The Protest Power of Fashion

, inspired by the Time’s Up movement, explores the role of fashion as a means of protest

Image: Wikimedia Commons

What does it mean to protest? Simply, it is our ability to publicly disagree, to stand up and show society that there is another way of thinking and behaving. Yet what role does ‘fashion’ play in this greater movement?

Fashion as a medium is a form of expression and often vital in expressing sentiment. It is an influence on social change. Clothes possess the ability to influence society and have the potential to be incredibly powerful as a tool to transmit an opinion to a wider audience. In the words of Coco Chanel: “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Consequently, fashion cannot be limited to clothes in their independence and is reflective of our wider ways of living. Moreover it mirrors the attitudes of society at a specific moment in time.

Earlier this month at the 75th Golden Globe Awards Ceremony many of the attendees made the decision to wear black garments. This decision was used as a marker of recognising the sexual assaults that have plagued Hollywood for decades. The decision was a nod to the #timesup movement and a stand of solidarity. In the recent seasons we have begun to see high fashion becoming increasingly political. In the Spring/Summer 2018 Dior show Maria Grazia Chiuri emblazoned the slogans ‘We should all be feminists’ and ‘why have there been no great women artists’ atop t-shirts, quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk and Linda Nochlin’s essay respectively. This is only one example of high fashion using its influence to express political statements. Designers have long used clothes as an avenue to create wider discussion. For instance, big fashion brands such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen have built their fashion houses upon the ideas of rallying against the norms of society.

Over the course of history, clothes have been used as a liberating social and political force. Because of this they have been able to shake societal norms and perceptions. For instance in the 1920s the flapper movement was a direct reaction against society’s attitude towards the feminine form. The loose fitting dresses and blunt bobs were a far cry from the corsetry that society had deemed ‘feminine’ and subsequently revolutionised the perception of femininity. Likewise, the creation of the miniskirt during the 1960s further transcended how society regards the notion of womanhood.

While the choice of colour or style of clothes plays a role in how we make a stand, equally a lack of clothing is a demonstration in itself. In 1993 at the Lollapalooza festival the band Rage Against the Machine held a nude protest onstage against music censorship. Although the band were soon escorted offstage by police after having bottles thrown at them, the provocativeness of the demonstration was due to the fact that they were in the nude. Additional movements, using nudity as a foundation, have also created debate. For example the #freethenipple movement on Instagram explores the perceived societal differences between female and male sexuality. As Instagram bans images of female nipples yet not those of men, the movement discusses how society sexualises women and comments on the censorship of female bodies.

Ultimately, fashion is a worthy tool that can be used to solidify a movement and create momentum for a greater movement of ideas and beliefs. While such a message is undoubtedly powerful, the dialectic doesn’t begin and end with a dress. Furthermore, it would be conceited and superficial to give universal credit to clothes. The way we dress ourselves can, however, be the first step forward. It is often the first step society takes to recognise a need for widespread change. All this being said, the ability to act upon thoughts and ideas in order to create a better climate of living forms the possibility for meaningful protest: a feat which goes beyond ‘fashion’.