From Hoodies To Bras: A History Of Clothes As Political Weapons

Photo: WILLY MAYWALD/ KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Getty Images.
The saying goes that the personal is political — and the clothes we put on our bodies are a big part of the personal. Some may not think of clothing as a logical medium for political messaging, but people have used it as a way to call attention to various causes for centuries. After all, what we wear is imbued with layers of meaning — and when your voice has been silenced, sometimes you need non-verbal ways to get your point across.

But while fashion has been rife with political symbolism for as long as people have worn clothes, social media and mass production have made it possible for larger swaths of the population to follow politically influenced fashion trends. You can see this on the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom, where Iranian women post photos of themselves sans hijab as an act of liberation. In the late aughts, you saw it become bastardized at Urban Outfitters and Topshop, two brands that churned out keffiyehs — the scarves that were adopted as symbols of Palestinian nationalism — for all your hipster accessorizing needs.

Ahead, we look at several 20th- and 21st-century instances in which clothes have been used as political weapons, from bras in solidarity with female protesters to hoodies for #BlackLivesMatter.

The New Look
Nipped-in waists, full skirts, and sequined ball gowns may not seem like political weapons. But author and anthropologist Wednesday Martin, PhD, says Christian Dior’s New Look — what fashion editors called the 1947 silhouette of small waists, large skirts, and large busts that brought post-World War II Paris back to the forefront of the fashion world — played a role in setting women back.

“We can see fashion...reinforcing the social trend of that time, which was to forcefully ‘re-feminize’ women and assert that their place and duty was to go back into the home as their husbands returned from the war and wanted back the factory jobs women had taken,” Dr. Martin, who taught fashion history at Parsons and is the author of Primates of Park Avenue, told Refinery29 in an email. “No more Rosie the Riveters in trousers, being competent and having both feet sturdily on the ground, creating war weapons in the factories. Now, women were to be displayed, held in, held up on their tippy toes [i.e., in stilettos].”
Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images.
The Monokini
In 1964, the world got its first topless swimsuit — the monokini, designed by Rudi Gernreich, which featured high-waist bottoms held up by a strap around the neck. Many called it a symbol of the sexual revolution, sending a message that women shouldn’t be ashamed of showing their breasts. Predictably, it was strongly panned by the Soviet Union, the Vatican, and the Republican Party.

“Gernreich's monokini...embraced a sense of eroticism, allowing women to be playful and self-aware, displaying their bodies on their own terms,” explains Kim Jenkins, a visiting assistant fashion professor at Pratt. It was also arguably an early predecessor of Instagram's #freethenipple movement — and the changing attitudes (and laws) around toplessness in the latter half of the century.

The Dashiki
With roots in West Africa, the dashiki is a traditional loose-fitting tunic that's often made with embroidered colorful fabrics. It’s widely worn by both men and women, and has formal and informal versions. In the U.S., it gained popularity in the late 1960s as a symbol of the Black Power, Black Is Beautiful, and Afrocentric movements, when African-American people embraced it as a connection to their stolen ancestry. Jenkins, who is also co-editor of forthcoming book Fashion & Race, says that along with the natural hair movement, clothing and headwear inspired by various African nations was worn as “an act of rebellion against the status quo and acknowledgment of [African-American] cultural heritage."
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Photo: Via @badgalriri.
Members of the Black Panthers would often combine dashikis with leather jackets, combat boots, and berets. After a while — especially as non-Black counter-culturalists picked it up — it lost its political identity and became a whitewashed ‘70s trend. (And then, in 2015, a fashion mag called it “the newest It-item,” even though it had been around for centuries.)

The Keffiyeh
While the keffiyeh has become a widely recognized symbol of Palestinian liberation, it was originally a traditional Arab head covering, often worn by farmers, and devoid of political meaning. It became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism during the Arab revolt of the 1930s. Yasser Arafat brought it to the forefront of the political conversation in the 1960s, as the Palestinian resistance movement grew in strength. Since then, pro-Palestinian activists have widely adopted it in solidarity.

But many others have also worn it because it seemed cool, from ‘80s punks to Tokyo school kids. “They were selling keffiyehs in Topshop at one point, and some people were really delighted — and others felt that’s not an authentic use of the keffiyeh, and people would be wearing it not knowing that it has political significance in relation to the Palestinian struggle,” explains Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at the London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, and author of Muslim Fashion.
Photo: Art Shay/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.
Lewis adds that people wearing the keffiyeh simply as an accessory has parallels in the wider question of cultural appropriation as a form of style "inspiration." Much like the "tribal" motif trend, she says, it shows little knowledge of or respect for the communities from which these aesthetics originally derive. "Fashion does have a very bad reputation for this,” she adds.

The De-Jab

In Iran, going out without a hijab can earn a woman 70 lashes and 60 days in prison. But in 2014, London-based Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad started a Facebook movement using the hashtag #stealthfreedom, which women used to post pictures of themselves in veil-less moments — flying the veil above their heads, throwing it off, and generally celebrating life without a head covering. The page got over 30,000 Likes in its first five days, and with that attention came widespread support as well as threats to the women participating.

