The rise of protest dressing: how fashion and politics are more intertwined than ever

When the women of the US Democratic party dressed in unanimous white at President Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union speech, they made a powerful statement that the status quo in Washington will be challenged.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained that they wanted the president to see “a wave of white” – a colour which historically has associations with the Suffrage movement and was worn by Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign.

It was a striking yet simple way for the female Democrats to assert their presence as the majority force in the House and to serve warning to Trump and the Republicans that they will fight them at every opportunity. Trump may have referenced bipartisanship in his speech but the women’s adoption of white protested his brand of toxic, divisive politics and defined their mission to clean up government.

The tradition of protest dressing isn’t new, but it has been revived dramatically of late, with incarnations including the appearance of women dressed as Margaret Atwood-inspired Handmaids in Washington to protest Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment, the “Pussy” hats adopted by thousands of women on marches after Trump’s election, and the wearing of black on the red carpet at the 2018 Golden Globes for the Time’s Up campaign. It seems that everything from gender inequality to racism to workplace bullying is now being protested via fashion.

Social and political tensions globally have re-asserted the role of fashion as a vehicle for protest. Scandals and discord in institutions such as Hollywood, the Catholic Church, the US government and the Brexit-stricken UK House of Commons have shaken beliefs and provoked a visible reaction, particularly from women. Now choosing what to wear is no longer simply about style.

Fashion is a vivid and fascinating reflection of popular culture and social trends. Our clothes are more than a modest shield from the elements – they denote social rank, status or political and class affiliations and aspirations. Every day when we get dressed we choose which identity we present to the world – now that said world is in a state of crisis, it is not surprising that people are re-assessing the messages conveyed in their clothes. From the Gilets Jaunes of Paris to the red capes of the Handmaids to the ubiquitous REPEAL jumpers, statement-making clothes have been adopted as a potent form of expression and protest.

The have stated: “The more we are seen, the more we are heard.” Adopting a bold colour, like vibrant pink to protest within a male-dominated space, is empowering because women are simultaneously making themselves more visible and subverting the traditional associations of pink with passive femininity.” Delete ‘Pretty in Pink’ as the mood board for S/S 2019 and replace with ‘Protest in Pink’ instead.

Even what you don’t wear can be a protest – recall Pussy Riot’s use of nudity to protest Putin, the Supermodels’ PETA poster where they posed nude with the slogan: “We’d rather go naked than wear fur” and the ’70s socialite, who on being refused entrance to the conservative Côte Basque in New York (because she was wearing a Le Smoking trouser suit), simply removed the trousers and wore her jacket as a mini dress, in an example of sophisticated subversion.

Historically, protest dressing has had multiple expressions: the French Incroyables of the 1790s, the Suffragettes’ adoption of white, purple and green or punk’s distressed and slashed aesthetic which protested recession, dole queues and the Establishment’s indifference. Hollywood has also utilised clothing to protest issues and dress codes: Jane Fonda’s Mao collared suit worn to collect her Best Actress Oscar in 1972, when she stated that she “wasn’t dressing for men” and Kristen Stewart’s pointed removal of her Christian Louboutin heels on the Cannes red carpet in 2018. Now with pressing environmental issues such as global warming, plastics pollution and over-consumption joining concerns about misogyny, sexual exploitation and discrimination, sartorial and socio-political statements are appearing side by side with increasing frequency. They may be strange bedfellows thrown together by circumstance but have developed a new affinity.

One of the most striking images of the 1980s was that of Katharine Hamnett wearing her infamous ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ T-shirt to Downing Street, to confront Margaret Thatcher. Hamnett has revived her slogan T-shirts successfully with her ‘Cancel Brexit’ version particularly topical. Other slogans from the designer include, ‘Fashion Hates Brexit’, ‘Second Referendum Now’ and ‘Vote Trump Out’ (which is currently sold out).

Vivienne Westwood has been a strong advocate for climate change protest for decades and her recent London Fashion Week show featured Rose McGowan – a driver of the #MeToo movement since making allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein – delivering a speech on consumerism, models wearing T-shirts that berated politicians and bags sporting the statement ‘I Heart Crap’.

The mood overall at LFW this year was muted: the event opened with Justice 4 Grenfell staging an event with 72 people including Emeli Sandé and Adwoa Aboah standing in silent protest wearing T-shirts asking: ’72 dead and still no arrests? How come?’

As fashion is an industry with a dubious legacy including pollution, body fascism and human rights violations in its supply chain, some might find designers pontificating on politics and protest hard to swallow, but that hasn’t stopped them expressing their views. This needn’t always be at a high pitch like Dior’s ‘We should all be feminists’ T-shirt. Sometimes the expressions can be subtle and nuanced – Simone Rocha’s use of a diverse mix of models of all ages and sizes in her recent A/W 2019 show.

Fashion feeds off an innate collective intelligence and will always reflect what women are experiencing in their lives. Coco Chanel vividly expressed this relationship between fashion and life: “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only; fashion is something in the air. It’s the wind that blows in the new fashion: you smell it. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”.

Certainly, what women are choosing to wear has never been so scrutinised for overt or hidden meanings. Thousands of words were written trying to parse Melania Trump’s message on that Zara coat while events such as the Slut Walk marches in Toronto and women discarding their hijabs on the streets of Tehran all reflect a sense that the mood globally is discordant, angry and exasperated.

Women may not be burning their bras but they are spectacularly pissed off. Using style to semaphore inflamed sentiments has become a common shorthand. In the age of Instagram, a potent visual can have a global impact.

What powerful and visible women choose to wear can deliver messages of support to causes they care about – Ruth Negga wearing the blue ACLU ribbon to the Oscars; Beyoncé’s Black Panthers-inspired costume at the Super Bowl (in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protest) or singer Lorde stitching a poem by Jenny Holzer, The Apocalypse, onto the back of her Valentino gown at the Grammys in 2018. It stated: “Our times are intolerable. Take courage, for the worst is a harbinger of the best. Only dire circumstances can precipitate the overthrow of the oppressors.”

Critics might think that fashion is too superficial a vehicle for serious protest, others disagree. Turning social movements into an income stream is cynical and, certainly, there are brands that will attempt to ride the trend, but designers such as Maria Grazie Chiuri at Dior, Phoebe Philo when she was at Celine, Miuccia Prada and Stella McCartney do seem to be genuinely attempting to promote debate and change via their designs.

With younger consumers rejecting traditional models of consumption by recycling, shopping second hand or just not shopping due to ethical concerns or lack of funds, labels have had to find ways of communicating with them through innovative strategies. Increasingly brands need to be sustainable, socially engaged and pro-active in terms of auditing their carbon and human rights policies to gain millennials as clients. If they are credible and display a sense of social responsibility, younger people may shop their goods.

The blending of business and ethics will be the defining trend of successful brands in the future. It simply won’t be enough to have nice dresses – labels will have to ensure that the ethics of their brand speaks to their client’s conscience as well as their desire to be stylish.

Clothing can comment on social and political issues and is an accessible tool for women to engage in debate or protest in an immediate way. Fashion can be an empowering method of expression and the current conversation seems to have only started. If fashion gives an account of its era and the desires of the moment then the fashion pages are now as relevant and revealing as our news reports. Wearing your sleeve on your sartorial heart has assumed a new urgency.

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