Material can be the subject matter of political movements and sustainability debates, as well as personal statements. However, not all materials have the same rich history that denim has.

The British Textile Biennial, which culminated a month of talks and workshops, has ended. The event focused on the UK’s relationship to creativity, innovation, and expression in textiles. It covered a variety of topics, including textile history, future production methods, and the societal impact of textiles.

This year’s edition featured a number of panels and exhibitions that emphasized denim as an act of activism. They highlighted its role in protests and movements and acted as a border for politically charged statements.

One panel discussion was entitled “Denim and Civil Rights” and focused on Tiwirayi Naoro’s work, “Woke Denim”. The photo series, which was created by Tiwirayi Ndoro, a stylist, activist, explored denim’s use in protests in modern-day times, taking into account its extensive history.

Ndoro was joined for the discussion by Tunde Adekoya, the director of Big People Music, and Calum Bayne, the artists Jamie Holman (and Calum Bayne) who each offered their perspectives on denim’s use as a symbol for protest and self-expression.

Denim as a symbol for youth and a platform to support diverse communities

photo of three men jumping on ground near bare trees during daytime

Ndoro spoke out about her Zimbabwean heritage and her experiences being a Black British woman. She also discussed the impact of denim on Black history. Adekoya and Ndoro also discussed their relationship to the material after they had learned about its meanings in their communities. Adekoya, Ndoro and Adekoya both noted the unusual and often unrecognized relationship between denim, Black people, and slavery during the Civil Rights Movement. Both men agreed that their relationship with denim has changed greatly since then.

Jamie Holman responded, saying: “The connection to the Civil Rights Movement is key in the establishment youth culture in 1960s. Denim was a symbol for youth, and it certainly travels from this background. It is the uniform of many youth culture movements.”

The discussion centred on an image of Joyce Lander, activist taken during the 1963 march on Washington. Lander was an iconic figure of the Civil Rights movement and wore denim overalls which wasn’t common in everyday American fashion.

Calum stated, “It’s a message specific to her use of denim. It is as if she is forcing people look at denim overalls and think about how people are viewed and perceived in America and around the world.” Calum said, “It’s a specific form of protest that she won’t be coopted by White middle-class American fashion. It is resistance to simulation to achieve equality.”

He said, “It is spoken in this sense as an equaliser, the use denim coming across classes. Protesters would unite in their denim use.”

Bayne began to investigate the role of denim in gay communities, referring to the rise of the Castro clone in 1970. The look was inspired by the working-class style of the time and included tight fitting denim clothes and a white tank. Bayne noted that although it was once a way to bring people together, there were negative connotations associated with the growing popularity of fashion.

He stated, “Style and the uses of denim may be unifying but can also cause rejection of others.” “At that time, the white, muscular, hypersexualized body was kind of idealized in that community. Anything that was not in line with the white idealized perspective was rejected.”

He said, “Can you trust garments to relay political integrity?” Everybody can have a different identity, even if they wear the same jacket. It’s whether the brand is making a statement by coopting denim or being more responsible in its own long-term statements.

The panel concluded that denim can be viewed in many different ways depending on how media is used and what community one belongs to. It has become more difficult to identify the reason for denim’s use in this context due to the popularity of protests and the desire to look fashionable. Ndoro hopes to change the perception of denim’s history by allowing for more diverse dialogues.

“So many young people don’t know the history of denim and its links to BLM …”

woman leaning on blue wall

Her “Woke Denim” project was centered around the Black Lives Matter (BLM), movement that was triggered last year by George Floyd’s death. It was part of an international outcry about the treatment of Black people in law enforcement.

Ndoro said that young people were the ones who drove the BLM movement forward. “It was an incredible experience for me. It was not a place of anger. There was more people working together for a common cause.”

She said, “Most of the work I do is geared toward the experiences Black people have breaking down boundaries and fighting oppression anywhere.”

The photo series featured images of Black British youths wearing predominantly denim clothes, and each with powerful stances that represent the movement.

Ndoro spoke out about her decision to wear denim in conversation with us after the talk.

“So, the research was very revealing to me and that’s why I chose to have lots of denim in my imagery. It should be able to replicate not only the anger of protests but Black joy and working together with strength.”

Ndoro stated that she believes that the research on denim has changed the way she views the material. She also noted that this mindset would benefit a larger number of people.

She said, “So many young people don’t know the history of denim and its connections to BLM. That is why I wanted it to be central to my conversation. These young people attend these events in denim and don’t know its meaning.”

Levi’s and other major denim brands have done a great job hiding the history and centralising it around whitewashed denim. You can also see the Black point. This was done to increase awareness.

Ndoro is also a director at the KYSO Project IC and plans to incorporate fashion activism into her other work areas. Manchester-based charity Ndoro aims to assist young people who are disadvantaged in gaining the skills and opportunities that will help them develop their futures.

She said that young people thrive in learning environments that promote inclusiveness. “I see many young people who think they cannot go to certain events, but if they did, they could be involved in more opportunities. It’s important that young people of all backgrounds have access to engaging content and spaces.”

Patagonia collaborated with the organization to create an experience that brought people outdoors. Activities like hiking were designed to be a real escape.

“We are making great strides in fashion. It’s at the foundation stage, helping young people and creating an environment for them to learn more about these things and grow their knowledge of the world.”

“Brands participating in these initiatives will give young people the chance to be more invested in them,” says a spokesperson for Brands. “It’s my belief that it is the best way to connect with them through an experience they can trust.”

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