The power of protest fashion in society

20 January 2018
Image Credit: Johannes Black

Friday afternoon saw Cambridge students unite in wearing black in support of survivors of sexual harassment, inspired by the women of Hollywood and survivors across the world. The Golden Globes black dress protest has revitalised the concept of using fashion as a medium of expression in society, and joins a long history of protest fashion. This year’s red carpet was fuelled by the mantra of standing in solidarity with the victims of sexual assault, in support of the Time’s Up movement. The impact of this protest highlights the power and potential that protest fashion still holds within society to create a medium for the most important conversations.

Yet, this year’s red-carpet protest was not without criticism, with some suggesting that dressing in solidarity feels like superficial means to address such a serious problem. However, the attention drawn to the Time’s Up campaign is indisputable. In fact, the trend and hashtag that dominated the night was not about one of the winners or a film or TV show, but instead a movement—Time’s Up. Moreover, the symbolic dress code set the tone for the night, which provided an environment that encouraged discussion and enhanced the message of the powerful speech from Oprah Winfrey.

Whilst the Golden Globes has breathed a new life into fashion protests, it is not the first-time fashion has been used to send a message when voices are not being heard. Perhaps the most enduring use of fashion as a tool for political protest is the case of suffragette white. The resulting sea of 30,000 women in white, purple, and green created enormous cohesion and solidarity. Further, in the 1850’s, suffragist Amelia Bloomer, urged women to ditch the constraints of their long skirts and dresses, and instead wear the loose and baggy “divided” skirts, later named bloomers in her honour. This simple piece of clothing acted as a tool to not only overcome the confining garments of that period, but to inspire women to defy oppression in society.

The protest of designer Katherine Hamnett’s through pioneering t-shirts with political slogans has been the focal point of her entire career. Her thought provoking t-shirts include “USE A CONDOM” worn by Naomi Campbell in 1993 and the “WORLDWIDE NUCLEAR BAN NOW” shirt that Roger Taylor of Queen promoted at a music festival. Slogan tees surged back to power in spring 2017 after the inspiring collection of Christian Dior, including a t-shirt printed with “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS”.

Clothing can even make a statement in its absence. In the 1990’s, PETA revolutionised the protest for an anti-fur fashion market, releasing an ad that featured some of the biggest supermodels of the time naked and marking that “they’d rather go naked than wear fur”. This is an ongoing campaign which has brought down the use of fur to its lowest point in history. Its influence has led Gucci and Michael Kors to vow to go fur-free this year. The beginning of protest fashion in the 19th century remains a powerful tool of expression in society today.