The Perils Of Using Fashion For Protest

I’m not sure where my pink pussy hat is — whether it’s in a closet, flattened in a bag, or long-ago disintegrated in a landfill somewhere. However, I do know how urgent it felt to get one last January. In the days following Trump’s election, I remember grasping blindly at symbols to broadcast that I was afraid and upset — and to tell other people that they didn’t need to be afraid of me. I remember seeing safety pins on the collar of a white woman sitting next to me on a flight to Salt Lake City, and feeling thankful. I fastened a Planned Parenthood button to my bag, and wrote a series of uncharacteristically personal posts on Instagram.
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I bought a pink hat online, and brought it to Washington D.C. where I spent part of inauguration day at a tequila bar in a panic when I overheard the word “cuck” coming from the table of Caucasian men with undercuts next to me, my limbs paralyzed, and my tongue frozen. When two white women entered the bar in pink pussy hats, the terror melted into the beginnings of a swamp of emotions that would come to be normal. Anger. Vulnerability. Duty. “They might be celebrating today, but it’s our turn tomorrow,” I told the women when I passed by their table as I left.
The next day, I took the hat off as soon as I arrived at the march— it was too warm. But, the reason that I have not worn it since is more complicated. In the year that’s passed, the warm wash of relief I felt when seeing those blond women in pussyhats have transformed into a gut-reactive side-eye, like the one I shot an older, well-to-do white woman on the train the other day, suspicious that her hat was the most audacious actions she’s taken on in the name of feminism this year. Seeing the well-worn knit cap atop her head, I felt ripples of contempt and hopelessness and absurdity knock on my throat. I knew that in most practical measures, we were on the same side. But the few inches between our shoulders has never felt so vast.
In recent weeks, in the days following the Golden Globes’ black red carpet, I’ve thought a lot about why my goodwill has turned to disdain in the course of just a year. As someone who is used to defending fashion against those who believe it is shallow and meaningless, it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that I’ve come to believe that it can be as powerful a tool to derail and distract as it can be to express something earnestly. And for the most worthy causes and during the most inopportune times, fashion has often rendered feminist messages empty, not reinforced them.
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For one, activist clothing is not activism. But judging from the amount of PR pitches I get in my inbox they are often conflated. For example, an actual email I received today: “With Oprah as our next president (please!), women united and #timesup actions, [redacted]’s new organic cotton shirt is chic and the perfect feminism swag to support your girls! Here’s another: "2018 Is About Female Power And Good Shoes. Can I Send You A Sample?" Clearly, it’s profitable to ignore that difference.
Profit isn’t just financial, either. People come into contact with “feminism” more often on T-shirts than in practice. Men with a history of perpetuating misogyny are able to wear a specific color to an event, and get deemed a gender equality activist. Certain celebrities wore white bandanas to publicly stand for inclusivity and “human unity” during Fashion Week, but have displayed a stunning lack of cultural sensitivity. Clothing has not only provided a way for us a way to express our political beliefs without speaking but it’s also given many a way to distract others from what are otherwise objectionable behaviors; or claim a pat on the back without doing any of the painful work that comes from advocating for women.
“It's really hard for me to justify finding a unifying need for a symbol in today's age,” wrote Amanda Hudson, a Women’s March member from San Diego, who echoed the feelings of a dozen women I surveyed from a Facebook group created for the Women’s Convention. “In the past, people needed symbols to reach out to like-minded people and create community. Nowadays, I honestly cannot fathom a symbol that wouldn't immediately become exploitable to the point where it becomes meaningless.”
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Illustrated by Tristan Offit
To be fair, this type of hypocrisy wasn’t typical email fodder when the pussyhat was originally conceived. “Activism and politics can feel like a really intimidating sphere to enter. The pussyhat was a more gentle stepping stone in it,” says Krista Suh, the creator of the hat, whose new book DIY Rules for a WTF World came out yesterday. “We ought not to be afraid of training wheels. Reducing the barrier to entry is really important.”
Certainly, that was the case for many women in the days following the election, when the struggle to even get up in the morning felt insurmountable. Back then, it felt imperative to prove that, even though 42% of women voted for a groper-in-chief with a vendetta against science, human welfare, knowledge, and grace, 58% of us did not approve. We were large and could overwhelm. We were fighting for awareness first, to arm our action later. And besides, the subject of our opposition was a man who held ratings and visuals above what’s right and just; a sea of women who opposed his plans was a strategy in and of itself. And when it comes to awareness, fashion has proven to be useful.
