Fashion

08.13.12

Amnesty International’s Pussy Riot Concert: Balaclavas and Punk Rockers

At pro-Pussy Riot concert in D.C., style underscores the activist message.

It was an impossibly hot and humid August evening in Washington to be wearing a knit balaclava, but this is a city of dedicated and earnest protesters. Neither heat nor the threat of monsoon-like rains keeps activists from their placards.

And so a group of diehard punk musicians and political rabble-rousers pulled on candy-colored versions of the face-covering headgear for an amped-up protest concert on a patch of privately owned grass across from the Russian Embassy in support of a band called Pussy Riot.

Three members of the female punk rock collective with the provocative name have been imprisoned in Russia since March, charged with “hooliganism on the grounds of religious hatred.” The band’s crime? They performed a protest song, “Virgin Mary, Redeem Us of Putin,” in front of the altar at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on Feb. 21. It was one in a string of guerrilla concerts, including one in Red Square, the band has staged since its formation a little more than a year ago. They have used music and performance art to express their anger at Vladimir Putin, his return to power and the rising signs of an increasingly repressive regime.

The young women arrested, Maria Alekhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, are all in their 20s. Two are mothers. They’re now on trial and face up to three years in prison—whittled down from a possible seven years—if found guilty. A verdict is expected August 17.

Musicians ranging from Sting to Madonna have spoken up in their defense. Video of the band’s impromptu “punk prayer” has garnered nearly 400,000 views on YouTube. And Amnesty International, after declaring them “prisoners of conscience,” organized the protest in Washington.

Pussy Riot has a striking look, steering away from the more aggressive punk style of black leather and metal spikes, and instead choosing brightly colored mini-dresses, Technicolor tights and balaclavas—to hide their identities—in shades of fuchsia, tangerine, and banana yellow. Their sweet, girly attire stands in contrast to their aggressive lyrics that implore the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and to drive out Putin.

“They’ve been incredibly savvy about their iconography and using visual art and performing art” to deliver their message, noted Michelle Ringuette, chief of campaigns and programs for Amnesty International USA.

Their sweet, girly attire stands in contrast to their aggressive lyrics that implore the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and to drive out Putin.

In many ways the medium—and the attire—are essential to the message. Pussy Riot sings, or more precisely yells, in Russian. Many of their lyrics are impossible to hear, as their voices must battle the din of drums and shrieking guitars. But their anger reverberates without translation.

Their slender limbs beat the air in rage and frustration. Their brightly colored dresses stand in contrast to their ominous descriptions of oppression and censorship, heightening the effect of their warning that dark clouds are gathering. And their faces are hidden behind masks that simultaneously suggest danger and absurdity.

Pussy Riot
The band Pussy Riot at a rehearsal in March of this year. Three members of the band are on trial for performing a protest song in a Moscow cathedral in February. ()

Pussy Riot owes a debt to the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s in which punk music, feminism, and activism converged among young women looking to be heard and needing to vent. They upended stereotypes about feminine attire, giving saccharine sweetness a sharp and brutal edge.

A visual homage to Pussy Riot was on display at the Amnesty International USA protest, where those gathered—male and female—performed, chanted, and observed wearing bright sundresses and knit balaclavas. Indeed, more of the male activists were wearing dresses and tights than the women who had assembled. Dave Lesser, singer and guitarist for the band Brenda, wore a red dress and purple tights as he led the audience in a refrain before the concert began: “Maria, Nadezhda, and Yetakerina! Don’t lose hope! We’re never going to leave you! Maria, Nadezhda, and Yetakerina! Don’t lose hope! We’re never going to leave you!”

It was an evening that was one part rally and one part music festival. Protesters held ‘Honk if your support Pussy Riot’ banners and local food trucks peddled falafel and waffles. Amnesty International workers circulated petitions of support and listeners volleyed beach balls—supplied by Amnesty International—through the audience. Passersby rested bags from the nearby Whole Foods in Georgetown on the grass as they watched the action. And it seemed that everyone snapped photos with their cell phones.

Everyone had a role to play. Men circulated through the crowd in pink floral dresses with cap sleeves, navy dresses with red polka dots and fuchsia T-shirts boasting, “This is what a feminist looks like.” Another t-shirt proclaimed its wearer’s support for same sex marriage. A duo from CBGB—the famed New York rock club that is now home to a John Varvatos clothing store--road-tripped south to lend their support. “It’s not just about the three [jailed] musicians. They’re a snapshot of what can happen,” said Louise Staley, who ran CBGB for 20 years and was wearing a black T-shirt reading “Putin vs. punk rock." “Punk musicians, in the way they speak out, make themselves more vulnerable to attack. But they’re pointing out that the system is unfair.”

The Russian Embassy, which sits along Wisconsin Avenue, also lived up to the cliché that one might envision. It is a nondescript, squat compound situated behind a stone wall topped by an iron fence. On Friday evening, two Secret Service police cars were parked in front, from which officers kept watch over the goings-on across the street. And a salt-and-pepper haired gentleman in a white shirt and dark trousers, walked slowly down the sidewalk as he cautiously eyed the crowd. An identification tag dangling from a lanyard around his neck was tucked discreetly into a breast pocket.

As the local band Sad Bones climbed on stage to kick off the concert, perspiration dotted what was visible of Adrienne Peters’s face. It was mostly covered by a safety orange balaclava, which she had paired with a marigold yellow lace sundress. “Free expression is really important. I don’t like using the word ‘feminism’ but it’s especially important for women,” said Peters, explaining her commitment to wear knit headwear in 86-degree weather. The symbolism is important.

“With any art form, the mystique is part of what makes it popular. And I think it’s emblematic that the women felt they had to be anonymous,” said Peters, 20, who lives in Greenbelt, Md.

“Freedom of expression, not repression!” yelled the crowd of perhaps a couple hundred people as they filled the silence between bands.

Brenda cranked up to begin its set. The band members—male and female—all wore dresses or skirts. Their faces were dutifully covered. They were sweating. And they were raging. This one is about “accepting people regardless of sexual orientation,” Lesser explained as he introduced the song. The guitar began to squeal.

In the distance, drivers coming up the hill from Georgetown honked in support of Pussy Riot.