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Protest fashion: Your personal guide to revolutionary, activist clothing

Protest fashion: Your personal guide to revolutionary, activist clothing

Rebel, rebel

Text: Ryan Sng


Can clothing change the world? Even the most avid of fashion lovers must harbour some doubt about activist fashion’s supposed earth-shaking capacities.

Don’t get it twisted. Fashion can reveal a great deal about society, and how we consume it has an outsized impact on the economy and environment. However, like technology and art, fashion is only a tool in that it manifests the visions and circumstances of those who wield it.

For example, pink pussy hats — the knitted beanies with pointed ‘ears’ that referenced Donald Trump’s “grab them by the p*ssy” statement, which were adopted by feminist protesters following his election as US president — are not in themselves revolutionary. They were merely turned into icons by a social movement whose activity predated it. Simply put, pussy hats didn’t make the movement. It was the other way around.

SNL Aidy Bryant pussy hat GIF

Nevertheless, activist fashion old and new, such as the red AIDS awareness ribbons that have been around for decades, and the fairly recent The Handmaid’s Tale bonnets — another icon of feminist protest, this time evoking Margaret Atwood’s fictional dystopia in which the USA has embraced Christian fundamentalism and enslaved women — respectively exerts a powerful influence on our social fabric.

In the event that you find yourself needing a symbol for your own little revolution, we’ve prepared a potted guide to activist fashion’s different forms to inspire you. Just don’t mention us to the police if you run afoul of the authorities. Like, be cool, man.

Snitches get stitches GIF

What isn't activist fashion?

It’s easy to peg everything with a rebellious origin as activist fashion, although subcultural style — such as that of punks and Goths — isn’t quite the same beast.

While activist fashion and subcultural style are both driven by groups of people who feel left behind by society, the former is cause-led and agitates for concrete, measurable social change. The latter, meanwhile, is motivated by companionship (also known as tribalism) and — specifically in the case of many underground youth subcultures — music or party culture.

Punks at a concert in London, 1979

Nor can 'all proceeds go to' clothing and accessories be considered true activist fashion. Money earned from the sale of charitable items contributes to activist causes, sure, but activist imagery or details aren't usually built into the clothing or accessory proper. With those key distinctions clarified, let’s dive into the wonderful world of cage-rattling fashion.

Slogan schmogan

If activist fashion were a potluck, besloganed (yes, we made that word up) clothing would be the equivalent of showing up with bags of potato chips. Translation: it’s the lazy and effortless choice. Text-led activist fashion — with its unambiguous messaging — is a blunt instrument that gets the job done, if somewhat inelegantly. At their best, slogans leave little room for misunderstanding, and when it comes to potentially explosive issues, that’s a huge plus.

Items such as red AIDS awareness ribbons, the LGBTQI+ Pride flag, and Livestrong cancer awareness wristbands — remember those? — arguably classify as slogan fashion as, in some environments, their meaning is almost widely-known enough to count as universal.

Given how hard it is to mess this form of activist fashion up, it’s no surprise that everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Alessandro Michele has tackled it. By the same token, however, these attempts don’t receive many brownie points due to their lack of surprise factor. One could easily do better, which leads us to…

Semiotic Sedition

Hold on, semi-what? Semiotics is a fancy term that describes the study of symbols and our understanding of them. Plenty of great activist fashion has harnessed pre-existing iconography, and developed or subverted their meaning through a variety of methods.

Let’s start with inversion. This reductive — though not necessarily in a bad way — subgenre takes preconceived ideas and turns them on their heads. A recent example includes Taiwan’s protests against homophobia and gender stereotyping, where schoolboys donned skirts.

There was also the #TimesUp red carpet blackout at the 2018 Golden Globes, which saw actresses rejecting the colour and embellishment usually expected of them at awards shows. In forgoing the trappings of feminine beauty, which are often used as an excuse for men’s predatory behaviour towards women, the actresses involved hoped to demonstrate solidarity with victims of workplace sexual harassment across all industries.

Inversion typifies the simplistic idea of protest as opposition; it functions a little like a toddler whose response to being told ‘no’ is to interpret all future refusals as a personal attack, and to reductively swing to the opposite extreme. Unfortunately for many causes, the purposes of which aren’t so black-or-white, inversion falls woefully short in the nuance stakes.

