The Aesthetics of Protest

The formal dress of civil rights movement protesters, the famous beret worn by the Black Panthers, the white cotton dresses worn by suffragettes, the yellow vests in France: On the significance of clothing in protest movements, past and present.

Diana Vreeland, the legendary American fashion columnist and editor of Harper’s Bazaar, once said: “You can see protest coming, by the clothes.”

It’s all around us—the long war in Ukraine, the protests against hijab in Iran, and the protest against the judicial overhaul in Israel. Throughout history, political opinions and calls for change were woven into clothing and accessory collections. At times, as subtle and elegant threads, at other times as bold textile colors splashed on shirtfronts. We couldn’t help but wonder about the relations between fashion and protest, or more accurately put—how do activists dress?

Well, sometimes they wear a uniform to unite behind a common cause. In the mid-20th century, civil rights movement in the United States, protesters dressed professionally and formally—men in dark suits and women in modest black dresses—with the purpose of changing widespread perceptions about the disadvantaged community seeking equality.

The Black Panthers, on the other hand, went for a militaristic style that featured leather jackets, black pants, and the famous black beret hat, inspired by the French Resistance during World War II.

The feminist activists at the turn of the 20th century, the suffragettes, wore white dresses on their protest marches. They did so not only for the sake of uniformity and visibility, but also because cotton was considered easy to clean and maintain—after all, these women were still responsible for the management of their homes.

Activists often choose to dress in a way that celebrates and enhances their individuality. The hippies, who protested against the war in Vietnam and advocated love and peace, wore colorful, loose-fitting clothes, bell-bottoms, unusual prints such as paisley and tie-dye, and of course grew out their hair and adorned themselves with flowers. The unifying element was the black bracelet, worn to commemorate those killed in the war.

In recent years, protests around the world are fueled by visual messages that spread on social media like wildfire, and turn into fashion trends. For example, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or the pink Pussyhat, which was prominent in the Women’s March of 2016, referencing the sexist remarks by former United States president Donald Trump.

But perhaps the best protesters, and the best dressers of course, are the French, who fight for justice and equality with uncompromising style. The yellow vests protest, sparked over the rise in fuel prices, washed over the streets of France and in particular of Paris overnight, turning the reflective vests usually hidden in the glove compartment into the fashion accessory of the moment.