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Symbol of Resistance: Fashion can be Political

Fashion is not just clothes and vice-versa. Clothing can be political. It can convey messages, it can be a nonviolent way of protesting and marking your presence. It can be a way of revolting, disagreeing and asserting your demands.

It is not a contemporary modern idea of protest but is scattered in the history of civilization. The epochs of history have bleakly stored the movement of resistances with clothes manifesting the dissent of the public — incidences where garment had prominent political meaning. What one wears, how one wears it and when one wears it establishes interpretations of degrees of social freedoms and influences.

The way one dresses expresses a political gamut from conformity to rebellion. A dress style that challenges — or is perceived as challenging the status quo — spontaneously acquires political meaning.

Hence, fashion is not limited to glamour, it offers social, and political bandwagon as well. 

The Indian freedom struggle mandates the peaceful rebellion offered by the manner of clothing of non other than the Father of the Nation — Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi used his radically different dress as a sturdy visual challenge to the elaborately dressed British. The visual statement established in an economic one, with mere Khadi challenging the industrial power of British mill-made cloth. 

How clothing can be a ‘tool of resistance’

1960’s White Dress Symbol for Women’s Liberation Movement

Suffragists wore white, and more feminist symbols

The struggle of American and British suffragists took more than 150 years to gain women’s right to vote. The movement was filled with struggle, sacrifice, and zealous endeavours to persuade public opinion. As much as the powerful speeches or personal appeals hold relevancy, there was the omnipresence of something else as well that pushed the movement in the right direction. Yes, you guess it right — visual symbolism to help the public envision a world in which women could participate in the political process.

In the early 20th century, when suffragists in England and the United States realized that visual symbolism would spread their message across, British suffragists were the first to use the colors purple, white, and green. Inspired by that example, the National Woman’s Party, the militant U.S. organization dedicated to enshrining women’s suffrage in the Constitution, adopted white, purple and yellow as its colors. Each color had its own meaning. Purple symbolises loyalty, and gold means “the color of light and life…the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.” For British suffragists, green signified hope.

Yet white, symbolizing purity, is the color most associated with suffragists today. Long-drawn, affiliated with youth, virginity, and moral virtue, white insinuated that women could be foreseen to vote for politicians and policies and contribute to society. In massive suffrage parades, white-clad women contrasted with the crowds of darkly dressed men.

The color had practical benefits, too. “White cotton dresses made an impression en masse, were consistently in style, relatively inexpensive, and easy to maintain,” writes Sarah Gordon, a curatorial scholar at the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society.

Drawn from the suffragist’s movement, U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 famously adopted the pantsuit as her power uniform, though the wear white movement is broader, and references feminist history as much as the current campaign. The pantsuit parties stood in solidarity with U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. A #pantsuitnation movement emerged on Facebook in which women pledged to wear pantsuits to vote in support of Hillary Clinton.

Political dressing: A trend

Likewise, as the effects of Brexit, a Donald Trump White House and the rise of alt-right activism in Europe and North America waved through the cultural waters, political dressing started trending. Protesters of all lines — feminists, white supremacists, antifa, nationalists and social justice advocates — outfitted themselves to match their political mindsets.

Zoot Suit Up: Symbol of resistance

Suit up! in the means to protest, to mark your identity. Perhaps the first time in the history of America that fashion was believed to be the cause of unrest and clothes a symbol of resistance. In Los Angeles, tensions between white residents and the Latino community broke into the public in 1943. An argument between a group of servicemen and Latino youths led to a fight on June 3. Latinos wearing zoot suits were targeted by servicemen & city residents.

Zoot suits’ were oversize, high-waisted and wide-legged suits associated with Latino, African-American, Italian-American and Filipino-American communities in the United States during the 1940s. In the midst of World War II rationing, they felt the clothing was unpatriotic due to the amount of fabric used to make the suits. The suits were worn by minority men in working-class neighborhoods throughout the country by the 1940s. For some, wearing the suit was a way of refusing to be ignored.

The garment had “profound political meaning,” wrote Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man. “For those without other forms of cultural capital,” says Peiss, “fashion can be a way of claiming space for yourself.

To mark the style’s treacherous, press accounts exaggerated the price of zoot suits by 50 %. In 2011, the hard to find Original specimens of the suit costed the Los Angeles County Museum of Art nearly $80,000, an auction record for an item of 20th-century menswear.

The Chicago big-band trumpeter and clothier Harold Fox once said. “It came right off the street and out of the ghetto.’’

Moving ahead, the 1960s which became one of the most agitated decades in American history experiencing ideological polarization between the younger and older generations. The country witnessed protests by the younger generation in support of political and social changes for the country. 

 Tony Harkins, a history professor at Western Kentucky University who has studied 20th-century American history and American popular culture since the Civil War said that during the 1960s, said, “it changed the political and ideological landscape and opened the path for nearly all other movements, either directly or indirectly.” 

According to Julie E. Clements’s article, “Participatory Democracy: The Bridge from Civil Rights to Women’s Liberation,” many female protesters in the women’s liberation movement were fueled to protest for their own rights after the momentum of the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. 

The decade of change sprung using clothes, style and symbolism in protest of the government and in solidarity with their counterparts. Like the supporters of the anti-Vietnam War movement used black armbands, long hair, and bell-bottoms as a symbolic way to express their disapproval for the war and the draft, to oppose the expectations of the previous generations, particularly regarding the expressions for men during the 1960s, and to create community among one another in their movement. 

Women’s Liberation Movement supporters protested against the Miss America pageant in 1968 by removing bras and high heels as a symbolic form of protest against the swimsuit of the Miss America pageant and to protest the objectification of women in 16 society. 

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense used militaristic uniforms consisting of black berets, black leather jackets and assault rifles to regain their authority in their predominantly African-American communities, to protest the brutality and exploitation of African-Americans in the United States, and to call attention to the injustices that they felt African-American men, particularly, were facing during the 1960s.

Fashion in form of clothes had been used as a central visual tactic to create an alliance between the protesters. It is used to create a symbolic form of expression and rebellion against the traditions, standards and rules of society. Fashion is not just limited to glitters and glamour, it emphasises the evolving society. It can also be a representation of one view and a depiction of one personality. 

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