Clothing has always looked to serve as a mode of self-expression. While this is widely acknowledged, what has failed to come to fruition is the wider significance of clothing, and the power it holds in contributing to our movements. Women, previously defined by the outfits they wore, have looked to reverse this process by using clothing choices as a means for political protest. In understanding this process, we can root back to the Suffragettes.
Pockets are political. At least, they were for the women frustrated by the fact their pockets were much smaller than their male counterparts. The introduction of The New Woman reinvented the woman’s habitual dress. In 1910, a New York City fashion show hosted at The Hotel Astor showcased the suffragette costume; an outfit lauded for the inclusion of multiple functioning pockets. This took a lead from The Rational Dress Society who had promoted practical clothing for practical women. The pocket enabled women to prove they were capable of challenging men. They were equal individuals who carried their own property and autonomously owned items which could be kept secret from others.
We can see how embedded the politics of the pocket was through the choice of title for the 1908 Suffragette fundraiser: ‘The Old Lady With a Hundred Pockets.’ Meanwhile, attendees at suffragette bazaars would regularly be offered services in which pocket’s would be picked into their clothing. The proceeds of these services were then offered to women’s rights organisations.
The pocket was not the sole limit for Suffragette fashion. The three iconic colours were used to show a cohesive body of women. Each of the iconic colours represented its own message: purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope. These colours were proudly showcased not only at mass protests and events, but usually incorporated into items of everyday clothing for the everyday woman.
Nearly a 100 years later, women continued to look to clothing as a means of protest. In response to Trump’s inauguration in 2017, masses of American women lined the streets at The Women’s March. They dressed in pink pussy hats, looking to reclaim the derogatory term for female genitals which was infamously used by the President in 2005. Although this powerful showcase united many women who looked to respond to the fact our most intimate body part had become a label for weakness, it also reiterated the somewhat exclusionary and marginalising nature of these protests.
Although some insisted the choice of pink was to represent femininity; women of colour were isolated by the seeming presumption that a women’s genitals were naturally always pinker, rather than brown. Moreover, as with many recent women’s events, the trans community were left unrepresented and unincluded.
Professor Cael Keegan highlighted the difficulties of revolving feminism around anatomy, pointing out that the fight for bodily autonomy belongs to both cisgender and transgender women. The exclusionary nature of these events harks back to the Suffragette movement, which left women of colour isolated and unprioritised in 1920 when they were not given the vote.
However, more recent protests have used clothing as a tool to show solidarity with women from across the world. Flash mobs protesting outside Harvey Weinstein’s trial sported striking black outfits with red detailing while performing Un Voilador en Tu Camino (translated from Spanish as a Rapist in Your Path). This anthem started as a part of Chilean resistance to rape culture and victim
shaming. The song has transported itself across the world and looks to unite women in global feminism.
Protestors at the Weinstein Protest used colour, much like the Suffragettes, to highlight their aims. Red served as a symbol for the reclaiming of a previously lost or stolen power, visually serving to create an image of fiery resistance in a dark wave of grey. Meanwhile, black mesh was wrapped over the protestors’ eyes as a form of blindfolding, acting as an image of solidarity for the women of South America, particularly Chilean human rights activists who had been fully or partially blinded by rubber bullets fired by the police during protests.
Over the past 100 years, women have redefined previously prescriptive dress codes, even using clothing as a means of representing their struggles in protest. However, re-definition does not end there. In the plight for inclusivity, and to ensure our movement thrives as one which is entirely inter-sectional, we must continue to re-define more than how our outfits represent us, but how we represent and include all individuals and minorities.
Written by Issie Levin