What (Not) to Wear as a Political Actor

In a recent article one of my favourite fashion writers, Robin Givhan (WP), reflects upon the sartorial codes of the civil rights movements of the 1960s. It has been 50 years since Martin Luther King organised the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ and gave perhaps his most moving address, ‘I’ve been to the mountain top’ (excerpt), seemingly anticipating what would happen the next day. On 4 April 1968, tragically, King was assassinated in Memphis TN.

Givhan focuses on the way MLK and his allies and followers dressed in their marches in the American South and compares and contrasts their style to the ‘uniforms’ worn by the Black Panthers in the northern cities of the USA. She notes the neat and conservative, in a sense ‘bourgeois’ vestiary code employed by the former group and the more military-inspired code of the latter group.

About MLK and his associates she writes,

They were not fighting to escape the system; they were working to become fully integrated into it. […]

These upright men, women and children countered the narrative that black people were subpar exotics by dressing with man-next-door polish. Their message, tactics and style were precisely detailed. […]

The civil rights warriors did not dress in battle gear. In adhering to their philosophy of nonviolence, their style was conciliatory rather than confrontational. These were not clothes for a fight but clothes for a gentlemanly — or ladylike — negotiation.

And about the Black Panthers,

The Black Panthers were not conciliatory in their methods. Their dress didn’t suggest a desire to assimilate or fit in. Instead, their berets and leather jackets, tunics, dashikis, Afros and heavy beards were pointedly outside the realm of suburban conventions, flower-child mysticism and churchgoing decorum.

Thee ‘strikingly different fashion postures, from the suited-up members of a movement that had been nurtured in the black church [in the South] to the black-leather-clad Black Panthers who mostly worked from urban storefronts [in the North]’, their fashion choices reflected and reinforced their respective approaches to political agency.

‘Their clothes not only identified their approach, they were also essential to it. Southern blacks were negotiating for rights. Those in the North were fighting for power’.

W425-30(LBJ library via Wikimedia Commons)

BlackPanthers(Screenshot, National Archives)

As Givhan notes, this sartorial formality, in which a particular uniform dress code becomes part of the constitution of political agency, is very much absent today. ‘Today, fashion is less adept at delineating between insiders and outsiders, between the establishment and the rebels. Everyone wears jeans and T-shirts, sneakers with their suits’. And pointing to the ‘March for Our Lives’ (which I discussed in a previous entry), she points to fashion as a way to empower the individual. ‘Fashion still has the capacity to agitate, but as an independent act of aesthetic defiance’. In my entry, I briefly discussed the appearance of Emma González in her torn jeans, camouflage jacket and close-shaven head. And I maintain that this is one of the images that define the agency of the students that organised this march. But there is another angle to the story that Givhan alludes to in her very last paragraph. ‘The inequities were obvious in 1968. Modern fashion has made room for all the tribes. But that is not to say that they are equal’.

So I am wondering: to what extent has fashion become ideological? To what extent does it produce an individuality that is supposed to be at the centre of our creativity and agency, yet at the same time deprives us of these capacities and thereby masks persistent differences in power and privilege? Politics, or the Political, to employ a broader concept, is about the social and collective realm, not the individual one. The Political structures and determines the lives of collective identities, such as women, students, African-Americans, immigrants, and so on. The ‘uniform’ vestiary codes of MLK of the Black Panthers recognise the need to form a recognisable collective identity that constitutes the possibility of political agency. According to Givhan, for MLK and his associates, the desire for integration and equal rights was expressed in wearing the suits of the society that had rejected them so far; for the Black Panthers, their uniforms set them apart from a society that was to be challenged in a different, antagonistic way.

Yet fashion today reflects and contributes to the (neo-liberal) individualisation of late-modern Western society. We are expected to express our own interests and needs, act on our own behalves and express our identity in our own creative manners. Yet oddly enough, as modern individuals, we seem incapable of living up to this liberal ideal. As Andrew Hill analyses in his sardonic essay ‘People Dress so Badly Nowadays: Fashion and Late Modernity’ (in C. Breward and C.Evans [eds.], Fashion and Modernity, Berg 2005) ‘sartorial expressiveness, richness and heterogeneity’ are blatantly absent even from the streets of London, one of the world’s foremost fashion metropoles.

