While the protests we make aren’t changing, they haven’t been changed in their appearance.

Fashion has been a way to identify status, wealth, and allegiance for as long as people have been wearing clothes. Uniforms were used to distinguish which side a soldier was fighting on during war. They were also used to express politics off the battlefield – something that is still visible today when women wear white pantsuits in the White House or pink hats outside for protests.

A uniform can be used as a symbol of resistance and a way to express solidarity with the movement. It not only shows unity within the group but also to the outside world. It is no surprise that certain colors and styles are associated with demonstrations in times of social unrest.

People around the globe have taken to the streets in protest against racism following George Floyd’s tragic death at the hands police. They are wearing clothes that nod to the past 100 years of protests but is unlike anything we’ve seen before. (We also have a pandemic like none we have ever seen. We’ve done our research and found out what the fashion history has to say about clothes that we wear today.

The Subversive Meaning of White

The American suffrage movement, whose fight for women’s rights began more than 50 years ago at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, grew in the 1900s as women lobbied to get the right vote. On March 3, 1913, thousands of Women’s Suffrage Parade participants gathered in Washington, D.C. to demand a constitutional amendment to give women the right vote. The white-clad women marched in the procession the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

“White, traditionally, is worn as a sign of chastity,” says Darnell-Jamal Lisby, fashion historian and curator. He points out paintings of Queen Elizabeth I dressed in white that “exude[ing] the essence [of the virgin queen]” and the fact that the color was associated with bridal wear in later centuries. The color white has held this position of conservatism and chastity since its introduction to the West. It is deeply rooted in heteronormative traditions.

According to Lisby however, the color was probably chosen to subvert the idea that white was associated with. “Like, “White was chastity,” so we are going take it, subvert and make it part of this movement which allows women to use our voices,” he said. This made it a memorable newspaper image, as the white color stood out in black-and-white photos of the time. “This army of white-clad women was captivating to be seen and photographed.”

Practically, Lisby points out that the color could be chosen to include as many women as possible in the movement. He says that white was supposed to be worn by any woman of any class or idealistically race. Unfortunately, that idea didn’t materialize. Cotton was used in the manufacture of clothes back then. It came in a “tingey brown, almost-white color.” You had to pay more to add dye to a style. Not everyone could afford it. “White was the happy medium. Lisby says that anyone could have it and everyone could wear it. “It was unifying women from different socio-economic backgrounds.”

“Suffragette white” became a symbol of the White House. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968, wore white. Hillary Clinton wore white during her Democratic nomination acceptance speech in 2016 and 2017. In January of 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore white to be sworn in as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. At the time, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “I wore all-white today to honor the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come. I wouldn’t have been here without the mothers of the movement, from Shirley Chisholm to the suffragettes.”

To mark the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right of vote, white was worn by women to the State of the Union Address in February. Lisby says, “That symbolism is pure, it’s almost once subverting these images of chastity to ideas of protest, speaking up for women’s rights, breaking down that original idea of what white meant in the West to now mean something else, something new that empowers women’s choices. I find the evolution quite ironic.”

A NAACP-organized march in 1917 featured white as the preferred color. It is also known as the “Silent Protest Parade” and was held in New York City after violent attacks on the East St. Louis Black community. Nearly 10,000 Black men and women, as well as children, walked Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in silence, while the former wore white to symbolize their innocence amid the horrific violence against their community. Lisby says that in the early 20th century, most garments were cheaper to buy if you didn’t add so many dyes. When you think about Sunday Best and respectability politics, white was an intrinsic part of the Black experience. You can have elements of white and black in your closet, because that’s what it was like when you went to church. It was something that was already present.”

Fast-forward to 2020 and the over-15,000 people wearing white who, following the deaths of multiple Black trans people, gathered at the Brooklyn Museum in support of Black Trans Lives Matter movement, and then marched through Brooklyn’s streets. Fran Tirado, one organizer of the demonstration, tweeted that white was a decision he had made after the 1917 march. The visual result was just as powerful as in the past. It created photographs that showed unity and brought attention to the message. “There is something striking about white, which draws attention to the message so they can hear it. Lisby states that white almost acts as a canvas for social messages. “It acts like a non-verbal canvas to communicate whatever message they are trying to convey at any given time.”

Lisby points out that white is an effective color to use visually, but what is most striking about the Black Trans Lives Matter march uniform is the decision not to wear the exact same thing when we have every kind of clothing. There is power in allowing people to choose the color they prefer when they organize. It’s not about what they wear but how united they are in spirit. Lisby explains that they went there intentionally to ensure that the message they were eliciting was not distracted by what they were wearing.”

person holding white and black welcome to the beach signage

The Quiet Power of Wearing Sunday Best

The images of civil rights marches in the 1960s are dominated by tailored suits, ties and dresses. However, the Black community has a long tradition of wearing Sunday Bests.

