It remains to be seen whether or not this black dress protest will be effective, or if it will just yield a red carpet filled with a lot of boring little black dresses and standard black tuxedos. Regardless of whether it works, the idea draws on a long history of women using fashion as a form of protest, one that speaks to fashion’s often overlooked ability to make political and aesthetic statements.
Fashion is an incredibly powerful tool for protest movements
Perhaps the most enduring use of fashion as a tool for political protest is the case of “suffragette white.”
As History.com summarized the movement, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, a member of the militant British suffragette group the Women’s Social and Political Union, asked protesters in 1908 to wear one of three symbolic colors at a suffrage rally: white for purity, purple for dignity, and green for hope. (It’s worth noting that using white as a color of purity carries some unfortunate racial undertones, which were reinforced by the rampant racism that was common among early suffragettes.)
The resulting sea of 30,000 women in white, purple, and green created enormous visual cohesion, and suffragettes began to make a practice of wearing long white skirts to their rallies.
After the suffragette movement ended, it became common for women politicians and their supporters to wear white as a callback to the movement. Shirley Chisholm wore white in 1969 when she became the first African American woman elected to Congress, and again on her presidential campaign posters in 1972.
Protesters for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978 wore white. When Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice presidential candidate on a major-party ticket, she delivered her acceptance speech in a white pantsuit.
During the 2016 presidential election, suffragette white became a favorite symbol of Hillary Clinton and her supporters. Clinton wore white to accept the Democratic presidential nomination, and again during her third debate with Donald Trump. On election day, some of her supporters posted selfies of themselves dressed all in white, proudly showing off their “I voted” stickers.
After the election of Donald Trump, a new feminist form of fashionable protest was born. The pussyhat, frequently handmade and featuring pink, catlike ears, became an icon of the Women’s March, under the same basic principle that ultimately helped to define the suffragette movement: It created visual unity.
“If everyone at the march wears a pink hat, the crowd will be a sea of pink, showing that we stand together, united,” wrote Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman in their widely distributed PussyProjectPDF, which provided free instructions for knitting a pussyhat of one’s own — and indeed, overhead pictures of the march show the Washington Mall covered in a vast swath of pink.
Suh and Zweiman also chose to make their symbol something pink and feminine and fashion-oriented as part of a larger, deliberate statement: In designing the pussyhat to be a handknit item, they were taking the oft-sneered-at “woman’s art” of crafting and fashion and making it political.
“Knitting circles are sometimes scoffed at as frivolous ‘gossiping circles,’” they wrote, “when really, these circles are powerful gatherings of women, a safe space to talk, a place where women support women.”
Women’s movements tend to accumulate enduring, fashion-related protest symbols, perhaps because women are encouraged to care more about fashion than men are. But both sides of the political aisle use fashion as protest: Trump supporters, for instance, have the inescapable “Make America Great Again” red hat.
“If I were ever going to design a Trump presidential library, and somebody said what’s the artifact you most want, I would say the original hat of Donald Trump’s under glass,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley told CNN. “The whole campaign can be summed up in his collected Twitters, and that ball cap.”
Fashion is, in other words, an enormously powerful political tool, rich with symbolic potential and the ability to create visual solidarity.
A simple hat can tell the world that you are an anti-Trump feminist or a pro-Trump nativist populist; strategic use of a single color can link a politician to a century’s worth of protest movements in one blow. So while we don’t yet know how effective the Golden Globes black dress protest will be, we do know that it has the potential to become iconic.