Protests are about movements, not fashion per se. But let’s be real: How you look can go a long way in making your case. Clothes do communicate. Business suits and sweatpants send very different messages to the public. We’ve had lots of important protest movements in this country dating back to the Boston Tea Party. But while we have long been a nation of causes, times change and so do fashion, communications, and the messages that help promote a cause.
Some causes have had more impact because of sustained leadership and advocacy, and those causes generally had a charismatic leader or symbol that helped define them (think of the late Fidel Castro, and while you’re at it, think of his ultra-symbolic go-to outfit: military fatigues). Other movements have floundered because they lacked leadership. It is difficult to unite the public around an issue without a face, except in the abstract. Examining some notable movements and the fashion statements of their leaders may help explain some successes and setbacks.
This year, we came close to electing a woman as president. Before we could get to this point, however, women had to persevere for the right to vote. The very idea of women voting was viewed as unthinkable and a threat to the nuclear family. Women began advocating for suffrage as early as 1848, yet until 1920, they were denied that right. As their push for equality gained momentum or stalled, they adjusted tactics—and the way they dressed—to reflect the movement’s evolution.
Early suffrage fashion, embodied by Susan B. Anthony, reflected the austere Victorian-era tastes from which society women took their cues. After 1890, suffragettes modernized their fashion, shedding the Victorian restraints for the look of the new woman: This look was more urban, reflecting a movement away from an agrarian society to cities in search of opportunities. They dressed up more uniformly for parades and marches, wearing purple, white, and green. They also shed undergarment bondage—corsets and petticoats—in favor of looser-fitting skirts and dresses. (Four decades later, bra burning would contribute to the discard pile.) This freed them metaphorically and physically while emphasizing their femininity. Although they continued to encounter resistance, their movement was firmly enshrined in the imagination and politics of the early 20th century, resulting in universal suffrage in 1920.
Rosa Parks is revered as the woman who launched the civil rights movement in 1955. Nine months prior, however, police arrested a teenager named Claudette Colvin for contesting the same Montgomery, Alabama, law. But Colvin was a poor, pregnant teenager, and the NAACP recognized it needed the “perfect protester” to justify its cause to the public. Parks, in contrast, was a middle-aged, married woman with a more sympathetic biography. We must not overlook the fact that she worked as a seamstress (here is the dress she made at work the day she was arrested); thus, she was almost surely aware of how she presented herself to the world at such a critical moment. Deeply religious, Parks wore dignified, conservative clothes befitting a black woman of her standing, and she promoted her style as something other women could emulate to advance the civil rights cause.
Likewise, Martin Luther King and his advisers paid careful attention to their style. Photos and film are powerful tools, and these men astutely recognized the power their likenesses, disseminated in numerous publications, would have as people around the country and the world debated the merits of King’s arguments. In a plea for respect, King, almost always in a nice suit and a fedora, projected a gentlemanly image. He understood that commanding authority was important while delivering a sermon or imploring a mayor or president to honor the ideals of our Constitution. King’s efforts paid off with substantive legal reforms in the ’60s, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
In contrast, the Black Panthers’ approach was almost the polar opposite of King’s. Proudly Afrocentric, revolutionary, and unapologetic, the Panthers’ provocational berets, afros, leather jackets, fatigues, and guns did much to improve black self-awareness and pride, but the movement’s look and actions alienated many who might otherwise have sympathized with its message.
Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street
Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Occupy Wall Street (Occupy) share similarities. Both are decentralized grassroots movements with no visible leader (ask someone you know to name a leader of these movements, and you’re likely to draw a blank stare). Both reject status quo ideologies and movements (Occupy rejects globalization and free trade; BLM repudiates traditional civil rights protest tactics), and both figured prominently in the public consciousness. Further, Occupy protesters evoke the counterculturalism of ’60s anti-war protesters with a general disregard for appearance and unkemptness. Without an individual or group to unite a cause, however, a movement can languish. Occupy still exists. However, five years after it took root nationally and became a topic of the political conversation (indeed, it was a catalyst in Bernie Sanders’s rise), Occupy seems rudderless. Similarly, BLM has visible moments, especially in the wake of the latest police shooting or when a Colin Kaepernick protests, but no leader has emerged to galvanize the public consistently.
Today, a movement may begin or gain impetus online, but history indicates that movements only truly gain traction in the real, not the digital, world—in civic centers, churches, and classrooms where people assemble to debate ideas and strategies. Those strategies include how to present a movement’s leadership. Online petitions and large social media followings are often not enough to influence a desired outcome. For example, DeRay McKesson is one of the more visible BLM leaders and a prolific tweeter, with nearly 700,000 followers. But earlier this year, when McKesson ran for mayor of Baltimore, he won only 2.5 percent of the vote.
Such considerations are important for nascent movements, given the pending administration change in Washington. Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency has stoked anger and promises to mobilize against his proposed policies. If true, new leaders will likely emerge. They would do well to study past movements to plan how to best present their causes and themselves to the public for success.