Dress and Protest
[Written for my final major project magazine, Dopazine]
Cast your gaze back up the runway through history. It is clear that fashion has always acted as some sort of rebuttal to the affairs of the state. With fashion ever present in our lives, and the constant cyclical turbulence of politics, the two areas repeatedly coincide through history - and still do today.
Recognised by designers, punters, onlookers and trend forecasters alike; protest through dress is not coincidental, but instead a planned, tried and tested method of dressing used throughout time, both to reflect political movements of the day and to express individual experiment. We have always found creative ways to make statements through what we wear. Whether a big power statement or a quiet resolution in how we choose to style ourselves.
It is something fashion trend forecasters take into consideration as authors Holland and Jones of Fashion Trend Forecasting explain: “You must observe daily life, see what is happening globally. Consider political and social factors [when setting trends].”
So whatever the season, the styles that trickle down from fashion week to clothes we pick up in whichever stores we frequent may well have been designed with our current political and social climate in mind. Whether you mean to or not you could very well be wearing something that has stemmed in some way from a designer’s interpretation of a society’s political stance. We know all too well from Miranda Priestley’s spiel on that cerulean sweater that there is a reason behind every piece in our wardrobes.
For a stand-out example of fashion reflecting a social mood, take a look at the mini-skirt. Hailed to Mary Quant, the mini-skirt queen, it shimmied its way into our wardrobes in the sixties. This coincided with the release of the birth control pill. The new easy access to the pill was the perfect catalyst for the increased popularity of the shorter hem lines that allowed women to explore an arguably more sexually liberated dress code.
More recently, a somewhat more harrowing trend has surfaced: the bullet proof vest as designed by Banksy and worn iconically by Stormzy during his 2019 Glastonbury performance. Unsurprisingly since then, the trend described as ‘warcore’ by Vogue in 2018 has seen a resurgence. In this case, the social and political issues that have given rise to this particular trend are distressingly, true to our time. A reflection of high knife–crime rates, particularly in our capital city, and a perceived lack on the Government’s part to address knife crime prevention have been presented to us through a fashioned adaptation of a piece of personal protective equipment.
The parallels between fashion and politics can be wide spread or personal, relevant either to an individual or community. We can act as the vehicle for a designer’s own message, but we can also be the vehicle for our own messages. Dressing in protest doesn’t have to come from a top designer and trickle down to every day wear. It isn’t just about us conforming; waiting for our favourite brand or designer to tell us what this season holds. It is also creatives; people who engage and demand change, taking matters into their own hands and using fashion as the means by which to convey their message to people. It can be adopting a particular trade mark style that can bring people together and show solidarity through colours, accessories, uniforms and more.
A historical example of fashion being used for a political cause in this way is the style of The Suffragettes. Admired for beauty and elegance, they always turned up for their political protests pristinely dressed. Always adorned in purple, white and green to represent loyalty, purity and hope, their style of dress had more thought behind it than just being the traditional dress of women during that time. In fact, their decision to be feminine was a well thought out and purposeful one. They wanted their dress to represent the physical expectations of what a ‘model’ woman should be, juxtaposed to their actions which were very much not considered perfect for women during that period of time. The use of the three trade mark colours of the suffragettes allowed for a wider community of women who wanted to show solidarity to take part in the movement “More and more women began to take up the colours, if only by wearing a beaded necklace in purple, white and green, a brooch picked out in semi-precious coloured stones” wrote author Cally Blackman when writing about the Suffragettes for Stylist.
This community spirit represented by the Suffragettes through fashion is something still seen now in protest’s globally. Look at the Pussy Hat Project for example. For many, a very just reaction to an appalling ‘pussy’ related comment by President Trump. The Pink Pussy Hat, the perfect antidote to the not so stylish ‘make America great again’, created a pink sea of solidarity for women’s rights during protests against trump. Now, the Pussy Hat Project acts as an inclusive global, women’s movement, with one of the iconic hats making its way into the Victoria and Albert museum, as an iconic piece of fashion protest history.
Another iconic group of protesters who dress in a widely recognisable and original style are The Red Rebel Brigade. Emerging out of recent political turbulence, specifically the frustration felt by followers at the perceived lack of acknowledgement by the Government of the environmental crisis we are facing. An artivist group who are shrouded in red to represent the blood that we all share. “We divert, distract and inspire those who watch us” says Doug Franciso, the man behind the Brigade. A ‘mobile photoshoot’ in their own words, they have become a symbol of peaceful protest. The movement is growing with other cities outside of London forming their own branches of the Red Rebel Brigade community.
To aid the growing and inclusivity of their following, and in a bid to reach out to others, The Red Rebel Brigade share tutorials online on how to ‘get the look’ as it were.
Of course, in order to stay true to what they are protesting for this isn’t about going out and buying it from high street outlets. The red costumes are handcrafted; encouraging creativity and hands on making, using whatever you can find and adapting it in order to fit the Brigade’s signature style. It is a unique movement that shows that using fashion doesn’t have to mean buying into trends.
Fashion is, first and foremost, an art form and this activist group are certainly being very artistic. Like any movement, they have received some negative feedback, including hilariously being called ‘lobster hippies’ by some doubters that were clearly unaware that crustaceans have really had their fashion moment, starting Spring 2019 and still being seen printed on garments this season. So if this is the case, The Red Rebel Brigade are right on trend.
The clothes that we wear are our physical representation of our outward personality. It doesn’t matter whether we have chosen them ourselves, or they’ve been designed for us. Whether we have customised our clothes or chosen to follow a particular trend, when we pick out our outfits we are putting on our second skin. Obviously, the saying goes never judge a book by its cover. But, if our covers are the first thing we see then a first impression is unavoidable. Through dressing as a form of protest you are being able to communicate your political stance, belief systems and opinions to every person who lays eyes on you without having to utter a word.
It’s also a useful signifier in history both now, and for future generations to look back on. We can recognise certain political movements and moods through the fashion choices people were making at the time. The lines between politics and dress are blurred; they have a special relationship, where fashion offers a creative platform from which people can present their stance without having to verbally explain themselves.