designer Coco Chanel said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
But in this blog post, I focus on very direct “protest fashion” by the people who have a clear dissent on a certain thing in society and express the idea by dressing as well as their words and acts.
I’m using the word “fashion” with slight disgust or cynicism, including the fact that at times “fashion” (by the non-oppressed people) also destroys the significance of the protest.
The Purpose Of “Protest Fashion”
Have you been to protest meetings? What did you wear to go there?
Of course, it depends on the characteristics of the meeting and its degree of hazard to turn violent. You might need to choose an outfit in modest neutral colours without any distinct designs so that you’d immediately blend into the crowd when you run from the police or goons.
So, suppose it “is likely to be” a pretty safe circumstance to express your idea by dressing, what would you wear?
Along with the placards, protesters often wear a common colour, common clothes, or a symbol item. Such things work as a strong tool to convey the protest message in one glance not only to the protest target but to the media, the audience through the internet, and the bystanders in the street. It also creates a strong sense of unity among the protesters and converts it into strong energy.
Now, let’s look at some examples of protest “fashion” in history.
Black Panther Party
Black Panther Party is a radical political organization that operated the Black Liberation Struggle for African Americans in the 1960s to ’70s. It was formed to unite the African Americans and protect themselves against racial segregation and the violence by the police which was even harsher than it is now.
Their Black Liberation Struggle was based on socialism. They tried to link arms with the oppressed people all over the world and fought against imperialism.
Black Panther Party was excellent at branding. Its uniform was extremely cool, a black leather jacket, black pants, and a black beret on the natural hair. The artwork in the published materials like newsletter and posters were so cool, too.
Black Panther Party which started as a local vigilante group rapidly spread throughout the country.
In the BLM (Black Lives Matter) Movement in the current time, the influence of the Black Panther Party can be seen very heavily.
For example, when Beyoncé performed in the Super Bowl halftime show in 2016, the backup dancers wore black leather suits and a black beret on the natural hair. Her performance itself had a clear political message for the first time. She made a surprise release of a new song “Formation” on the day before, along with its music video which includes a clear message of criticism to the police, making the best set for the stage on the next day.
Women’s March In 2017
Streets after streets filled with mostly-women protesters with placards and a pink cap with cats’ ears on… I guess you still remember the visual very clearly.
In 2017, on the next day of Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, women all over the U.S. and of many other countries made a huge march called Women’s March against sexism and misogyny.
“Pussy Hat”, the pink knitted cap with cats’ ears, was created by a group called Pussyhat Project and called women to wear one. It had a sarcastic meaning against the horrible statement by Trump as “Grab her by the pussy” and became a symbol of women’s resistance.
A line in their call "The more we are seen, the more we are heard" is one of the significances of the matching items worn by the protesters.
But later on, this Pussy Hat was criticised as “excluding non-binary people” and is no more a symbol item of the feminism movement, I heard.
Suffragettes are the people of the women’s organisations working for women’s right to vote from the end of the 19th Century to the beginning of the 20th Century, or the especially-radical group in Britain.
In Britain, being pretty behind in women’s acquisition of franchise among the Western countries, the women activists’ movement gradually got radical and took the forms of fire-setting, domestic terrorism, hunger strike in the jail. But it was temporarily stopped due to World War 1. From the closing months of the war, gradually the laws about women’s right to vote and to be voted for had been passed.
Suffragettes used the combination of symbol colours; white (purity) with purple (freedom and dignity) and green (hope). Thousands of suffragettes marched in white dress and created the word “Suffragette White”.
One whole century after that, women in the West use Suffragette White as the message of protest against gender bias in politics and socioeconomic inequality.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton wore a white pants suit while accepting the Democratic nomination, followed by 2017 when she attended Donald Trump's inauguration.
In 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who was first elected to The House of Representatives and many other women members wore white suits for administering oaths.
And in November 2020, at the declaration of the victory of the Democratic Party, Camala Harris wore a white pants suit, too.
