Dissent Dressing: The Colour and Fabric of Political Rage





Fashion, gender

How to Cite

Coghlan, J. (2019). Dissent Dressing: The Colour and Fabric of Political Rage. M/C Journal, 22(1). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1497
Vol. 22 No. 1 (2019): rage
Published 2019-03-13

What we wear signals our membership within groups, be theyorganised by gender, class, ethnicity or religion. Simultaneously our clothing signifies hierarchies and power relations that sustain dominant power structures. How we dress is an expression of our identity. For Veblen, how we dress expresses wealth and social stratification. In imitating the fashion of the wealthy, claims Simmel, we seek social equality. For Barthes, clothing is embedded with systems of meaning. For Hebdige, clothing has modalities of meaning depending on the wearer, as do clothes for gender (Davis) and for the body (Entwistle). For Maynard, “dress is a significant material practice we use to signal our cultural boundaries, social separations, continuities and, for the present purposes, political dissidences” (103). Clothing has played a central role in historical and contemporary forms of political dissent. 

During the French Revolution dress signified political allegiance. The “mandated costumes, the gold-braided coat, white silk stockings, lace stock, plumed hat and sword of the nobility and the sober black suit and stockings” were rejected as part of the revolutionary struggle (Fairchilds 423). After the storming of the Bastille the government of Paris introduced the wearing of the tricolour cockade, a round emblem made of red, blue and white ribbons, which was a potent icon of the revolution, and a central motif in building France’s “revolutionary community”. But in the aftermath of the revolution divided loyalties sparked power struggles in the new Republic (Heuer 29). In 1793 for example anyone not wearing the cockade was arrested. Specific laws were introduced for women not wearing the cockade or for wearing it in a profane manner, resulting in six years in jail. This triggered a major struggle over women’s abilities to exercise their political rights (Heuer 31).

Clothing was also central to women’s political struggles in America. In the mid-nineteenth century, women began wearing the “reform dress”—pants with shortened, lightweight skirts in place of burdensome and restrictive dresses (Mas 35). The wearing of pants, or bloomers, challenged gender norms and demonstrated women’s agency. Women’s clothes of the period were an "identity kit" (Ladd Nelson 22), which reinforced “society's distinctions between men and women by symbolizing their natures, roles, and responsibilities” (Ladd Nelson 22, Roberts 555). Men were positioned in society as “serious, active, strong and aggressive”. They wore dark clothing that “allowed movement, emphasized broad chests and shoulders and presented sharp, definite lines” (Ladd Nelson 22). Conversely, women, regarded as “frivolous, inactive, delicate and submissive, dressed in decorative, light pastel coloured clothing which inhibited movement, accentuated tiny waists and sloping shoulders and presented an indefinite silhouette” (Ladd Nelson 22, Roberts 555). Women who challenged these dress codes by wearing pants were “unnatural, and a perversion of the “true” woman” (Ladd Nelson 22). For Crane, the adoption of men’s clothing by women challenged dominant values and norms, changing how women were seen in public and how they saw themselves. The wearing of pants came to “symbolize the movement for women's rights” (Ladd Nelson 24) and as with women in France, Victorian society was forced to consider “women's rights, including their right to choose their own style of dress” (Ladd Nelson 23). As Yangzom (623) puts it, clothing allows groups to negotiate boundaries. How the “embodiment of dress itself alters political space and civic discourse is imperative to understanding how resistance is performed in creating social change” (Yangzom 623). 

Fig. 1: 1850s fashion bloomers

In a different turn is presented in Mahatma Gandhi’s Khadi movement. Khadi is a term used for fabrics made on a spinning wheel (or charkha) or hand-spun and handwoven, usually from cotton fibre. Khadi is considered the “fabric of Indian independence” (Jain). Gandhi recognised the potential of the fabric to a self-reliant, independent India. Gandhi made the struggle for independence synonymous with khadi. He promoted the materials “simplicity as a social equalizer and made it the nation’s fabric” (Sinha). As Jain notes, clothing and in this case fabric, is a “potent sign of resistance and change”. The material also reflects consciousness and agency. Khadi was Gandhi’s “own sartorial choices of transformation from that of an Englishman to that of one representing India” (Jain). For Jain the “key to Khadi becoming a successful tool for the freedom struggle” was that it was a “material embodiment of an ideal” that “represented freedom from colonialism on the one hand and a feeling of self-reliance and economic self-sufficiency on the other”. 

Fig. 2: Gandhi on charkha 

The reappropriating of Khadi as a fabric of political dissent echoes the wearing of blue denim by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the 1963 National Mall Washington march where 250,000 people gather to hear Martin Luther King speak. The SNCC formed in 1960 and from then until the 1963 March on Washington they developed a “style aesthetic that celebrated the clothing of African American sharecroppers” (Ford 626). A critical aspect civil rights activism by African America women who were members of the SNCC was the “performance of respectability”. With the moral character of African American women under attack (as a way of delegitimising their political activities), the female activists “emphasized the outward display of their respectability in order to withstand attacks against their characters”. Their modest, neat “as if you were going to church” (Chappell 96) clothing choices helped them perform respectability and this “played an important performative role in the black freedom struggle” (Ford 626). By 1963 however African American female civil rights activists “abandoned their respectable clothes and processed hairstyles in order to adopt jeans, denim skirts, bib-and-brace overalls”. The adoption of bib-and-brace overalls reflected the sharecropper's blue denim overalls of America’s slave past.

For Komar the blue denim overalls “dramatize[d] how little had been accomplished since Reconstruction” and the overalls were practical to fix from attack dog tears and high-pressure police hoses. The blue denim overalls, according to Komar, were also considered to be ‘Negro clothes’ purchased by “slave owners bought denim for their enslaved workers, partly because the material was sturdy, and partly because it helped contrast them against the linen suits and lace parasols of plantation families”. The clothing choice was both practical and symbolic. While the ‘sharecropper’ narrative is problematic as ‘traditional’ clothing (something not evident in the case of Ghandi’s Khandi Movement, there is an emotion associated with the clothing. As Barthes (6-7) has shown, what makes ‘traditional clothing,’ traditional is that it is part of a normative system where not only does clothing have its historical place, but it is governed by its rules and regimentation. Therefore, there is a dialectical exchange between the normative system and the act of dressing where as a link between the two, clothing becomes the conveyer of its meanings (7). Barthes calls this system, langue and the act of dressing parole (8). As Ford does, a reading of African American women wearing what she calls a “SNCC Skin” “the uniform [acts] consciously to transgress a black middle-class worldview that marginalised certain types of women and particular displays of blackness and black culture”. Hence, the SNCC women’s clothing represented an “ideological metamorphosis articulated through the embrace and projection of real and imagined southern, working-class, and African American cultures. Central to this was the wearing of the blue denim overalls.  The clothing did more than protect, cover or adorn the body it was a conscious “cultural and political tool” deployed to maintain a movement and build solidarity with the aim of “inversing the hegemonic norms” via “collective representations of sartorial embodiment” (Yangzom 622).

Fig. 3: Mississippi SNCC March Coordinator Joyce Ladner during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom political rally in Washington, DC, on 28 Aug. 1963

Clothing in each of these historical examples performs an ideological function that can bridge, that is bring diverse members of society together for a cause, or community cohesion or clothing can act as a fence to keep identities separate (Barnard). This use of clothing is evident in two indigenous examples. For Maynard (110) the clothes worn at the 1988 Aboriginal ‘Long March of Freedom, Justice and Hope’ held in Australia signalled a “visible strength denoted by coherence in dress” (Maynard 112). Most noted was the wearing of colours – black, red and yellow, first thought to be adopted during protest marches organised by the Black Protest Committee during the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane (Watson 40). Maynard (110) describes the colour and clothing as follows:

the daytime protest march was dominated by the colours of the Aboriginal people—red, yellow and black on flags, huge banners and clothing.  There were logo-inscribed T-shirts, red, yellow and black hatband around black Akubra’s, as well as red headbands. Some T-shirts were yellow, with images of the Australian continent in red, others had inscriptions like 'White Australia has a Black History' and 'Our Land Our Life'. Still others were inscribed 'Mourn 88'.  Participants were also in customary dress with body paint. Older Indigenous people wore head bands inscribed with the words 'Our Land', and tribal elders from the Northern Territory, in loin cloths, carried  spears  and  clapping  sticks, their bodies marked with  feathers, white clay and red ochres. Without question, at this most significant event for Aboriginal peoples, their dress was a highly visible and cohesive aspect.

Similar is the Tibetan Freedom Movement, a nonviolent grassroots movement in Tibet and among Tibet diaspora that emerged in 2008 to protest colonisation of Tibet. It is also known as the ‘White Wednesday Movement’.  Every Wednesday, Tibetans wear traditional clothes. They pledge: “I am Tibetan, from today I will wear only Tibetan traditional dress, chuba, every Wednesday”. A chuba is a colourful warm ankle-length robe that is bound around the waist by a long sash. For the Tibetan Freedom Movement clothing “symbolically functions as a nonverbal mechanism of communication” to “materialise consciousness of the movement” and functions to shape its political aims (Yangzom 622). Yet, in both cases – Aboriginal and Tibet protests – the dress may “not speak to single cultural audience”. This is because the clothing is “decoded by those of different political persuasions, and [is] certainly further reinterpreted or reframed by the media” (Maynard 103). Nevertheless, there is “cultural work in creating a coherent narrative” (Yangzom 623). The narratives and discourse embedded in the wearing of a red, blue and white cockade, dark reform dress pants, cotton coloured Khadi fabric or blue denim overalls is likely a key feature of significant periods of political upheaval and dissent with the clothing “indispensable” even if the meaning of the clothing is “implied rather than something to be explicated” (Yangzom 623). 

On 21 January 2017, 250,000 women marched in Washington and more than two million protesters around the world wearing pink knitted pussy hats in response to the remarks made by President Donald Trump who bragged of grabbing women ‘by the pussy’. The knitted pink hats became the “embodiment of solidarity” (Wrenn 1). For Wrenn (2), protests such as this one in 2017 complete with “protest visuals” which build solidarity while “masking or excluding difference in the process” indicates “a tactical sophistication in the social movement space with its strategic negotiation of politics of difference. In formulating a flexible solidarity, the movement has been able to accommodate a variety of races, classes, genders, sexualities, abilities, and cultural backgrounds” (Wrenn 4).  In doing so they presented a “collective bodily presence made publicly visible” to protest racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic white masculine power (Gokariksel & Smith 631). 

The 2017 Washington Pussy Hat March was more than an “embodiment tactic” it was an “image event” with its “swarms of women donning adroit posters and pink pussy hats filling the public sphere and impacting visual culture”. It both constructs social issues and forms public opinion hence it is an “argumentative practice” (Wrenn 6). Drawing on wider cultural contexts, as other acts of dissent note here do, in this protest with its social media coverage, the “master frame” of the sea of pink hats and bodies posited to audiences the enormity of the anger felt in the community over attacks on the female body – real or verbal. This reflects Goffman’s theory of framing to describe the ways in which “protestors actively seek to shape meanings such that they spark the public’s support and encourage political openings” (Wrenn 6). The hats served as “visual tropes” (Goodnow 166) to raise social consciousness and demonstrate opposition. Protest “signage” – as the pussy hats can be considered – are a visual representation and validation of shared “invisible thoughts and emotions” (Buck-Coleman 66) affirming Georg Simmel’s ideas about conflict; “it helps individuals define their differences, establish to which group(s) they belong, and determine the degrees to which groups are different from each other” (Buck-Coleman 66). The pink pussy hat helped define and determine membership and solidarity. Further embedding this was the hand-made nature of the hat. The pattern for the hat was available free online at https://www.pussyhatproject.com/knit/. The idea began as one of practicality, as it did for the reform dress movement. This is from the Pussy Hat Project website:

Krista was planning to attend the Women’s March in Washington DC that January of 2017 and needed a cap to keep her head warm in the chill winter air. Jayna, due to her injury, would not be able to attend any of the marches, but wanted to find a way to have her voice heard in absentia and somehow physically “be” there. Together, a marcher and a non-marcher, they conceived the idea of creating a sea of pink hats at Women’s Marches everywhere that would make both a bold and powerful visual statement of solidarity, and also allow people who could not participate themselves – whether for medical, financial, or scheduling reasons — a visible way to demonstrate their support for women’s rights. (Pussy Hat Project)

In the tradition of “craftivism” – the use of traditional handcrafts such as knitting, assisted by technology (in this case a website with the pattern and how to knit instructions), as a means of community building, skill-sharing and action directed towards “political and social causes” (Buszek & Robertson 197) –, the hand-knitted pink pussy hats avoided the need to purchase clothing to show solidarity resisting the corporatisation of protest clothing as cautioned by Naomi Klein (428). More so by wearing something that could be re-used sustained solidarity. The pink pussy hats provided a counter to the “incoherent montage of mass-produced clothing” often seen at other protests (Maynard 107). Everyday clothing however does have a place in political dissent.  

In late 2018, French working class and middle-class protestors donned yellow jackets to protest against the government of French President Emmanuel Macron. It began with a Facebook appeal launched by two fed-up truck drivers calling for a “national blockade” of France’s road network in protest against rising fuel prices was followed two weeks later with a post urging motorist to display their hi-vis yellow vests behind their windscreens in solidarity. Four million viewed the post (Henley). Weekly protests continued into 2019. The yellow his-vis vests are compulsorily carried in all motor cars in France. They are “cheap, readily available, easily identifiable and above all representing an obligation imposed by the state”. The yellow high-vis vest has “proved an inspired choice of symbol and has plainly played a big part in the movement’s rapid spread” (Henley). More so, the wearers of the yellow vests in France, with the movement spreading globally, are winning in “the war of cultural representation. Working-class and lower middle-class people are visible again” (Henley). 

Subcultural clothing has always played a role as heroic resistance (Evans), but the coloured dissent dressing associated with the red, blue and white ribboned cockades, the dark bloomers of early American feminists, the cotton coloured natural fabrics of Ghandi’s embodiment of resistance and independence, the blue denim sharecropper overalls worn by African American women in their struggles for civil rights, the black, red and orange of Aboriginal protestors in Australia and the White Wednesday performances of resistance undertaken by Tibetans against Chinese colonisation, the Washington Pink Pussy Hat marches for gender respect and equality and the donning of every yellow hi-vis vests by French protestors all posit the important role of fabric and colour in protest meaning making and solidarity building. It is in our rage we consciously wear the colours and fabrics of dissent dress. 


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Author Biography

Jo Coghlan, University of New England

Dr Jo Coghlan is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia. She teaches in the areas of political and cultural sociology and popular culture. She researches and publishes on the fashioned political body. Her most recent publication examined how Michelle Obama’s Political Body reimaged the myth of American womanhood (2018). She supervises PhD students in the areas of politics, fashion and material culture.