Lewis points out that many Muslim women who live in the West view the veil differently from those in the Middle East who protest against it. “Head-covering among Muslim women in the U.S. and the West is often expressed as a choice,” she says. “Many women I've interviewed for my book [Muslim Fashion] say it is just as wrong to force someone to uncover as it is to force someone to cover. There’s a really big difference between living in Iran, where there’s a state mandate on how you dress, and living in America.”
Since the practice of wearing the veil is mandated by the Qur’an, and women traditionally only remove it in privacy with their husbands, says Jenkins, “when we see Muslim women openly revealing parts of their body that are regulated by religious law to be covered, this bucks the tradition of subservience, and presents a significant step towards Muslim women’s liberation… The mere act of these women removing their hijab not only experiments with autonomy, but also accepts the repercussions that could follow.” Throwing off the covering symbolizes new ways in which Muslim women are choosing to negotiate their faith, she adds.

The Hoodie

After Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on his way home from 7-Eleven in 2012, people around the world protested by donning hoodies like the one that the unarmed 17-year-old was wearing that February night. From members of Congress to Miami Heat players to little kids, droves of people came out in solidarity with Trayvon — and the many other unarmed young men of color who have been unfairly targeted.

“This mass movement was a precursor to the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Jenkins. “It definitely brought solidarity. But I don’t know how much change it’s brought… We must address the fact that Trayvon was [seen as] a double threat by wearing a garment that has a history in the last 30 years as something that communicates anonymity in an ominous way.” Hoodies may be more complicated than some other obviously statement-making articles: “While it has been worn for myriad purposes that don’t involve crime, the meaning behind the garment becomes tempered socially by the body wearing it,” she says. Take the example of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — another famous hoodie-wearer — versus Trayvon: “Mark Zuckerberg can still walk down the street in 2015 and nothing will happen to him,” says Jenkins, but we certainly can’t say the same for a young Black guy in the same garb.

Jenkins points out that Black Lives Matter messaging was present at Fashion Week, as well. During NYFW spring 2016, there was Kerby Jean-Raymond’s short film about racism and police brutality for his label, Pyer Moss. “He used his fashion show as a stage for Black Lives Matter,” says Jenkins. Earlier this year, Jean-Raymond also made the They Have Names T-shirts, which honored some of the unarmed men of color who were killed by law enforcement. Public School showed its spring 2016 collection against a police lineup.

Fashion is about illusion and escapism sometimes, but it’s also a platform for the possibility to invite change.

Kim Jenkins
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Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/Getty Images.
“Some people in the fashion industry are covering their ears and eyes, and there are people who are excited about what [Jean-Raymond is] doing,” says Jenkins. “Fashion is about illusion and escapism sometimes, but it’s also a platform for the possibility to invite change.”

The Bra

At a March protest against traders who buy goods in Hong Kong to sell across the border, a woman bumped into a police officer with her chest. In the ensuing chaos, she fell to the ground and scraped her face — and cried out “indecent assault,” according to reports of the trial that followed. Despite never using force against the officer, she was sentenced to three-and-a-half months in jail. Last summer, a crowd of women and men stormed the police headquarters in downtown Hong Kong in support, chanting “breasts are not weapons” and wearing bras on top of their clothing.

This protest communicates solidarity with women, who are “vilified for the appearance and symbolic potency of their bodies” on a daily basis, says Jenkins. “Since the early Middle Ages in Western fashion history, the onus of propriety has been brought to bear upon the woman’s body. Throughout time, the woman’s breasts in particular have been squeezed, padded, sculpted, ‘liberated’...yet their very presence poses a threat that must be policed.” She adds that seeing the protest was encouraging: “Despite the irony that the garment was created to control and enhance the breasts, seeing cis men as allies wearing bras in protest is certainly a start in confronting how the woman’s body is perceived.”
Photo: PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images.
Cross-Dressing Soldiers
“Few things exemplify the chaos of Liberia more than the sight of doped-up, AK-47-wielding 15-year-olds roaming the streets decked out in fright wigs and tattered wedding gowns,” writes Mark Scheffler on Slate.com. “Indeed, some of the more fully accessorized soldiers in Charles Taylor's militia even tote dainty purses and don feather boas.”

This practice first came to the media’s attention around when the Liberian Civil War started in 1989 (it would last until 1997), and Taylor’s army committed unspeakable atrocities, murdering around 150,000 civilians and raping many women and girls. For the soldiers, cross-dressing was a “military mind game, a tactic that instills fear in their rivals,” according to the article. It may look bizarre, but it’s actually a variation on the camouflage uniforms and face paint American soldiers use to stay on the DL during combat. “Since flak jackets or infrared goggles aren't available to the destitute Liberian fighters, they opt for evening gowns and frilly blouses,” Scheffler writes.
Photo: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images.
But cross-dressing has a deeper meaning in West Africa, with roots in rites-of-passage rituals involving “medicine men," Scheffler explains, who would recommend “wearing masks, talismans, and bush attire as a means of obtaining mystical powers.” In traditional Liberian initiation rituals, a boy's passage to adulthood is symbolically represented by dressing as a woman — the idea is that he must pass through an indeterminate identity in order to become a man. Writes Scheffler, “A soldier dressed in women’s clothes...is essentially asserting that he's in a volatile in-between state. The message it sends to other soldiers is, ‘Don't mess with me, I'm dangerous.’” Liberia’s warlords have appropriated these old, familiar rituals to persuade impoverished young men to join their battalions — attracting them with the prospect of joining a secret society and gaining supernatural powers.
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