From All-White To Sunday Best: The Meanings Behind A Century of Protest Uniforms
The looks we protest in haven’t changed — they’re also not the same.
For as long as humans have worn clothes, fashion has served as an indicator of status and wealth, but also of allegiance. While at war, uniforms distinguished which side a soldier was on; they were also an instrumental expression of politics off the battlefield — something still seen today when women wear white pantsuits inside the White House or a pink hat to a protest outside of it.
As a tool of resistance, a uniform can serve as an unspoken act of dissent, a visual way to display the values with which you align (or don’t), as well as an expression of solidarity with a movement at large. It shows unity within the group, but also to the rest of the world. It’s no wonder that, in times of social unrest, certain colours and styles have become associated with demonstrations.
Following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police, people across the world have taken to the streets to fight against racial injustice, all while wearing clothing that both nods to the last 100 years of protests and is nothing like we’ve ever seen before. (Apt, given that we’re also currently experiencing a pandemic that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetimes.) With this in mind, we’ve taken a close look at the history of the fashion that has come to define movements in the last century — and reveal what it says about the clothes we choose to wear as we demand justice today.
The Subversive Meaning Behind The Colour White
In the early 1900s, the American suffrage movement — whose fight for women’s rights started more than 50 years earlier at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention — grew as women lobbied for the right to vote. On March 3, 1913, thousands of Women’s Suffrage Parade attendees gathered in Washington, D.C., to call for a constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote. The procession, held the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, saw the women wearing white, just like they did at Seneca Falls half a century earlier.
“White, traditionally, is worn as a sign of chastity,” says Darnell-Jamal Lisby, fashion historian and curator. He points to paintings of Queen Elizabeth I in white, “exud[ing] the essence of the virgin queen,” as well as the fact that the colour became associated with bridal wear in the latter part of the 19th century. “The colour white, as it [pertains] to women in the Western world, has always held this place of chastity and conservatism. It’s very much rooted in heteronormative traditions.”
But, according to Lisby, the colour was likely chosen to counteract the idea of what white represented: “Like, ‘White was chastity, so we are going to take it, subvert it, and make it a part of this movement that allows women to use their voices,’” he says. It also made for iconic newspaper visuals as white stood out in the era’s black-and-white photographs: “To be visibly seen and photographed, this army of women wearing white, was a captivating sight to see.”
On the practical side, Lisby notes that the color could have been chosen to involve as many women in the movement as was possible at the time. “The thought behind white was that any woman of any particular class, [and] idealistically race, but obviously that didn’t come through — unfortunately, the suffragette movement was certainly based around whiteness and white women — anybody could wear white,” he says. Cotton, commonly used to manufacture clothes at the time, came in a “tinge-y brown, almost white colour.” To add a dye to a style, you had to pay more — which not all could do. “White was that happy medium. Anyone could get it, anyone could wear it, so it was uniting women of different socio-economic statuses,” says Lisby.
Since then, “suffragette white” has become an important symbol inside the White House, too. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm wore white as she became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. In 2016 and 2017, Hillary Clinton wore white while accepting the Democratic nomination for president, during her last presidential debate, and to Trump’s inauguration. In January of 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore white to be sworn in as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. At the time, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “I wore all-white today to honour the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come. From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement.”
In February, women wore white to the State of the Union address marking the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, to bring attention to the ongoing fight for women’s rights. “That symbolism of purity, it’s almost again subverting these ideas of chastity into ideas of protest and speaking up for women’s rights and breaking down that original notion of what white carried in the Western world to now mean something different, something new, that empowers women’s choices,” says Lisby. “I think the evolution is quite ironic."
In 1917, white was also the colour of choice at a march organised by the NAACP. Known as the Silent Protest Parade, it took place in New York City following violent attacks on the Black community in East St. Louis. Nearly 10,000 Black men, women, and children silently walked down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, the latter groups wearing white to symbolise innocence in the face of horrific violence directed at their community. “Again, typically when you don’t add all those dyes into a particular garment during the early part of the 20th century, it was much cheaper to consume,” says Lisby. “White intrinsically was also a part of the Black experience, when you talk about Sunday Best and the idea of respectability politics. Like having elements of black and white in your closet because that’s what you wore when you went to church. So it was something that was already there.”
Fast-forward to 2020 and the over-15,000 people wearing white who, following the deaths of multiple Black trans people, gathered at the Brooklyn Museum in support of Black Trans Lives Matter movement, and then marched through Brooklyn’s streets. A tweet by Fran Tirado, one of the organisers of the demonstration, confirmed that the decision to wear white was inspired by the 1917 march. Just like in the past, the visual result was powerful, creating photographs that show unity and bring attention to the message. “There’s just something about white that’s striking, that brings somebody’s attention to them so that they can hear the words. White almost acts as a canvas to social messages,” Lisby says. “It acts as a non-verbal canvas that communicates whatever message they’re trying to convey at a given time.”
Lisby notes that while white is a visually powerful colour to employ, what’s most notable about the uniform of the Black Trans Lives Matter march is the decision to wear the same thing when we have access to every colour of clothing imaginable. “To organise as many people as they did to wear one colour when people want to do what they want to do, there is power in that. It’s less about the clothing and more about the unity that they have in spirit. That they intentionally went there to make sure that what they were wearing wasn’t distracting from the message that was being elicited,” says Lisby.
The Quiet Power Of Wearing Sunday Best
Tailored suits, ties, dresses, and hats have come to define the images from the civil rights marches of the ‘60s, though the tradition of wearing one’s Sunday Best was part of the Black community long before this.