2019–2020 Hong Kong Protests
Hong Kong had been burning with anti-government demonstrations since March 2019 till the beginning of the pandemic. I wonder how much you Indian people were following their move. As far as I observed on social media, I didn’t see much enthusiasm in talking about it, probably because East Asia is pretty far for Indian people mentally.
Beginning with the citizens’ protest against Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, huge pro-democracy anti-government demonstrations have started.
The movement was led by young people like university students, but there were no official leaders. Or intentionally and cleverly the leaders hid their existence.
Protesters developed tech-savvy and fast actions. They shared information using a messaging app that authorities cannot censor, to appear as a large troupe here and there in the city all of the sudden and disappear swiftly. The protesters were overall intelligent and highly organised. Many of you must have seen the video of the massive crowd splitting into two to clear the way for an ambulance car just like Moses splitting the ocean.
The strategies of protest varied among protesters. There were some sects who tend to do armed struggle as crashing the police and implementing terror activities. But it seems like the protesters as a whole were loosely linking arms in the actions without major internal conflicts.
Also, there were quite a lot of older citizens who sympathised with the students as “they’re fighting for our Hong Kong at the front line on behalf of us”. They supported the students behind the scenes by supplying goods etc.
The uniform of the Hong Kong protesters was “all in black”. So much so that China stopped exporting black T-shirts to Hong Kong to annoy the protesters.
Along with the black outfit, they wore a mask to protect the identity (not against COVID-19 - it was before the pandemic). It was often replaced by a gas mask or a goggle against the tear gas, and a helmet to survive in the violent situation.
Yellow Vest Movement
Yellow Vest Movement is an anti-government protest occurring intermittently in France since 2018. It started due to the unbalance in the burden from the rising of fuel price and tax reform.
The protesters wore a neon yellow vest. In France, it is mandatory to keep a neon-coloured vest in the car so that drivers can wear one when leaving the car on the road shoulders. Therefore, yellow vests are available everywhere at a low price.
Yellow vests have started to be used as a symbol of protest in other European countries, too.
In December 2018, a riot broke out including massive destructive activities. It was “almost like a war” according to the foreign media. It was reported in the news in India, too, and some of you must have been shocked to see Les Champs-Elysees burning.
According to the local people, it was an action systematically taken by the small political groups of the extreme right and extreme left. It is said that it was the first time in history that the extreme right and the extreme left took an action in one place and it caused quite a shock.
Now let’s think about our home ground, India. The first thing which comes to your mind might be the Swadeshi Movement put forward by Gandhi during the struggle for liberation from colonial domination by Britain.
During the colonial period, the elite Indians who had British higher education wore nice Western clothes and it was a social status symbol. But Gandhi started the Swadeshi Movement telling people to abandon foreign clothes (and goods) and wear India-made clothes to break free from the servile situation. Khadi, a hand-span fabric, has become the symbol of the movement.
… But. I am not very sure if people across India actually wore “Gandhi Cap” and Khadi aligning with the movement. At least Gandhi’s disciples and the urban citizens are wearing something white in the photos…
Gandhi himself abandoned his hats and shirts and pants in 1921, and spent the rest of his life wearing only Dhoti (and a shawl when required), after having a conversation with the “ordinary people” during a train journey. The fellow passengers told him, “if we are to abandon foreign clothes and wear India-made ones, Khadi is too expensive to afford for us”.
From modern-day India, I’d like to mention the pink saree of Gulabi Gang.
Gulabi Gang is a women’s self-help organization that was formed in Uttar Pradesh, India, since Sampat Pal Devi fought with a bamboo stick along with 5 other women to save a woman who had been beaten by her husband.
In the beginning, their purpose was to protect women from violence by their oppressive family. But gradually they expanded their missions to train women to help them achieve financial and mental independence.
It’s not like a symbol item at a protest movement, but considering the origin and the character of this organisation, their pink saree is counted as one of the protest "fashion".
Other Protest Clothing From India
I have searched for examples of protest "fashion" from India but failed to find many. Is it because acquiring a certain item itself costs money which is possible only for the privileged people with a certain level of wealth, just like the episode of Gandhi’s train journey? Or is my research half-baked? I’d love to hear from you Indian readers.
