Fashion statement. A timeless phrase for an outfit that tells a story. But have you ever stopped to think, what exactly is the statement? What’s the story being told? Is it worth reading? In this article, Features writer Shade Ayeni traces the history of fashion statements made by civil rights protestors from the 1960s to the 2020s.
The ongoing protests fueled by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless other Black lives have shown that what we wear has meaning. Our clothing tells stories of pain, with chapters of sorrow and pages of anger all held together by a spine of community. In order to read the fashion of activists fighting on the front lines for Black rights today, we have to go back to the past, because, lending myself to a cliché, history repeats itself.
Our clothing tells stories of pain, with chapters of sorrow and pages of anger all held together by a spine of community.
Martin Luther King Jr. would not have stormed Washington, D.C. in jean shorts for two reasons. One, they were not in style in the ‘60s; and two, there was a sense of respectability that the Black community had to uphold. Properly dressed Black people had to work ten times harder than a poorly dressed white person in any aspect of life. During the Civil Rights Movement, male protesters were often dressed in formal attire: long trousers, dress shoes, suspenders, hats, button-down shirts, suits, and ties. Female protestors wore business-like skirts that covered the knee, church sets, or pantsuits. Unironically, all protestors, regardless of gender, wore their Sunday Best to make a statement opposing the very condition that created the term—and the statement was a passive demand for equality.
Another transformative expression in the fight for Black rights came three decades later, in the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. This protest came after the acquittal of the police officers who senselessly beat Rodney King in ‘91. Black protestors were no longer trying to look respectable, partly due to the changes in fashion since the ‘60s and largely because the respectability approach didn’t work. Heavy suits, hats, and long skirts were too restricting, too submissive. The ‘92 protesters in Los Angeles showed more skin than their predecessors. They were more willing to (and accepted the fact that they would) get their clothes dirty, so they sported shorts, denim jeans, wife beaters, and graphic/basic tees. Some men did not wear shirts at all. Dress shoes were swapped for sneakers, making an escape from the cops much easier. Bandanas were accessories for members of the Blood and Crip gangs that put their differences aside in the Watts treaty. The treaty called for a truce between the two gangs; everyone was needed to stand up and fight back against police brutality. The apparel worn during the Los Angeles riots of ‘92 stated that Black people didn’t only want equality, but equity, too.
Black protestors were no longer trying to look respectable, partly due to the changes in fashion since the ‘60s and largely because the respectability approach didn’t work. Heavy suits, hats, and long skirts were too restricting, too submissive.
The protests of 2020 are making history and, subsequently, an unfinished fashion statement. Even though “Black Lives Matter Protests” (BLM) is a misnomer, I will refer to the 2020 protests as such, since this is how they are referred to by the masses. Many BLM protesters dress like the Black Panther Party in all-black clothing. As the protests made their way into the heat of summertime, BLM protestors accessorized their outfits with backpacks full of water and snacks. Just like the Los Angeles ‘Rioters,’ modern-day protesters wear sneakers, tank tops, and shorts.
However, because police personnel and National Guard troops across the nation throw tear gas and shoot rubber bullets into crowds of protestors, long sleeves have become a protester’s armor. BLM protesters do not have the same protections as police officers—bulletproof vests, helmets, and face shields. Protective gear wasn’t inaccessible to regular citizens, though; it was only seen as threatening when worn by Black protestors, specifically. A video of Black people dressed in such gear on their way to a protest circulated on Twitter this past summer, and opponents of the cause responded by claiming that Black people are ‘dangerous’ and ‘looking for war.’ Most of the BLM protesters, though, carry only umbrellas, to shield themselves from the rubber bullets; goggles (or milk, if they don’t have goggles) to protect themselves from the gas; and 2020’s unique accessory, face masks to protect from the coronavirus. Meanwhile, counter-protesters wear protective gear similar to police officers. They wave an American or Confederate flag in one hand and a gun in the other, as if those two items were the accessories of an American nationalist.
BLM protesters do not have the same protections as police officers—bulletproof vests, helmets, and face shields. Protective gear wasn’t inaccessible to regular citizens, though; it was only seen as threatening when worn by Black protestors, specifically.
The neglect of Black rights in America is not a new story; it has existed for so long it has become a folk tale. Every time the form of oppression changes—slavery, the unjust justice system, voter suppression, police brutality—the fashion statement of the oppressed is rewritten. Fashion will continue to be crucial in the fight for Black lives until Black people can congregate with their clothes stating freedom, not struggle.
Every time the form of oppression changes—slavery, the unjust justice system, voter suppression, police brutality—the fashion statement of the oppressed is rewritten.
Article by Shade Ayeni.
Art by Anna Wershbale.