Fashion activism: Our past, present and future


Photo from Irish Tatler (https://irishtatler.com/pussy-riot)

Since the 18th century, activism and fashion have evolved simultaneously throughout our countries' histories. For generations, protestors and organizers have utilized fashion to create a visual representation of sociopolitical ideology to achieve change, thus originating the term "fashion activism:" by definition, the practice of using fashion as means of social change.


“Fashion was and is always political because it is a material way to express power,” says fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Ph.D.


Our country first witnessed this trend in the 1850s’ in the first wave of feminism at the birth of the women's suffrage movement, but it wasn’t until 1908 that this unison effort was fully recognized. The “Votes For Women” protest gained national attention for not only its hysteria but also for its color scheme. Attendees of the protest dressed in all white gowns and blouses with added colorful accessories. This form of fashion activism was so impactful that in 2017, the House Democratic Working Women's Group asked women to wear all white to the presidential address to signify support for women's rights. Today, this color scheme is still worn by female politicians on significant occasions.


Years later, fashion activism at protests was seen yet again within the mid-1950s and1960s during the peak of the civil rights movement. Fashion activism has seen multiple evolutions, yet the message remains to be a clear indication of whom you stand with. Black Americans fought against injustice and inequality, using fashion to defy racial stereotypes. Black protestors arrived sharply dressed to passive protests, sit-ins, freedom rides and boycotts in order to break the widespread stereotypes that they were lazy, poor and primitive. Denim was also worn by student activists as an equalizer and a symbol of the Black struggle for freedom in America. Miko Underwood, denim designer and founder of Oak & Acorn, told TZR that “Denim served not only as a rebellious uniform to the culture of the middle-class activists, but also as a soul tie to the Black laborers.”


In many ways, sociopolitical fashion derives itself from the streets and activists themselves, later being adopted by various designers. In recent years, fashion and activism have completely intertwined with the clothing racks of mainstream brands. Maria Grazia Chiuri, an Italian fashion designer for Dior, was one of the first designers to put fashion and activism together in a T-shirt, stating, “We should all be feminists”. Today, there are numerous clothing brands that only produce pieces from a sociopolitical standpoint.


Our country continued to witness an expansive growth of fashion activism during the summer of 2020. After the murder of George Floyd, we saw brands take a stance on sociopolitical beliefs. Consumers began demanding accountability from brands and a true declaration of their ideology.


Many people undermine the importance of fashion, although it is one of the most powerful means of self-expression. The individualistic use of fashion has limitless potential; one can tell the story of who they are, their culture, their lifestyle and much more. Integrating activism into fashion not only accentuates this story, but also creates a sense of unity for those with similar stories - those of marginalized groups within our society.