Anthropology: How Fashion Has Become a Form of Protest over the Years


Over the years, we watched as people began to accept fashion as not only an art form but also a way to express oneself. Sometimes we don’t need to speak to voice our opinions. We all know the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words”. The same thing applies to fashion, but in this case, it is a piece of clothing item instead of a picture. Throughout history, organizers and protestors have used clothing to give visual currency to different sociopolitical movements around the world. Some wear uniforms, others dress to express their individuality. We first saw it with a miniskirt. The miniskirt was a sign of rebellion back then, worn to protest against the rules of society. Now it is a fashion trend.

A Brief History of Protest Fashion

Demonstrators on the boardwalk, some waving heels or underwear, protesting the Miss America Beauty pageant.
Demonstrators on the boardwalk, some waving heels or underwear, protesting the Miss America Beauty pageant in 1968 (Source: Getty images)

Dress and protest have gone hand-in-hand for thousands of years, and oftentimes clothing speaks just as loudly as words. Let’s begin with the mid 1950s. Black people in America fought injustice and inequality. Including racial segregation and oppression. A sharp-dressed, modest black body worked as a tool in conjunction with the passive efforts of nonviolent protests. Women who joined in on the movement wore neatly pressed hair, cardigans, button-ups and stockings under skirts with modest hemlines. Just think of your typical Sunday best.

The men mirrored the woman, matching in dark-colored suits over starched white undershirts and ties. Black Americans were at the bottom of the social pyramid. So it was important that whatever they wore could challenge that. Many protesters believed that “proper” dress and a certain level of presentability would make them appear less threatening. And that maybe, just maybe, would change the perception of black people in the eyes of other communities.

Civil Rights Movement

Denim played a huge part in this movement. What is now considered a fashionable textile was once a symbol of the Black Freedom Struggle. Denim overalls and jeans were the standard uniform for sharecroppers in the rural South. A portrayed version that the black middle class felt it needed to alienate to appear respectable. Tanisha. C. Ford( a professor of history at NYU) wrote an article about young activists. Like the men and women in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (STNCC). Claiming back denim work wear to align themselves with the working class. In the process, making a bold statement about politics and class. Also, it is more practical for organizers to mobilize in denim and more durable than a suit or dress.

The Black Panther Party

Here stands the Black Panther Party in their uniform
Black Panther Party members(Photo by David Fenton)

The Black Panther Party was the converse of the civil rights movement. Groups adapted many aspects of cultural garments. Like the headwrap and ankh necklaces. But, the founders of the Black Panther Party opposed the aesthetic. Because of its “opportunistic cultural practitioners operating as front men to further exploit and impede on the real revolutionary struggle”.  Their uniform consisted of leather jackets, powder blue shirts, black pants, shoes, gloves and the famous black beret(a strong symbol of militancy). Which was picked after watching a movie about the French resistance to the Nazis during World War 2. The black panthers usually dress to send a message about black pride and liberation.


The women’s liberation movement used fashion as a way to overthrow society’s ideals of how women should dress. It was a subject of objectification and unattainable beauty standards that inspired the Miss America protests. Protestors dumped items they believed  were forced on women to maintain the height of femininity. Things like bras, lipsticks, stockings and girdles, are all thrown into trash cans.

Stripes used as protest

A court jester dressed on stripes
Credit: Kyra McConnell

Our modern-day concepts of elegant modesty date back to the Middle Ages. When the Church was the main governing body, Christian morals were the common thread of society. The God-fearing people all knew the story of Adam and Eve, who were given clothes after their expulsion from Eden. To atone for the original sin, people had to wear modest, discreet garments. That clearly depicted their social status and gender.

In the 12th century, people seen as social deviants, including jesters, jugglers, executioners, and prisoners retaliated against the Church by putting on stripes. The bold, freakish pattern was a form of protest because the people who wore them conflicted directly with Christian ethics. While jailbird stripes still evoke their miscreant origins, the trend eventually spread from the margins to mainstream fashion.