While patriarchal society generally does, for example, privilege masculinity over femininity — assertive boys are ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’, while similarly assertive girls are ‘hysterical’ and ‘bossy’ — putting men in skirts is… somewhat an over-simplification of the issue. It does, however, deliver shock factor in spades, so if that happens to be what you’re aiming at, so far, so good.

The #TimesUp red carpet blackout at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards

Then there’s the charismatic variety of activist fashion, or the kind that aligns itself with notable figures from the history books. Think of the popularisation of the military beret as revolutionary attire in the wake of Che Guevara’s Guerrillero Heroico portrait, or female Democratic lawmakers in the US wearing white at the 2019 State of the Union address, referencing both former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and the much earlier suffragist movement, when women fought for their right to vote.

Charismatic activist fashion offers a sense of continuity from past revolutionary groups and individuals, but there’s an important catch: one has to take the ills of a chosen icon’s legacy along with the good. And these days, even the deceased’s closet skeletons aren’t safe from scrutiny. That makes selecting an inspirational figurehead a total crapshot — count yourselves warned!

The final and most advanced form of semiotic activist fashion draws from references peripherally related to the issue at hand. To name but one example: France’s populist protestors, the gilet jaunes, are so named for the high-vis vests that French motorists are obliged to store in their cars for emergencies.

The vests were adopted as a protest uniform after a hike in fuel prices which disproportionately affected middle and lower income households. Outrage soon boiled over into a backlash against wider economic inequality, and an item of road safety gear quickly evolved into a symbol of popular discontent.

Other objects have found similarly innocuous paths to infamy. The Handmaid’s Tale’s horrific depiction of a fundamentalist society run amok paralleled US politics’ recent swing to the far-right, inadvertently making Handmaids’ hoods a beacon for liberal anxieties.

Such serendipitous, lightning-strike icons are hard to premeditate, and are all the more striking for it. Always be attentive to your surroundings, for you never know when you’ll hit the jackpot while searching for a convenient emblem. Rarer still, however, are the items belonging to our next category…

The body politic

Perfect collisions between fashion, function, and protest are few and far between throughout history, but boy, are they memorable. Revolutionist commoners in 18th century France, for example, were known as the sans-culottes or ‘those without breeches’. Unlike the upper classes, they wore practical, full-length trousers, instead of knee-length breeches over stockings.

The sans-culottes didn’t contrive their style to make a statement, but dressed for pragmatic purposes that reflected the physical demands of their lifestyles. Trousers remain ubiquitous these days, while breeches aren’t, and there’s a reason for that. One could even argue for the modern trouser as a symbol of democracy; and the fact that workwear-based iterations like jeans are seen as icons of ‘the people’ would bear out that impression.

Similarly, the Victorian dress reform movement — which reacted against the constraining and cumbersome women’s fashions of the time such as heavy-duty corsets and tight, tight sleeves — notably birthed the bloomer. Bloomer definition: a notorious pair of women’s trousers that scandalised society by *gasp* making it easier for women to ride bicycles, to play sport, and (unlike floor-length skirts with trains) to keep their hemlines safe from the ravages of filthy pavements.

It’s telling that the two most prominent examples of body-based activist fashion sit below the waist, the stereotypical site of physical mobility and sex. Perhaps it’s why the yoga-leggings-as-trousers debate is one of the few that can still inflame outrage in 2019, despite us living in the age of “yes, you can wear post-workout gym clothes on the commute to work” athleisure.

In our relatively liberated times, body-based activist fashion is unlikely to re-emerge from its slumber anytime soon. The only way to raise the bar may be to go pantless altogether, which brings us to the somewhat counterintuitive advice to…

Be a lady

Lady Godiva, that is. This legendary figure was allegedly moved to protest the exorbitant taxes her own husband extracted from citizens of their earldom, by riding naked through the streets on horseback. Godiva’s tale has endured for over a millennium, which is nothing to sniff at. So when in doubt, just take off all your clothes. And we mean all of them; everything sounds more attention-grabbing when you're butt-naked…

Just kidding. Sort of.

A recreation of Lady Godiva's infamous ride at a festival in the United Kingdom, 1951

Read previous Fashion Nerdery entries here.

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