“On Sunday, you were going to church. You should dress appropriately to honor God when you go to church or the house of God. Your body is your temple,” Lisby says. It’s been instilled, especially in the Black community, to ensure that how you present yourself is not just honoring your temple, but also the bodies of those around you respecting them and giving God honor.”

It makes sense, he says, that protests were covered by fashion. Lisby states that many civil rights movements began in the church. “It was natural to associate protesting with wearing Sunday best. It was a natural association.”

Lisby also mentions the notion of respectability politics, which dates back to Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois and Madam C. J. Walker. Lisby says that if they were going be leaders and spoke in spaces that were very bare, it was important that they dressed in a way that made the information digestible. The civil rights activists were also fighting for integration into the system in the 1960s. They wore what was considered the “established” dress code at the time.

“All of these figures were present during the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King and all the other women who stood next to men to drive a lot a lot of civil rights movement… were dressed in a traditional fashion to the standards of fashion protocol at the time,” Lisby explains. They wanted their messages heard. “I think that inherently there is the idea that what you wear does matter. Those white people in power needed to be able visually to hear what was being said so we can move forward.”

People were shocked by images of racism’s brutality and began to recognize themselves in the clothing of others after seeing newspapers showing dogs and water hoses being unleashed on peaceful protestors in Alabama in 1963. It shouldn’t have been necessary to dress in a certain manner to encourage empathy between people. Soon after, President John F. Kennedy gave his history-making Civil Rights address.

America is currently facing another reckoning with systemic racism. Gabriel M. Garmon, a stylist, asked people to bring their best to a protest honoring George Floyd’s death. The event, which Garmon co-organized with Brandon Murphy and Harold James Alexander WAight, saw more than 1,000 sharply dressed men walk through Harlem in outfits that ranged from traditional black suits to unique ones featuring bold colors and prints. (In an interview with WWD, Garmon and the others discussed their inspiration from the activists of the 1960s.)

“Harlem has a history of style, even if you think about Dapper Dan, and the legacy he created in Harlem. Lisby says that style is important and tailored suits are very important to the men. “I believe, for them Harlem, it was this idea: ‘We want you to dress in style as something important to us but also a tool we can use to draw attention to us.’ It’s striking to many people when you’re dressed in a certain way. “Sadly, for many years media has presented Black people as very specific tropes.”

greyscale photography of children

According to Leo Jones, organizer, the dress was to “reframe and build joy in our community to witness us looking so good, marching with such pride.”

The No-Uniform Uniform: The Message

Other significant clothing items have also been produced in recent years and have helped unify movements. Most notable, over a million people visited Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2017, to participate in the Women’s March. Many of those in attendance wore pink caps. Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh created the “Pussyhat Project”. It called for people to wear knitted, handmade “pussycat ears” caps in protest at Trump’s remarks about grabbing women’s sexual organs.

The statement-making clothing that defined the past four years wasn’t just this. Although slogan T-shirts existed before Trump became a presidential candidate, they were still popular in 2016 and 2017. T-shirts that promoted feminist ideals, with proceeds sometimes going to the cause depending on how shamelessly the brand can commodify feminism, have become more common in 2017 and 2016.

Lisby says that while certain clothing items have some importance, it is the unity of a group wearing the same clothes for the same purpose that is most important. The whole purpose of clothing, in the form of a uniform, is to ensure that the protest language is being heard and is prominent. You don’t want your message to be lost by wearing something different from what everyone else is wearing. This will bring attention to you and not the message.

It doesn’t matter if you march in specific marches. What’s more, the “uniforms” of today’s fight don’t actually look uniform. They are individual looks. People of all ages and racial backgrounds are wearing masks as a necessity to combat today’s pandemic. They also wear sartorial ties such as Converse sneakers and cutoffs. Their message is all that unites them: Black Lives Matter.

“Today, protesters dress as if it is possible to find their way through the wreckage of despair and disillusionment.” Robin Givhan, a Washington Post reporter, wrote that they are wearing shorts and T-shirts that can withstand the pepper spray, tear gas and sweat. “People don’t dress to uphold decorum. What is decorum? The status quo People are the only thing that can convey a powerful message.”

Lisby agrees that dressing up as you like can be powerful. This is also a good idea in this new era. “We are in a time when everything is new.” He says COVID is a new concept for all of us. “We’re moving in a direction where all the traditional approaches to life, protesting, or anything are just evolving. I believe there is power in the fact that we are seperating ourselves from these traditional approaches. That’s my opinion. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about one uniform.

Perhaps the headline will instead be about the change that happens as a result all these people coming together, regardless of what clothes they wear.

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