The Political Power of Clothing

Hatty Willmouth 7 February 2020

Clothes are powerful. Though often deemed superficial, they act as an expression of identity, someone’s sense of style communicating their priorities to the world. We adapt our outward appearances in order to indicate a behaviour or sentiment specific to an occasion, telling others of our grief, our joy, our exhaustion, or our energy. Clothes can demonstrate our allyship, our political allegiance, and our sense of communal belonging, with the power to revolutionise not only the way we’re viewed by others, but crucially how we view ourselves. Our clothing is a language which enables our bodies to reflect what we have to say.
Clothes therefore can be political. The feminist movement alone provides countless examples of clothes being used as symbols of rebellion, a way of encouraging and enacting political change. In Victorian England, the corset was seen as a necessary proponent of respectability; feminists came to see it as a symbol and physical representation of patriarchal restriction. The twentieth century saw several decades of female rebellion being expressed through clothing: the hemlines of the 1920s rose to just below the knee; the 1940s saw practical, utilitarian clothing imitate the more “masculine” wartime roles women took on; the scandal of the mini-skirt took place in the 1960s; at the height of second-wave feminism in the 1970s we burnt our bras, the shoulder-pads of the 1980s demanded respect in the workplace… Because women have been controlled by sartorial norms for so long, reduced to beautiful ornaments in literature, art, and the aristocratic home, taking control of our own bodies in repudiation of patriarchal standards is a powerful and visual act of rebellion.
Fashion and beauty hold a particularly significant place for women. For centuries, we have been held to strict beauty standards; expected to live up to both unworldly sex-appeal and rigid modesty. From one side, we’re told that to be deserving of self-worth we need to make our bodies sufficiently appealing to men, and yet simultaneously, if we stray from notions of modesty and respectability, we are accused of self-objectification. It’s a difficult tight-rope to walk, but it also means that fashion has historically been an expected cultural arena for women. It has enabled those armed with just the contents of a wardrobe to break taboos and unspoken rules of patriarchy.
The importance placed on female appearance can undoubtedly be a negative. Judgement based on the body and its accoutrements is frequently used as an excuse to ignore someone’s intrinsic value and reduce them to their physicality. This pressure can lead to extreme self-consciousness and embarrassment, and it is so easy to become afraid of making the wrong statement, of communicating something too abrasive, of being socially ridiculed for “getting it wrong”. While our appearance can say so much, sometimes it says more than we’re comfortable with, and a means of self-expression can become a set of rules we feel we cannot break. For some people, this is a way of hiding in the shadows, a symptom of low self-esteem.
When I was fourteen, I went out for a walk along the seafront with my family, wearing one of my mum’s old dresses from the late 1980s. It’s a flattering dress in a grey floral fabric, but its hemline is below the knee. This was 2014 and summer, so longer skirts were not yet “fashionable” and nobody was wearing grey. I’d loved wearing this dress at home, but as I walked along that beach, I felt like I had a fog-horn attached to my body, screaming at everyone to look at me and laugh at how out of place I was. I eventually made my parents buy me another outfit as an early birthday present, just so I felt less embarrassed.
Once, when I was sixteen, I went to college wearing some trousers I’d found in a charity shop. They were a great fit and I loved them – a few months later they would come into style with the work clothing as casual wear trend. I knew that they weren’t really “in” at the time, but I wore them anyway, with black stompy shoes and my hair in space-buns. When I got to college, the stares I got made me instantly regret my decision. My friend, when she saw me, barely attempted to stifle her giggles and subsequently told me that I should probably never wear that outfit again.
When I was seventeen, I came up to Cambridge for a taster-day. Afterwards, in my diary, I wrote: ‘I packed the wrong socks for the shoes I was going to wear, as I had had different shoes in mind when I packed. These socks were very visible, and very red, but they were socks, not like I was wearing a bin bag. I walked around Cambridge terrified that someone would see my socks and think that I was an idiot for wearing them, and I wanted on my head to be wearing a sign saying: “they were a mistake! I know they look bad, but I didn’t mean to wear them!” because I was so mortified for wearing red socks.’
When you’re already self-conscious or insecure, the fear of breaking the rules of what you “should” and “shouldn’t” wear can be crippling. It can come from a desperate wish to hide, to conform and to escape judgement. Yet clothing is a language, and we communicate even if we don’t want to, so we’re judged even if we don’t want to be. I can tell you from experience that it’s so tiring to feel like you’re constantly walk on egg-shells, but it’s even worse to do this in boring shoes. We have a choice in what we say with this language of fabric, so why not be brave? We can either be so ashamed of ourselves that we’re scared of being noticed. Or we can invite it.
These last few years, I’ve become a more confident person, and both as a consequence and a way of finding this confidence, I’ve started wearing what I call “offensive” fashion. I don’t mean wearing t-shirts with white supremacist slogans on them. Women are implicitly taught to be quiet, so when I say “offensive” clothing, I mean clothing which is deliberately loud: flared trousers with bright patterns, a face-consuming scarf, a jumper that’s highlighter-luminous – the list could go on.
It is a political statement to declare that you are worth noticing. Using this sartorial language to loudly and proudly play with your gender, take up space, or declare your beliefs is empowering. Furthermore, the controversy that comes with embracing an identity or a body deemed in some way “wrong” means that to do so is political, brave, and inspiring. Wearing attention-seeking clothing is like visual manspreading: you are proclaiming that you deserve to take up space and be noticed. Clothes allow you to do this physically, with stompy shoes, shoulder-pads, bright colours – you can make your body literally louder and bigger. Your statement then becomes an all-capitals exclamation of self-celebration, a way to say what you want in a way that literally has no negative effect on other people, and using a body that is completely yours as an external demonstration of voice. Wearing whatever you want knowing full well that people will stare feels powerful.
University is a great place to have a go. Here, people are discovering their own identities, and it’s the perfect time for experimentation. Away from your family and home-friends and faced with relentless first-impressions, university is a blank slate, so why not snatch the chalk and write exactly what you want? There are so many strangers to offend with your outfits, and in this city, they’re mostly eccentric nerds with little expectation of normality. It’s the perfect opportunity to be brave.