Looking Back to Where Political Activism Meets Fashion

by Kyler Wesp

In the past couple of years, it has become common to see a group of people with protest signs held high, sweat dripping down their faces, standing outside a government building for a cause for which they feel passionate. Some say there hasn’t been a time like this since the 1960s, but in actuality, political activism displays have been around since, well… forever.

While it may seem there is no commonality between political protests of different ages, there has always been one thing that has been a part of every social movement since the beginning of time: fashion. Going back through the social movements throughout US history, it becomes prevalent that there is a sort of solidarity shown through the use of certain colors and pieces of clothing that bring together the marchers, sitters, and strikers of the age. The protestors of today and years past yearn for a sense of community and belonging within their respective movement, for the purpose of fighting against the oppressor or just to show the world who they are, that fashion can help achieve.

During the 1930s, the country was starving and jobless, with beggars littering the streets and women, men and children being called to work for 80 hour weeks. With the introduction of the Labor Movement of the 1930s such as the famous Woolworth Strike of 1937, the overworked laborers had a chance to stand up for their rights: a 40 hour work week and better working conditions. While they had little to spend on materials for signs and markers, the protestors made do with what they had and used the chance to highlight the one thing that made them strike in the first place: their work.

 Protestors in the labor movement wore their uniforms from their factory and industry jobs to show their employers that they were unifying against their company until things changed. The impact of the sit-ins, the marches, and the strikes were amplified by the presence of the work clothes because the uniforms “called out” the exact companies and forced the public to question what was really going on in those factories. In a time where it was a “dog eat dog” world and the American people were struggling to survive, the solidarity felt through the wearing of work uniforms while striking was a welcome change.

The Black Power Movement from the 1970s stemmed from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s but went down the route of violence and riots with the introduction of the Black Panthers rather than the peaceful marches and sit-ins of Martin Luther King Jr. Despite this particularly violent movement not being well-received like the original Civil Rights Movement, the iconic black berets were still known by every single person in the country as a sign for the Black Panthers. Since France coined the term “beret” in 1835 to signify the head coverings French Chasseur Alpins wore in battle, the beret has been the symbol for the military and battle forces in Britain, Australia, America, and more.

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The Black Berets | Photo Credits: Stephen Shames

The Panthers adopted this image of a black beret as sort of a sly side eye to the Green Berets of the American Army, but also they were telling the world they were an army for the cause of black power. The beret in this situation wasn’t just a unifier under a certain cause, but a representation of the violent, military aspects of the movement itself. With the addition of a fashion piece that conveyed so much more than what was seen on the surface, the Black Power Movement created a space for symbolization of fashion in political activism, which ultimately still carries on today.

In the rise of the AIDs epidemic and the fight for marriage equality, the Gay Rights Movement came to a climatic point during the marches and rallies of the 1990s. The goal of the movement was to elect officials to office that would strive to raise awareness and advocate for AIDS patients, pass legislation for marriage equality, and overall, validate the LBGTQ+ community. These ideas were represented in the creation of the symbolic rainbow flag that accompanies every gay pride parade or march, a flag which Gilbert Baker created in 1978 during the campaign for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US.

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The Colors of the Rainbow | Photo Credits: Filip Wolak

When asked by the Washington Post, Gilbert Baker said each stripe on the flag represented a value of the LBGTQ+ community: “hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony and violet for spirit.” The symbolization behind the colors made the flag into a calling card for queer activists, causing the rainbow to be linked directly with the Gay Rights Movement. While the rainbow flag brought together people from all sexual orientations and walks of life, it also represented individual values and ideas unlike any protest fashion item seen before. As such, the Gay Rights Movement was unified but still uniquely individualized as illustrated by their flag (and the people themselves).

While most of the other social movements throughout history have created protest signs to go along with their black berets, rainbow flags, or work uniforms, the marches of the 21st century are unique due to the importance put behind the protest posters. Unlike the Gay Rights Movement or the Labor Movement Strikes, 21st century protest marches are so individualized, it is hard to discern a single fashion statement that is carried throughout the movement. Yes, there are the pink cat-eared hats of the Women’s March, but the common outlier between the conservative and liberal sides are the uber creative protests signs that litter the streets of their marches.

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The Women’s March | Photo Credits: Caleigh Wells

Some signs make jokes out of hot topics such as “1. Smash the Patriarchy, 2. Brunch” or use clever question-begging statements to make the other side think like, “Life offers no guarantees but abortion offers no chances.” The fashion statement of protest signs is designed to make the audience think about harsh issues but also to make them laugh, smile, yell, or engage in conversation. Although the issues at the marches may be broad like the Women’s March or specific like March for Life, the scattered posters will most likely be clever, creative, and unique, tying in what seems to be a multitude of movements into one or two.

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Pro-Life Rally | Photo Credits: Caleigh Wells

By showing that the protests of today are no longer focused on a single track, Millennials and Generation Z are utilizing separate social movements by creating signs that tackle multiple issues in America instead of one. It may seem chaotic or discombobulating to have many different ideas and reasons to march, but the fact that both sides of the political spectrum have made an effort to include multiple issues within their respective marches and signs shows that fashion can further expand political activism in a way it couldn’t before. Fashion, in respect to protest signs, is fostering a doorway to every voice being heard and listened to respectively. •


Kyler Wesp is a first year Psychology Major. In her spare time, she can be found reading a book at the Austin Public Library, sipping coffee with her friends, or finding hidden local spots within the city. This is her first semester working for Spark.

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