The Pussyhat Project

Women's March on Washington, the pussyhat initiative
Credit: Getty images

There have been other significant articles of clothing that have unified movements in recent years, and are a product of contemporary culture. Following Donald Trump’s presidential election. More than a million people came to Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2017, for the Women’s March. Many in attendance wore pink hats. Created by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman. The Pussyhat Project called for people to wear handmade, knitted “pussycat ear” caps. In protest of Trump’s comments about grabbing women’s genitals. The worldwide protests during the 2017 Women’s March marked the largest single-day protest in U.S. history.

Slogan T-shirts as a Sign of Protest

Prabul Gurung protest t-shirts on the runway with the famous "The future is female" right in front
Source: Jennifer Allford

Dating back to the Vietnam War protests in the ‘60s and the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s. But if it hadn’t been for Katharine Hamnett. We may never have had these glorious emblems of protest history. Katharine has used her t-shirts to promote a range of causes. Famously, she wore one with the anti-nuclear message “58%don’t want perishing”, to a 1984 meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In 2016 and 2017, T-shirts touted feminist ideals. Sometimes with proceeds going to the cause, sometimes not. Depending on the brand’s shameless ability to commodify feminism. It became common again, though to a lesser extent than some of the other looks of the past.The idea of a politically charged tee came from British designer Vivienne Westwood, who used the shirt as a blank canvas for her punk ideology. In 2005, she created T-shirts that read: “I am not a terrorist, please don’t shoot me”, photographed on a baby.

Designers using their collections to protest

Christian Dior

Christian Diors Spring/Summer 2017 slogan T-shirts
Credit to Jacopo M. Raule

Most fashion designers typically don’t make sweeping political statements as a way to play it safe. They have to sell their clothes to consumers who can have a wide range of beliefs and opinions. When Maria Grazia Chiuri took over at the house of Christian Dior in 2017, she was the first woman to do so. She opened her debut spring/summer show with a T-shirt that read: “We should all be feminists”. Inspired by the book of that name by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chiuri.The next season, a swathe of labels followed Chiuri’s lead, such as at Prabul Gurung with T-shirts emblazoned with “The future is female” and “This is what a feminist looks like”.

Alexander McQueen

McQueen’s AW95 collection dedicated to domestic violence against violence
Credit to Rosie Dalton

Alexander McQueen was never afraid to speak his mind as a designer. So often his clothing also had a spirit of protest about it. For the designer’s Autumn/Winter95, for example, the presentation was staged in protest of domestic violence against women. Models were depicted looking battered and bruised, with torn clothing hanging from their bodies. In what turned out to be a largely misunderstood and thus controversial move at the time. As with many great visionaries though. It was only really in retrospect that people were able to appreciate the political message at the core of the clothing.

Walter Van Beirendonck

A model wearing clear tanks with bold and explicit directives written across them.
Source: Rosie Dalton

Walter Van Beirendonck is one of those designers that has followed in the footsteps of Katharine Hamnett. Designing political statements that you can wear on your sleeve. But rather than being so built into the garments. The Belgian designer’s tack was to make his anti-terrorism signs really jump out at you. Models stomp the AW15 runway wearing clear tanks with explicit directives emblazoned across them, such as: “Stop Terrorising Our World”.


Models went naked in protest against fur

PETA revolutionised the protest space in the early nineties. When the organisation first released its anti-fur campaign full of stark naked models, Supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington stripped down to take a stand on PETA’s behalf. Which was incredibly powerful, because although some of the ladies sadly reneged on their pledge down the line. Many high-profile brands like Armani have now committed to going fur-free.


Diesels Ad protest, themed make love, not walls, against Trumps notion of putting up a wall between America and Mexico
Credit:David LaChapelle

Diesel had launched an ad campaign dubbed “Make Love Not Walls”. In a nod to US President Trump’s plan to build a wall separating Mexico from the United States. Provocative ads are nothing new to Diesel. It was one of the first brands to include photos of a gay couple kissing, in a 1995 ad, shot by photographer and director David LaChapelle, who also directed this campaign.The fashion brand’s artistic director, Nicola Formichetti, said in a statement: “At Diesel, we have a strong position against hate and more than ever we want the world to know that.”