"On Sunday, you were going to church. And when you go to church and the house of God, you better make sure you’re dressed to honor God in a way. Because your body is your temple. So if your body is your temple, then how you dress your body is also very important,” says Lisby. “It’s always just been engrained, specifically in the Black community that organises stuff around the church, to ensure how you present yourself is not only honouring your own temple, your own body, the people around you; being respectful to them, but also giving honour to God.”
He says it makes sense that the fashion extended to some of the protests. “A lot of the civil rights movements started in the church,” Lisby says. “It was just inherent to associate protesting with wearing your Sunday Best. It just went hand-in-hand.”
Lisby also points to the idea of respectability politics that goes back to the time of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Madam C. J. Walker. “If they were going to be these leaders and speak in these spaces that were very white, for them to be heard, they dressed in a very specific way that allowed the information to be digested,” says Lisby. During the ‘60s, the activists in the civil rights movement were likewise fighting to be integrated into the system. As such, they dressed according to what was the dress code “established” at the time.
“During the civil rights movement, when you look at someone like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Ralph Abernathy or John Lewis, all of these figures; Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, and all the women who stood right next to the men to help drive a lot of the civil rights movement… they were dressed in a particular way that was traditional to the standards of fashion protocol of the time,” Lisby says. “They wanted their messages to be heard. I think, inherently, there is this idea that what you wear matters, and for those white people who were in power, visually, they needed to be able to receive what was being heard so that we can push the movement forward.”
After newspapers showed dogs and water hoses unleashed on the peaceful, well-dressed protestors in Alabama in 1963, people were startled by the images of racism’s brutality, recognising themselves in the clothes of people. While it shouldn’t have taken dressing a certain way to get people to have empathy for one another, it worked. Soon after, President John F. Kennedy gave his history-making Civil Rights address.
America is now experiencing another reckoning with the systemic racism that’s still in place today. This past June, stylist Gabriel M. Garmon put out a call on social media for people to wear their “best” to a demonstration honoring and commemorating George Floyd’s life. As a result, the event — which Garmon organised alongside Brandon Murphy and Harold James Alexander Waight — saw over 1,000 sharply dressed men walking through Harlem in outfits ranging from black suits not unlike those from the ‘60s to bespoke ones featuring can’t-miss colours and prints. (In an interview with WWD, the trio talked about being inspired by the activists of the ‘60s.)
“For those in Harlem, there is this history of style that has always been there, even when you talk about Dapper Dan and what he was able to establish in Harlem. Style is very important, tailored suiting is very important, to the men there,” says Lisby. “I think, for them in Harlem, it was this idea of, ‘We want to show you dress in style as something that’s important to us, but also a tool to use to bring attention to us.’ Because there’s a power that I’ve experienced personally, and that other Black people I know experienced, that, when you’re dressed a specific way, it’s striking to many people. Because, unfortunately for many years, media has presented Black people in very specific tropes.”
The same month, in Columbia, South Carolina, organisers of the Million Man March for racial justice also called for participants to be “fully adorned in their Sunday best.” (The original Million Man March took place in Washington in 1995.) According to organiser Leo Jones, the dress attire was meant to “reframe the narrative and build a sense of joy in our community to see us looking so well, and marching with such pride.”
The Message Behind The No-Uniform Uniform
There have been other significant articles of clothing that have unified movements of recent years, and are a product of contemporary culture. Most notably, following Donald Trump’s presidential election, more than a million people came to Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2017, for the Women’s March. Many in attendance wore pink hats. Created by Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, the Pussyhat Project called for people to wear handmade, knitted “pussycat ear” caps, in protest of Trump’s comments about grabbing women’s genitals.
This wasn’t the only statement-making article of clothing to define the last four years. While slogan T-shirts were around before Trump entered the presidential race — dating back to the Vietnam War protests in the ‘60s and the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s — in 2016 and 2017, T-shirts touting feminist ideals (sometimes with proceeds going to the cause, sometimes not, depending on the brand’s shameless ability to commodify feminism) became common again — though to a lesser extent than some of the other looks of the past.
According to Lisby, while there’s some significance behind wearing certain articles of clothing, it’s the unity, a group getting together to wear the same thing for the same message, that is most impactful. “The whole point of clothing in the way of a certain uniform — in the decisions behind to wear all-white, or suiting and your Sunday Best, or a particular item of clothing that unifies the entire group, like a T-shirt that may have some protesting verbiage on it — is to make sure that the language of that particular protest is being emanated and is the most prominent thing that’s being seen,” says Lisby. “You don’t want to take away from the message by wearing something that is not a part of what everybody else is wearing, because then you’re going to bring the focus to you, instead of the message.”
Specific marches aside, what’s most interesting is that the “uniforms” of today’s fight aren’t uniforms at all — the looks are largely individual. With only masks, a necessity in today’s pandemic rather than an intentional style choice, as a sartorial tie, people of all ages, racial backgrounds, and gender identities are dressing in everything from dresses and collared shirts to cutoffs, tank tops, and Converse sneakers. They are unified only in their message: Black Lives Matter.
“Today, the protesters are dressed as if they are prepared to pick their way through the rubble of disillusionment and despair. They’re wearing T-shirts and shorts that can take the tear gas, pepper spray and perspiration,” Robin Givhan wrote in the Washington Post. “People are not dressed to uphold decorum. What is decorum but the status quo?… The people alone are a relentlessly powerful message.”
Lisby agrees that there’s power in dressing as yourself. It also makes sense for our unprecedented era. “We’re in this time where everything is new. COVID is new for us,” he says. “So we’re just moving in a way where all these traditional approaches to life, to protesting, to anything, is just evolving, and I think there’s power within the fact that we are separating ourselves from those traditional approaches. I think that’s what is going to be the headline. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be about a specific uniform.”
Maybe, instead, the headline will be about change that comes about as a result of all these people rising up together, no matter what they’re wearing.