For Suh, it was awareness, not symbolism, that was the point (the associated meaning that tied it to the lewd “locker room” comments from the President came later). “I wanted a different silhouette than a regular beanie,” says Suh. When she brought it up to her knitting instructor, it turned out that cat ears would be even easier to knit than any other style of hat. “I remember posing a question to the knitters — I want cat ears, but there has to be meaning behind it. There was silence in the room. Then, Kat said ‘It’s the the pussy power hat.’ We all gasped. It was too perfect.”
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But that message tied in too neatly with what some people considered to be the exclusionary and selfish aspects of some of the march’s actions; the two women who first had the idea to march were white, and had inadvertently taken the name of the event from the 1997 Million Women March, which was for the unity and enfranchisement of black women. Holding all that in mind, the pussyhat was a perfect metaphor.
It didn’t matter that Suh was first-generation Korean-Chinese (“Someone wrote on my friend’s Facebook that they thought it was a basic white bitch who started it. I thought that was funny. My vulva is not pink”). The hat unintentionally prioritized pink pussies, which belong to biological Caucasian females. Not only that, many argued that the hat infantilized women, and gave a serious grievance the approximate form of a Yoda on stilts.
“I was told I was divisive for wearing a pink pussy hat. I was told to my face that I’ve failed.” Women’s March Michigan director Phoebe Hopps said to Refinery29 about a local host committee meeting for Women’s Convention she attended in August of 2017. Hopps had quit her job as a consultant to work on resistance and mobilization full time, and found transportation for thousands of women to the march in D.C.. But, what she did for the group mattered less than what she chose to wear to it. “I’m sitting there next to [national organizer] Linda Sarsour and everyone is side-eying me, and I’m like, ‘Wow. Yeah. I’ve failed.’”
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Suh was initially surprised at how strongly women felt about the hat as a symbol. A funeral officiant told Suh that a family came in who wrote that their deceased relative wanted to be buried in her pussyhat. Suh had originally conceived the idea as an accessory that could cheaply and quickly spread on its own, but even then, the degree of how much love — and hostility — it received still stunned her: “It was a do-it-yourself project I didn’t do myself. So when criticisms came out about it, I didn’t have to go out and singly defend myself against every single one. Other women defended it.”
Illustrated by Tristan Offit
It’s exceptional that a first-generation Korean-Chinese-American created one of the most iconic symbols of Trump-era activism, and in turn, that symbol has since been characterized as an insult to women like her. Asian-Americans, like many women of color and other marginalized groups, fight for visibility within mainstream feminism. Ironically, the pussyhat has made that conversation more visible, while erasing its creator in the process.
“Certainly, the intention wasn’t meant to be exclusionary,” Suh says. “It’s not exclusionary toward people who don’t have vaginas. At the same time, reproductive rights are under attack.” When I asked Suh if she had a chance to remake the hat, given how the women’s rights conversation has evolved, she briefly hesitates, but answers straightforwardly. “Short answer? No. It was an effective symbol.”
The main difference between January of 2017 and January of 2018 is that among real change and heroic feats of activism, we have also seen a year’s worth of empty gestures in the spirit of progress. Telling people you’re a feminist might have been enough to give you a Good Human award before the election (MTV’s 2014 “16 Celebrities Who Aren’t Afraid To Call Themselves Feminists” reads like a dispatch from the dark ages). And, to be fair, in many places around the country, some women are rightfully afraid about publicly proclaiming that she’s a feminist, and a symbol as recognizable as that hat is a silent protest that can signal to other fearful women that they’re not alone.
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But for anyone who knows their protest gear will only earn them praise, for whom “burden” means defending themselves against those who have less, are more in danger, and more at risk, it’s time to move on.
Pussyhats were enough when fear and grief paralyzed us. The day before the march, a pussyhat gave me back my voice and my body. With those back in my possession, I don’t need a hat to keep moving forward.
An earlier version of this article stated that Suh was a third-generation Korean immigrant. We apologize for the error.
For a look at what's changed within the Women's March movement over the past year, click here.
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