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From women’s suffrage to Black Lives Matter, the radical history of how clothing has defined protests

Activists have used the whole spectrum of fashion, from T-shirts and accessories to haute couture and costumes, to further their causes.

From women’s suffrage to Black Lives Matter, the radical history of how clothing has defined protests
[Photos: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images, Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images]

Fashion, clothing, textiles, accessories, and costume have served a critical role in protest movements throughout history. Clothing often offers the most basic opportunity for groups to rebel: a simple, mundane item that can symbolize discontent. British punks took the humble safety pin from the household sewing kit, punched it through an earlobe, and headed out to face a bleak 1970s postwar world in which they had no voice. Male farmers in rural India wore their wives’ saris while staging sit-ins on railroad tracks against government neglect. American suffragettes made and wore dresses from old newspapers printed with pro-voting slogans.

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The cover of Newsweek’s May 11th 1992 issue. [Image: Newsweek]
During the L.A. Riots in 1992, protesters painted, ripped, or stenciled their T-shirts, using clothing as a canvas to create community around their rebellion. Los Angeles college student and Navy veteran Mark Craig threw on a T-shirt during a night of civil disobedience that ended up with him grabbing the national spotlight on the cover of Newsweek. His T-shirt was displayed in the California African American Museum as part of an L.A. Riots retrospective: the object (T-shirt) plus the meaning (social discontent) combine to create a historical artifact with a legacy.

Clothing provides a compelling canvas for registering rebellion: a super visual, universal, portable cue that can be photographed, distributed, copied, and built on by future protesters across languages and cultures. When the Trump administration came to power in the United States, protests reverberated worldwide. During the four years that Donald Trump held office, it seemed that each day brought a new image gone viral: of the Women’s Marches, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the #MeToo movement, the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations in France, Kamala Harris wearing all white for her vice presidential acceptance speech, anti-Brexit protesters holding satirical puppets of politicians, citizens in Hong Kong marching under a sea of yellow umbrellas, Nigerian activists rallying against police violence. Protest has once again entered the zeitgeist. And as long as there have been protest movements, citizens, activists, and freedom fighters have used art and design to amplify, elevate, articulate, and define their causes.

Just hats alone can tell the story of design and material culture—from the iconic Black Panthers’ beret to Gandhi’s humble topi hat, from Caribbean rebel headwraps to French World War II protest millinery. In 2016, Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh launched the Pussyhat Project, and the soft knitted pink pussyhats went head-to-head with cardinal-red MAGA baseball caps reading “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” in white embroidery.

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The year 2017 brought the crisp white bonnet from the hit TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, worn by activists as an homage to the original costumes designed by Ane Crabtree. The #MeToo movement celebrated the handmaid costumes, with activists buying versions of the costume online or making them at home, and took to the city streets and government buildings donning the eerie red dresses and white bonnets. The costumes were endlessly photographed and viscerally haunting. In 1951, art historian Quentin Bell wrote an article called “The Incorrigible Habit.” He forever tied phenomena like The Handmaid’s Tale costumes to activism and clothing: “The history of dress is, to a very large extent, a history of protests.”

[Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images]
While the handmaid protesters wore custom dresses and bonnets, the MAGA hat was a factory-made, synthetic-dyed symbol of American masculinity and national sport in the form of the baseball hat. In his 2015 New York Times Magazine article on the history of the baseball cap, writer Troy Patterson concludes, “The hat is not a fashion item, it’s something larger, and more primal: the headpiece of American folk costume.”

The baseball cap started as a sports uniform but became a symbol of the common American citizen. Trump’s marketing team took it to another level when they propelled such a humble accessory into political history.

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[Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group/Getty Images]
For anyone trying to make sense of our turbulent times, design can be a guide, reflecting our world back at us, uncovering deeper meanings, transforming words and thoughts into visuals. Through photographs, art, engravings, painting, and sculpture, we can see dress as a visually engaging and historically compelling exploration of many types of rebellion: formalized protests; civil disobedience; peaceful and violent uprisings; informal, impromptu, and covert resistance. Social activism, sit-ins, flash mobs, boycotts, street theater, and industrial action all reveal ways in which we use protest in the service of progress and change.

Although different countries use protest in unique ways, protests across time periods reveal that the human need to be heard is centuries old and also utterly current. Crucial, pivotal movements for Indigenous rights, civil rights, climate change awareness, pay equity, women’s rights, gender equality, and disability rights have altered the course of society. A protester sacrifices their safety and personal freedom to rebel—and on their backs are the clothes that will become symbols of the revolution. These tools have served as markers in time, documenting the ephemeral moments of movements, cementing them in history for future generations.

Universal themes run deep through the history of dress—subversion, conformity, imitation, confrontation, uniformity, appropriation, shock, nudity, fear, and parody—and provide common ground for all human expression. Creating new fashions or distinctive garments and accessories has given dissenters of all nations a strong nonverbal tool, the mass use of which creates a powerful repeated image that can lodge in the minds of the public. Activists have used the whole spectrum of fashion, whether everyday dress and accessories, haute couture, or avant-garde dress, to further their causes. Costume and performance can be crucial tools for enhancing visibility for a cause. And finally, removing clothing as an act of protest can be as compelling as completely covering oneself.

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[Image: courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]
Cultures throughout history have used clothing, accessories, and costumes as a catalyst in the struggle for social change, and regular, everyday people have harnessed this visual power to heighten their message. Abolitionist and Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman, born in 1822, came from enslaved origins, but her clothing tells stories just as momentous as those of Louis XIV, the 18th century king of France. Tubman wore humble, utilitarian clothes as she guided slaves to freedom—men’s overcoats, sturdy wool hats, hobnail boots. In stark contrast, Louis XIV, sometimes called Louis Couture, was known for his ferocious love of the finest clothes, accessories, wigs, and jewels available. He famously gave clothing one of its biggest compliments, declaring that “fashion is the mirror of history.”

From Dressing the Resistance: The Visual Language of Protest Through History by Camille Benda, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.

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