Karl Lagerfeld ending the show with an army of models, each holding a sign about feminism.
Karl Lagerfeld ending the show with an army of models, each holding a sign about feminism. (credit: Getty images)

Karl Lagerfeld presented for Chanel where he appropriated the visual signifiers of feminist protest for its seasonal runway show. Which closed with a megaphone-wielding Cara Delevingne leading a model army chanting for freedom. The Kardashian-clan catwalk star Kendall Jenner holding a banner reading Women’s Rights are More than Alright, and a sea of placards reading Ladies First, History is Her Story, We Can Match the Machos and Boys Should Get Pregnant Too?

The meaning behind the color white

The suffragette movement to allow women to vote
Credit: Paul Thompson

The American suffrage movement, whose fight for women’s rights started more than 50 years earlier at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Grew as women lobbied for the right to vote. “White, traditionally, is worn as a sign of chastity,” says Darnell-Jamal Lisby, fashion historian and curator. “The color white, as it pertains to women in the Western world. Has always held this place of chastity and conservatism. It’s very much rooted in heteronormative traditions.”

The color was likely chosen to counteract the idea of what white represented. It also made for iconic newspaper visuals. As white stood out in the era’s black-and-white photographs. Also, choose to include as many women as possible. No matter your age, race or class. Since then, “suffragette white” has become an important symbol inside the White House, too.

South Africa’s Fashion Protest

Sophie Mahlangu exhibition in the Museum of fine arts showcasing the amaNdebele significance
Credit to Cellina Colby

The first piece to confront viewers is in the Museum of Fine Arts.  The exhibition “Made Visible: Contemporary South African Fashion and Identity” is a blend of old and new. A mannequin wears white Keds along with a large beaded cape and intricately created leg bangles by Sophie Mahlangu. This amaNdebele beadwork operated as both a display of the artist’s skill and a visual protest against apartheid. By reminding viewers of the long heritage of the AmaNdebele kingdom.

The Mahlangu installation is by designer Laduma Ngxokolo
Source: The Folklore

The Mahlangu installation is by designer Laduma Ngxokolo from his 2018 collection. To the unknowing viewer, it appears that the bright colors and mixed patterns are merely taking advantage of current trends. Straight down to the Nike sneakers. But the patterns are actually inspired by historical beadwork, like the pieces on the other side of the display. The geometric black-and-white graphics on the sleeve of the mannequin’s sweater are drawn from 19th-century amaXhosa women’s skirts. The seamless design elements are also meant to illustrate luxury and high-quality craftsmanship. In order to fight stereotypes abroad about black-owned businesses. Here, traditional patterns merge with contemporary style and quality.

Social Media’s Impact

The title of another article on social media's impact on the fashion world
Credit to Fabusse

In the fashion world, social media have brought connectedness, innovation, and diversity to the industry. Instagram, for example, functions as a live magazine.  Always updating itself with the best, most current trends while allowing users to participate in fashion rather than just watch from afar. In a world influenced by social media clout and likes. It is necessary to clarify that protests are not a vain occasion but what you wear is essential. So when you’re deciding what to wear to a protest, put style aside, and practicality and safety at the forefront. Contrary to popular belief, clothing has almost always been about something other than appearances. Now in 2021, as protesters continue to flood the streets and demand justice. It is important that the choice of clothing is strategic.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Prabul Gurung protest t-shirts on the runway
Source: Getty images

Fashion is used as a powerful means of communication. Whether the message is obvious or nuanced. It makes way for people to express the issues that matter to them most the way they see fit. Maybe, instead, the headline will be about change that comes about as a result of all these people rising up together. No matter what they’re wearing. While there’s some significance behind wearing certain articles of clothing. It’s unity, a group getting together to wear the same thing for the same message. That is the most impactful. We should always remember that fashion can be a powerful ally as we set out.  Dressed to protest.

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