As a localised protest clothing, you might have seen Assamese people all with a Gamusa (Gamosa) during their protest against CAA in 2019.
Gamusa is an Assamese traditional and spiritual symbol item. It is very natural that they put it on during the movement to protect their identity.
I bet you also clearly remember one non-Assamese PM was showing off an Assamese Gamusa along with the nurses from the other two states during his vaccination the other day. That has nothing to do with Assamese tradition or spirit.
Also, though I don't think it's a regular protest clothes in the still-going-strong Indian farmers’ protest, we saw woman farmers at the protest site wearing a mustard yellow Dupatta on Women’s Day this year. This can be counted as a protest “fashion”.
Appropriation Of Protest Clothing To “Fashion”
Very often the clothes or items which certain oppressed people wore with certain protest messages are appropriated by the fashion industry and become a “trend”, and the original significance loses substance.
To hijack social movements without actually supporting them and make money out of them is capitalism at its finest. Even if you don’t make money, when you click some pics with the protesters as “cool background” and upload them on Instagram with the trending hashtag, it’s the birth of another “woke” cool person. Even if you're a person who openly changes your attitude when someone from the same oppressed community comes into the flashy shop you’re working for.
As for me, I am making and selling clothes as a brand called MIRCHI KOMACHI. The recent situation of Indian society does not allow it to be just a fun brand making fun clothes, the brand cannot be unconcerned about the society whether we like it or not.
But I always need to ask myself during product planning or marketing as “Is this appropriation? Is it a hijacking of a 'trending' movement? Or a prompt for conversations and changes?”
A universal easy-to-wear "protest fashion" in modern days is statement T-shirts. They are worn in/for various protests all over the world. In the recent BLM movement, too, T-shirts and masks with messages are widely used, and we’ve heard quite a few news like the people wearing those got attacked by the opponents or got fired from work. It means such items are powerful, does it?
But such items, too, are often worn as an instant “woke” maker for those who hack movements without actual support or actions.
One of the people who used statement T-shirts most effectively is Katharine Hamnett.
In 1984 when she was invited to a reception held by the government and met Margaret Thatcher, then-Prime Minister, she wore a T-shirt with a message “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” (58% of the citizens don’t want American missile Pershing based across Europe).
She made statement T-shirts about many other issues in her brand as her way of making changes.
But even Katharine, in 2018, has concluded as follows:
“A million T-shirts later, I’ve come to the conclusion that to really alter things – from climate change to women’s rights – we need legislation.”
How To Protest With “Fashion”
So I agree, wearing clothes with messages or symbol items don’t solve the problem and we should never stop there.
But I believe that they can be a starter of conversation with the people around us.
If we express our idea by protest “fashion”, I think it’s important not to limit it to the day of the protest meeting (or after uploading a few pics on Instagram!) but to wear it daily and keep expressing. In the family (in front of that super-conservative annoying uncle!), workplace, college, and on the streets.
The conversation should not die out after trending on social media, should not be limited within each echo chamber online, but must go on with the actual people around each of us.
Besides, clothes speak even when the wearer is not talking about the matter. I think it’s a good way for the introverts to express their (our - I'm one of them) view, like craftivism.
When one sees another person’s clothes (without any direct communication) and feels that one is not alone, I think it is worth expressing with clothes.
What are you wearing today, does it include any statement (loudly or quietly)?
How much have you followed the news on anti-government protests in Thailand since July 2020?
The symbol of their protest is... a yellow duck!
It started on 17 November 2020 when the protesters used the inflatable boats of yellow duck as a shield against water cannons which the police shot towards the protesters. Since then the protesters started using/wearing yellow duck items as a symbol.
In this video, it is pretty impressive that not only the protesters but even the street vendor of the yellow duck items understanding the significance of yellow duck in the protest movement and accurately verbalising it.
There are lots of videos available where people on the streets with yellow duck items taking photos, playing music, and eating snacks from the street vendors, while they're at the protest meeting sites. It really looks rather like a carnival. The non-violent carnival-like protest movements which people join without much consideration can involve (“convert”, too!) more apolitical citizens and create a bigger threat to the target of the protests, I suppose.