Fashion And Activism Have Evolved Together
Fashion has always been used as an object of activism and stood for codes that go far beyond aesthetics. Just take Michelle Obama’s V-O-T-E necklace worn for her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Clothing isn’t always just clothing; fashion and activism are intertwined. But with the rise of social media, consumers are asking brands for accountability as to what goes on behind the scenes. As brands engage in modern social and political movements (like Balenciaga’s editorial for Spring/Summer 2020 mimicking election coverage), consumers are finding ways not just to send a message with their clothes, but also with their spending power.
The women’s movement was one of the most important time periods in which fashion stood as a political statement. “Fashion was and is always political because it is a material way to express power,” says fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, PhD. She adds that this has been especially true for women, noting that in her field of expertise, it dates back to the 1850s. “Women’s rights advocates took the issue of dress reform and the bloomer more specifically as part of their agenda to promote women’s rights and equality. This placed a strong connection between fashion and appearance, and politics. For a long time, long after the bloomer was abandoned, the bloomer continued to be associated with feminism and the feminist struggle.” Still, early on these conversations often left out women of colour or other marginalized identities of the time.
In continuation of that legacy, the suffragettes of the early 20th century were recognized for their dress codes. The colour white is well known as a hue that signifies the movement, but colours were also worn to signify various beliefs.“The suffragettes wore white as part of a trinity of colours: white for purity, purple for dignity and loyalty, and green for hope,” explains Kara McLeod, fashion historian and professor at FIDM. “The colour scheme was first proposed in 1908 in the British publication Votes for Women, by one of the co-editors Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Other publications promoted this, essentially, branding of the women’s suffrage movement. Women also used the colours on ribbons, hatbands, sashes, scarves, or even jewellery to show support for the cause without having an entire outfit. In the U.S., the green was replaced with golden yellow.”
This same subtle use of suffragette white is still used today. “In 2017, the House Democratic Women’s Working Group asked women members to wear white to a presidential address as a group gesture signifying support for women’s rights,” adds McLeod. “They did it again in 2019 at the State of the Union address, and prominent female politicians have worn white symbolically on several other occasions. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore white at her swearing in, for example, and Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit to the final presidential debate of the 2016 election.” Rep. Lois Frankel said in February 2019, “Wearing suffragette white is a respectful message of solidarity with women across the country, and a declaration that we will not go back on our hard-earned right.”
Today, political activism can be achieved in other ways, too. The idea of buying from small, independent designers can be an active way for consumers to use their spending power to send a larger message. There’s a reason why Telfar’s shopping bag has become even more of an iconic, in-demand piece in our current climate; it’s a style “not for you, for everyone.”Designer Telfar Clemens recently told Hypebeast, “We are not ‘inclusive’ — we are Black-owned and nongendered since 2004. We went from marginalized to the tokenized quick. Our move was to build our entire company within our community … and to one day be totally independent of the industry.”
Thanks to social media and the breadth of knowledge available on the internet, shopping ethically and sustainably is easier for a customer who knows where to look and which questions to ask. Consumers hold spending power, but with a direct line to brands through Instagram or Twitter, movements like the 15 Percent Pledge can move brands to act more quickly in addressing issues from lack of internal diversity to the ethics of their supply chains. While what your clothing represents has long held weight, today activism is multifaceted. And beyond how a dress looks or what a pair of jeans represents, the ethos of the brands behind them is all the more important.