Oxford_Street_December_2006(Copyright Ysangkok via Wikimedia Commons)

As he observed on a grey November day on Oxford Street, ‘the people were dressed in highly similar clothes, with the same preponderance of plain, dark colours, and the same mixture of unremarkable casual wear’. Looking at the image above, one can easily agree with him; with the only specks of colour provided by London busses and traffic lights. And I can certainly claim that I already know what I shall encounter in Washington, DC during the summer there, above all when it comes to male dress code: T shirts declaring an allegiance to a brand, sports team, or alma mater, khaki cargo shorts and sneakers/trainers or, worse, flip-flops.

 Fashion, Hill argues, has become individualised and thus made ‘casual’, worn for comfort and convenience. It does not signify any social norms or standards and thus dissociates itself from any social or political cause. Casual fashion, he writes,

relates to much more than what people wear. We can see it as a process changing social relations across Western societies. Older hierarchies, rituals, and formalities have been marginalised as people have turned from them to embrace a casual, laissez-faire attitude to sociality […]

Durkheim identified this version of loss of meaning as an anomie afflicting modern societies – a state of meaninglessness, directionless and pointlessness. If anything goes, does anything really matter?

Arguably, fashion reflects, and via its visualisation realises and contributes to, this casualisation and individualisation of late-modern Western society (as Margaret Thatcher once claimed: ‘there is no such thing as society’) that undermines the political agency of social collectives and their ability to address systemic and structural differentials of power and privilege.

Lest I be misunderstood: my critique of Liberalism does not place me in the camp of ‘Republicans’ in the USA, or ‘Tories’ in the UK. Far from it. The uses and abuses of the term ‘liberal’ have very effectively masked the neo-liberal ideology both political parties have subscribed to since the 1980s. Also, in no way does my critique of the anomie of modern Western society mean that I wax nostalgically about, say, the 1950s, when social norms and hierarchies were well established, and men and women dress according to the socially approved sartorial codes of the day. I whole-heartedly support the progress that ‘women’s liberation movement’, the civil rights struggle of the African-American community, the protests of the LGBT community and others have made since then. My point is precisely this: how can we sustain the political agency of these (and emergent) communities in the age of neo-liberal individualisation? And can fashion contribute to the formation of collective social identities that re-ignite a struggle against ever more rigid social norms and standards, above all in the USA? Does wearing a ‘pussy-hat’ or donning the Handmaid dress do this, or do these sartorial items construct a community only ‘for the occasion’, for that demonstration or march? What sartorial code could create a community beyond the ephemeral experience of a march or a demonstration? How do we signify a progressive political programme, be it for women’s rights, or for students, literally marching and fighting for their lives? How can we mobilise sartorial codes that create communities that are more than the sum of their individual parts?

That this is still possible and politically relevant is demonstrated by neo-Nazis and alt-right groups, who have chosen Polo shirts as their new collective uniforms.

Charlottesville(Copyright Anthony Crider via Wikimedia Commons)

The purpose of this strategy is fairly clear: to normalise right-wing ideology and make it dis\appear in the cultural mainstream. Sartorial competence seems more relevant than ever in today’s political contestations. Progressive groups, I’d argue, must not cede this to their enemies.

One thought on “What (Not) to Wear as a Political Actor

  1. Fascinating – as always. The last bit about neo-nazis and polo shirts is chilling and feels like a fashion catch-22. What are we who want to respect and support diversity to do? Condemn polo shirts? ignore this bid for normalization and focus on their speech and behavior? One answer is to honor and reward unique and individual dressing for the strength of character and creativity it indicates. This has been the preserve of the fashionable set for some time. But not everyone can or wants to pull this off – most people want to feel like they belong (or at least fit in) hence the “uniform” of London’s Oxford Street. I remain perplexed.


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