Clothing is a means of expression that throughout human history has become a symbol of different social movements.
Oftentimes, the fashion industry is criticized for existing in a bubble outside of what is really happening in the world, far from issues affecting the community. But, clothing can be a means for individuals and activist groups to demonstrate their ideology. A style of dress or color can become a symbol for a cause and a way to express activism and support.
Throughout history, there have been many examples of fashion promoting activism. At the beginning of the 20th century, for example, the color white came to represent the suffragette movement, which demanded that women be given the right to vote. Women chose this tone because it represented the purity of their struggle. During protests, members of this movement wore white from head to toe. This color was so strongly intertwined with the movement that is still associated with it and used to express support for the fight for equality between men and women. Just recall the iconic moment during the 2019 State of the Union address when Democratic congresswomen wore white as an act of protest against the then-President Donald Trump.
The suffragettes are not the only group to have adopted a type of clothing as a uniform for their fight. Homogeneity in a group encourages the feeling of unity and belonging and makes members feel seen and not alone. Another example is the Black Panthers. This movement, which fought for the rights of people of color in the United States, adopted a uniform that consisted of a black leather jacket, pants, t-shirt, and beret. The beret was inspired by the French resistance movements during WWII. This look is still a symbol of the movement today; just recall Beyoncé’s Super Bowl XLVII halftime show outfit, which paid tribute to the Black Panthers.
And it’s not just past movements that have turned to clothing as a way of expressing activism. In just 2017, women of all ages and backgrounds marched for women’s rights and against gender inequality. This historical moment immortalized an accessory that was a symbol of the march: the “Pussyhat,” a pink knit cap named in protest of Donald Trump’s use of the word. The hat began as a part of a project of solidarity and sisterhood between two women: Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh. Today this hat represents much more than a simple fashion choice; it’s a demonstration of political activism.
We saw another recent example at the 2017 Golden Globes ceremony. The feeling at the time was one of outrage; actresses from all walks of life bravely decided to denounce the atrocities and the darker side of Hollywood. The #MeToo movement was born, an initiative that uncovered a series of abuses against different actresses at the hands of the most powerful men in the film industry. By January 2018, a collective of actresses had gotten together and created Time’s Up, a fund with the aim of helping actresses combat sexual harassment. On January 7, 2018, during the Golden Globes ceremony, all the actresses attending wore black and a pin with the Time’s Up logo as a show of support for the cause and protest against sexual abuse. This is another moment in which fashion went beyond just clothing and became a way of showing unity and solidarity. The black dresses worn by actresses such as Eva Longoria, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, and Emma Watson communicated the anger and exhaustion at all the injustices suffered by actresses in the industry.
There are many more examples like these. Fashion is not only about clothing, trends, and the collections that designers present each season. It is a means of communication through which we can express our identity, thoughts, and ideologies. That is why it has been an important part of various activist movements throughout history. And, just as fashion influences society, the social climate has an effect on fashion. As such, wearing a color, accessory, or a uniform for a cause can say a thousand words.