From women’s suffrage to Black Lives Matter, the radical history of ho
Fashion, clothing, textiles, accessories and costumes have played a vital role in protest movements throughout history. Clothing often provides groups with the most basic opportunity to rebel: a simple, mundane item that can symbolize discontent. British punks took the humble safety pin from the household sewing kit, stuck it into an earlobe, and headed for a grim 1970s post-war world they didn’t have of voice. Male farmers in rural India wore their wives’ saris while staging sit-ins on the railroads against government neglect. American suffragists made and wore dresses from old newspapers printed with pro-voting slogans.
During the 1992 LA riots, protesters painted, torn, or stenciled their t-shirts, using clothing as a canvas to build community around their rebellion. Mark Craig, a Los Angeles student and Navy veteran, donned a t-shirt on a night of civil disobedience that led him to draw national attention to the cover of News week. His t-shirt was on display at the California African American Museum as part of a retrospective of the riots in LA: object (T-shirt) and meaning (social discontent) combine to create a historical artifact with a legacy.
The clothing provides a compelling backdrop to record the rebellion: a super visual, universal and portable signal that can be photographed, distributed, copied, and constructed by future protesters across languages and cultures. When the Trump administration came to power in the United States, the protests reverberated around the world. During the four years Donald Trump has been in office, it seemed like every day brought a new image that went viral: women’s marches, Black Lives Matter protests, the #MeToo movement, the Yellow Vests protests in France, Kamala Harris dressed in white for her vice-presidential acceptance speech, anti-Brexit protesters holding satirical puppets of politicians, Hong Kong citizens marching under a sea of yellow umbrellas, Nigerian activists rallying against police violence. The protest is once again in the air. And ever since there have been protests, citizens, activists and freedom fighters have used art and design to amplify, uplift, articulate and define their causes.
Only hats can tell the story of design and material culture, from the iconic beret of the Black Panthers to Gandhi’s humble topi hat, from the headgear of the Caribbean rebels to the French hat shop of WWII protest . In 2016, Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh started Project Pussyhat, and the soft knit pink pussies faced off in cardinal red MAGA baseball caps with “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” in white embroidery.
The year 2017 brought the crisp white beanie of the hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, worn by activists as a tribute to the original costumes designed by Ane Crabtree. The #MeToo movement celebrated the servant girl costumes, with activists buying versions of the costume online or making them at home, and taking to city streets and government buildings donning the odd red dresses and hoodies. white caps. The costumes were endlessly photographed and viscerally haunting. In 1951, art historian Quentin Bell wrote an article titled “The Incorrigible Habit”. He has forever linked phenomena such as the costumes in The Handmaid’s Tale to activism and clothing: “The history of clothing is, to a very large extent, a history of protests.
While the handmaid’s protesters wore custom dresses and beanies, the MAGA hat was a factory-made, synthetically dyed symbol of American masculinity and national sport in the form of the baseball cap. 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 is something bigger and more primitive: the headdress of American folk costume.
The baseball cap began as a sports uniform but has become a symbol of the ordinary American citizen. Trump’s marketing team took to another level when they propelled such a humble prop into political history.
For anyone trying to make sense of our turbulent times, design can be a guide, reflecting our world, uncovering deeper meanings, turning words and thoughts into visuals. Through photographs, artwork, prints, paintings, and sculptures, we can see dress as a visually engaging and historically fascinating exploration of many types of rebellion: formalized protests; civil disobedience; peaceful and violent uprisings; informal, impromptu and secret resistance. Social activism, sit-ins, flash mobs, boycotts, street theater, and industrial action all reveal the ways 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 very current. Crucial and pivotal movements for Indigenous rights, civil rights, climate change awareness, pay equity, women’s rights, gender equality and the rights of people with disabilities have changed the course of society. A protester sacrifices his safety and personal freedom to rebel – and on his back are the clothes that will become symbols of the revolution. These tools served as markers in time, documenting fleeting moments of the movements, cementing them in history for future generations.
Universal themes run deep in the history of clothing – subversion, conformity, imitation, confrontation, uniformity, appropriation, shock, nudity, fear and parody – and form common ground for all human expressions. The creation of new fashions or distinctive clothing and accessories has given dissidents of all nations a powerful non-verbal tool, the massive use of which creates a powerful repeated image that can lodge itself in the minds of the public. Activists have used the full spectrum of fashion, from everyday clothing and accessories, high fashion to avant-garde clothing, to advance their causes. Costumes and performances can be crucial tools in raising the profile of a cause. And finally, getting naked as an act of protest can be just as compelling as covering up completely.
Cultures throughout history have used clothing, accessories, and costumes as a catalyst in the struggle for social change, and ordinary people have harnessed this visual power to intensify their message. Harriet Tubman, abolitionist and heroine of the Underground Railroad, born in 1822, is of slave origin, but her clothes tell stories just as important as those of Louis XIV, the king of France in the 18th century. Tubman wore humble and utilitarian clothing as she guided slaves to freedom – men’s overcoats, sturdy woolen hats, studded boots. In contrast, Louis XIV, sometimes referred to as Louis Couture, was known for his fierce love of the best clothes, accessories, wigs, and jewelry available. He gave clothes one of his biggest compliments, saying that “fashion is the mirror of history”.
From Dressing the resistance: the visual language of protest throughout history by Camille Benda, published by Princeton Architectural Press. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher.