The Iconic 21st Century Activist "T-Shirt and Tote-Bag" Combination Is Hard to Miss These Days!

How Fashion Manifests in Environmental Activism



How to Cite

Gulliver, R. (2022). The Iconic 21st Century Activist "T-Shirt and Tote-Bag" Combination Is Hard to Miss These Days! How Fashion Manifests in Environmental Activism. M/C Journal, 25(4).
Vol. 25 No. 4 (2022): fashion
Published 2022-10-05


Fashion has long been associated with resistance movements across Asia and Australia, from the hand-spun cotton Khadi of Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom struggle to the traditional ankle length robe worn by Tibetans in the ‘White Wednesday Movement’ (Singh et al.; Yangzom). There are many reasons why fashion and activism have been interlinked. Fashion can serve as a form of nonverbal communication (Crane), which can convey activists’ grievances and concerns while symbolising solidarity (Doerr). It can provide an avenue to enact individual agency against repressive, authoritarian regimes (Yangzom; Doerr et al.). Fashion can codify a degree of uniformity within groups and thereby signal social identity (Craik), while also providing a means of building community (Barry and Drak). Fashion, therefore, offers activists the opportunity to develop the three characteristics which unite a social or environmental movement: a shared concern about an issue, a sense of social identity, and connections between individuals and groups.

But while these fashion functions map onto movement characteristics, it remains unclear whether activists across the world deliberately include fashion into their protest action repertoires. This uncertainty exists partly because of a research and media focus on large scale, mass protests (Lester and Hutchins), where fashion characteristics are immediately visible and amenable to retrospective interpretation. This focus helps explain the rich volume of research examining the manifestation of fashion in past protests, such as the black, red, and yellow colours worn during the 1988 Aboriginal Long March of Freedom, Justice, and Hope (Maynard Dress; Coghlan), and the pink anti-Trump ‘pussyhats’ (Thompson). However, the protest events used to identify these fashion characteristics are a relatively small proportion of actions used by environmental activists (Dalton et al.; Gulliver et al.), which include not only rallies and marches, but also information evenings, letter writing sessions, and eco-activities such as tree plantings.

This article aims to respond to Barnard’s (Looking) call for more empirical work on what contemporary cultural groups visually do with what they wear (see also Gerbaudo and Treré) via a content analysis of 36,676 events promoted on Facebook by 728 Australian environmental groups between 2010 and 2019. The article firstly reports findings from an analysis of this dataset to identify how fashion manifests in environmental activism, building on research demonstrating the role of protest-related nonverbal communications, such as protest signage (Bloomfield and Doolin), images (Kim), and icons, slogans, and logos (Goodnow). The article then considers what activists may seek to achieve through incorporating fashion into their action repertoire, and whether this suggests solidarity with activists seeking to effect environmental change across the wider Asian region.

Fashion Activism

Fashion is created through a particular assemblage of clothes, accessories, and hairstyles (Barry and Drak), which in turn forms a prevailing custom or style of dress (Craik). It is a cultural practice, providing ‘real estate’ (Benda 7) for an individual to express their social roles (Craik) and political identity (Behnke). Some scholars argue that fashion became overtly political during the 1960s and 70s, as social movements politicised appearance (Edwards). This has only increased in relevance with the rise of far right, populist, and authoritarian regimes, whose sub-cultures enact politicised identities through their distinct fashion characteristics (Gaugele and Titton; Gaugele). Fashion can therefore play an important role in protest movements, as “political subjectivities, political authority, political power and discipline are rendered visible, and thereby real, by the way fashion co-establishes them” (Behnke 3).

Across the literature scholars have identified two primary avenues by which fashion and activism are connected. The first of these relates to activism targeting the fashion industry. This type of activism is found in both Asia and Australia, and promotes sustainable consumption choices such as buying used goods and transforming existing items (Chung and Yim), as well as highlighting garment worker exploitation within the fashion industry (Khan and Richards). The second avenue is called ‘fashion activism’: the use of fashion to intentionally signal a message seeking to evoke social and/or political change (Thompson). In this conceptualisation, clothing is used to signify a particular message (Crane). An example of this type of fashion activism is the ‘SlutWalk’, a protest where participants deliberately wore outfits described as slutty or revealing as a response to victim-blaming of women who had experienced sexual assault (Thompson). A key element of fashion activism thus appears to be its message intentionality. Clothes are specifically utilised to convey a message, such as a grievance about victim-blaming, which can then be incorporated into design features displayed on t-shirts, pins, and signs both on the runway and in protest events (Titton).

However, while this ‘sender/receiver’ model of fashion communication (Barnard, Fashion as) can be compelling for activists, it is complex in practice. A message receiver can never have full knowledge of what message the sender seeks to signify through a particular clothing item, nor can the message sender predict how a receiver will interpret that message. Particular arrangements of clothing only hold communicative power when they are easily interpreted and related to the movement and its message, usually only intelligible to a specific culture or subculture (Goodnow). Even within that subculture it remains problematic to infer a message from a particular style of dress, as demonstrated in examples where dress is used to imply sexual consent; for example, in rape and assault cases (Lennon et al.).

Given the challenges of interpreting fashion, do activists appear to use the ‘real estate’ (Benda 7) afforded by it as a protest tool? To investigate this question a pre-existing dataset of 36,676 events was analysed to ascertain if, and how, environmental activism engages with fashion (a detailed methodology is available on the OSF). Across this dataset, event categories, titles, and descriptions were reviewed to collate events connecting environmental activism to fashion. Three categories of events were found and are discussed in the next section: street theatre, sustainable fashion practices, and disruptive protest.

Street Theatre

Street theatre is a form of entertainment which uses public performance to raise awareness of injustices and build support for collective action (Houston and Pulido). It uses costumes as a vehicle for conveying messages about political issues and for making demands visible, and has been utilised by protesters across Australia and Asia (Roces). Many examples of street theatre were found in the dataset. For example, Extinction Rebellion (XR) consistently promoted street theatre events via sub-groups such as the ‘Red Rebels’ – a dedicated team of volunteers specialising in costumed street theatre – as well as by inviting supporters to participate in open street theatre events, such as in the ‘Halloween Dead Things Disco’.

Dressed as spooky skeletons (doot, doot) and ghosts, we'll slide and shimmy down Sydney's streets in a supernatural style, as we bring attention to all the species claimed by the Sixth Mass Extinction.

These street theatre events appeared to prioritise spectacle rather than disruption as a means to attract attention to their message. The Cairns and Far North Environment Centre ‘Climate Action Float’, for example, requested that attendees:

Wear blue and gold or dress as your favourite reef animal, solar panel, maybe even the sun itself!? Reef & Solar // Blue & Gold is the guiding theme but we want your creativity take it from there.

Most groups used street theatre as one of a range of different actions organised across a period of time. However, Climacts, a performance collective which uses ‘spectacle and satire to communicate the urgency of the climate and biodiversity crisis’ (Climacts), utilised this tactic exclusively. Their Climate Guardians collective used distinctive angel costumes to perform at the Climate Conference of Parties 26, and in various places around Australia (see images on their Website).

Fig. 1: Costumed protest against Downer EDI's proposed work on the Adani coalmine; Image by John Englart (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Sustainable Fashion Practices

The second most common type of event which connected fashion with activism were those promoting sustainable fashion practices. While much research has highlighted the role of activism in raising awareness of problems related to the fashion industry (e.g. Hirscher), groups in the dataset were primarily focussed on organising activities where supporters communally created their own fashion items. The most common of these was the ‘crafternoon’, with over 260 separate crafternoon events identified in the dataset. These events brought activists together to create protest-related kit such as banners, signs, and costumes from recycled or repurposed materials, as demonstrated by Hume Climate Action Now’s ‘Crafternoon for Climate’ event:

Come along on Sunday arvo for a relaxed arvo making posters and banners for upcoming Hume Climate Action Now events… Bring: Paints, textas, cardboard, fabric – whatever you’ve got lying around. Don’t have anything? That’s cool, just bring yourself.

Events highlighting fashion industry problems were less frequent and tended to prioritise sharing of information about the fashion industry rather than promoting protests. For example, Transition Town Vincent held a ‘Slowing Down Fast Fashion – Transition Town Vincent Movie Night’ while the Green Embassy promoted the ‘Eco Fashion Week’. This event, held in 2017, was described as Australia’s only eco-fashion week, and included runway shows, music, and public talks. Other events also focussed on public talks, such as a Conservation Council of ACT event called ‘Green Drinks Canberra October 2017: Summer Edwards on the fashion industry’ and a panel discussion organised by a group called SEE-Change entitled ‘The Sustainable Wardrobe’.

Disruptive Protest and T-Shirts

Few events in the dataset mentioned elements of fashion outside of street theatre or sustainable fashion practices, with only one organisation explicitly connecting fashion with activism in its event details. This group – Australian Youth Climate Coalition – organised an event called ‘Activism in Fashion: Tote Bags, T-shirts and Poster Painting!’, which asked:

How can we consistently be involved in campaigning while life can be so busy? Can we still be loud and get a message across without saying a word? The iconic 21st century activist "t-shirt and tote-bag" combination is hard to miss these days!

Unlike street theatre and sustainable fashion practices, fashion appeared to be a consideration for only a small number of disruptive protests promoted by environmental groups in Australia. XR Brisbane sought to organise a fashion parade during the 2019 Rebellion Week, while XR protesters in Melbourne stripped down to underwear for a march through Melbourne city arcades (see also Turbet). Few common fashion elements appeared consistently on individual activists participating in events, and these were limited to accessories, such as ‘Stop Adani’ earrings, or t-shirts sold for fundraising and promotional purposes. Indeed, t-shirts appeared to be the most promoted clothing item in the dataset, continuing a long tradition of their use in protests (e.g. Maynard, Blankets). Easy to create, suitable for displaying both text and imagery, t-shirts sharing anti-coal messages featured predominantly in the Stop Adani campaign, while yellow t-shirts were a common item in Knitting Nanna’s anti-coal seam gas mining protests.

Fig. 2: Stop Adani earrings and t-shirts; Image by John Englart (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Role of Fashion in Environmental Activism

As these findings demonstrate, fashion appears to be deliberately utilised in environmental activism primarily through street theatre and the promotion of sustainable fashion practices. While fewer examples of fashion in disruptive protest were found and no consistent fashion assemblage was identified, accessories and t-shirts were utilised by many groups.

What may activists be seeking to achieve through incorporating fashion via street theatre and sustainable fashion practices? Some scholars have argued that incorporating fashion into protest allows activists to signal political dissent against authoritarian control. For example, Yanzoom noted that by utilising fashion as a means of communication, Tibetan activists were able to embody their political goals despite repression of speech and movement by political powerholders. However, a consistent fashion repertoire across protests in this Australian dataset was not found. The opportunities afforded by protected protest rights in Australia and absence of violent police repression of disruptive protests may be one explanation why distinctive dress such as the masks and black attire of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters did not manifest in the dataset.

Other scholars have observed that fashion sub-cultures also developed partly to express anti-establishment politics, such as the punk movement in the 1970s. Radical clothing accessorised by symbols, bright hair colours, body piercings, and heavy-duty books signalled opposition to the dominant political ideology (Craik). However, none of these purposes appeared to play a role in Australian environmental activism either. Instead, it appears that Maynard’s contention that Australian protest fashion barely deviates from everyday dress remains true today. Fashion within the events promoted in this large empirical dataset retained the ‘prevalence of everyday clothing’ (Maynard, Dress 111).

The lack of a clearly discernible single protest fashion style within the dataset may be related to the shortcomings of the sender/receiver model of fashion communication. As Barnard (Fashion Statements) argued, fashion is not always used as a vehicle for conveying messages, but also as a platform for constructing and reproducing identity. Indeed, a multiplicity of researchers have noted how fashion acts as a signal of what social groups individuals belong to (see Roach-Higgins and Eicher). Activist groups have a variety of goals, which not only include promoting environmental change but also mobilising more people to join their cause (Gulliver et al., Understanding). Stereotyping can hinder achievement of these goals. It has been demonstrated, for example, that individuals who hold negative stereotypes of ‘typical’ activists are less likely to want to associate with them, and less likely to adopt their behaviours (Bashir et al.). Accordingly, some activist groups have been shown to actively promote dress associated with other identity groups, specifically to challenge cultural constructions of environmental activist stereotypes (see also Roces). For example, Bloomfield and Doolins’s study of the NZ anti-GE group MAdGE (Mothers against Genetic Engineering in Food and the Environment) demonstrated how visual protest artifacts conveyed the protesters’ social identity as mothers and customers rather than environmental activists, claiming an alternative cultural mandate for challenging the authority of science (see also Einwohner et al.).

The data suggest that Australian activists are seeking to avoid this stereotype as well. The absence of a consistent fashion promoted within the dataset may reflect awareness of problematic stereotypes that activists may be then deliberately seeking to avoid. Maynard (Dress), for example, has noted how the everyday dress of Australian protesters serves to deflect stereotypical labelling of participants. This strategy is also mirrored by the changing nature of groups within the Australian environmental movement. The event database demonstrates that an increasing number of environmental groups are emerging with names highlighting non-stereotypical environmental identities: groups such as ‘Engineers Declare’ and ‘Bushfire Survivors for Climate Action’.

Beyond these identity processes, the frequent use of costumed street theatre protest suggests that activists recognise the value of using fashion as a vehicle for communicating messages, despite the challenges of interpretation described above. Much of the language used to promote street theatre in the Facebook event listings suggests that these costumes were deliberately designed to signify a particular meaning, with individuals encouraged to dress up to be ‘a vehicle for myth and symbol’ (Lavender 11). It may be that costumes are also utilised in protest due to their suitability as an image event, convenient for dissemination by mass media seeking colourful and engaging imagery (Delicath and Deluca; Doerr). Furthermore, costumes, as with text or colours presented on t-shirts, may offer activists an avenue to clearly convey a visual message which is more resistant to stereotyping. This is especially relevant given that fashion can be re-interpreted and misinterpreted by audiences, as well as reframed and reinterpreted by the media (Maynard, Dress).

While the prevalence of costumed performance and infrequent mentions of fashion in the dataset may be explained by stereotype avoidance and messaging clarity, sustainable fashion practices were more straightforward in intent. Groups used multiple approaches to educate audiences about sustainable fashion, whether through fostering sustainable fashion practices or raising awareness of fashion industry problems. In this regard, fashion in protest in Australia closely resembles Asian sustainable fashion activism (see e.g. Chon et al. regarding the Singaporean context). In particular, the large number of ‘crafternoons’ suggests their importance as sites of activism and community building. Craftivism – acts such as quilting banners, yarn bombing, and cross stitching feminist slogans – are used by many groups to draw attention to social, political and environmental issues (McGovern and Barnes). This type of ‘creative activism’ (Filippello) has been used to challenge aesthetic and political norms across a variety of contested socio-political landscapes. These activities not only develop activism skills, but also foster community (Barry and Drak). For environmental groups, these community building events can play a critical role in sustaining and supporting ongoing environmental activism (Gulliver et al., Understanding) as well as demonstrating solidarity with workers across Asia experiencing labour injustices linked to the fashion industry (Chung and Yim).


Studies examining protest fashion demonstrate that clothing provides a canvas for sharing protest messages and identities in both Asia and Australia (Benda; Yangzom; Craik). However, despite the fashion’s utility as communication tool for social and environmental movements, empirical studies of how fashion is used by activists in these contexts remain rare. This analysis demonstrates that Australian environmental activists use fashion in their action repertoire primarily through costumed street theatre performances and promoting sustainable fashion practices. By doing so they may be seeking to use fashion as a means of conveying messages, while avoiding stereotypes that can demobilise supporters and reduce support for their cause. Furthermore, sustainable fashion activism offers opportunities for activists to achieve multiple goals: to subvert the fast fashion industry, to provide participation avenues for new activists, to help build activist communities, and to express solidarity with those experiencing fast fashion-related labour injustices. These findings suggest that the use of fashion in protest actions can move beyond identity messaging to also enact sustainable practices while co-opting and resisting hegemonic ideas of consumerism. By integrating fashion into the vibrant and diverse actions promoted by environmental movements across Australia and Asia, activists can construct and perform identities while fostering the community bonds and networks from which movements demanding environmental change derive their strength.

Ethics Approval Statement

This study was approved by the Research Ethics Committee of the University of Queensland (2018000963).

Data Availability

A detailed methodology explaining how the dataset was constructed and analysed is available on the Open Science Framework: <>.


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Author Biography

Robyn Gulliver, University of Queensland

Dr Robyn Gulliver is a Research Fellow at Australian National University and the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the antecedents and consequences of environmental activism and the social psychology of collective action.