Dress and Protest: Fashion Hasn’t Been a Bystander in the Black Civil Rights Movement
The iconic images of past protest movements bear at least one thing out: that dress is as much a political statement as a fashion one.
In each iteration of the ongoing movement for civil rights, Black people have strategically embraced certain styles in moments of protest, knowing full well fashion’s power to communicate distinct messages in the battle to shift American public consciousness on matters of race — whatever message the moment called for.
These moments, as writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis puts it, mark “the intersection of Blackness, fashion, politics and justice.”
From the suits of the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when respectability politics took precedence, to the power uniform of the Black Panther era in the ’70s and the statement Ts that have outfitted the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s hard to separate the symbolism of the clothing from the sentiment of the time.
“Style is a language and reflects history just like any other sort of visual medium,” Davis said. “And what’s interesting now in the movement for Black lives, what’s clear now is within this complexity of Blackness and the complexity of the society and particularly the complexity of Black existence in America, it’s reflected in this movement, in the look of this movement because it’s so diverse. We can’t pinpoint the same kind of items.”
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While the “look” that defines today’s movement may be less distinct, the message has been about ensuring diversity is accepted, embraced and empowered. It’s why, as Davis explained, “now we can have Billy Porter at a Black Lives Matter march with a ballgown on…so I think [it’s about] having this power in individuality.”
When the Civil Rights era began, however, those in the fight needed their clothing to send a different message.
Members of the NAACP march to emphasize their integration demands in Jacksonville, Fla., April 22, 1964. Harold Valentine/AP
That message was one of respectability, one that intended to elevate the Black community in the eyes of the greater public. And the rallies and marches that took place in this period of respectability politics saw people pulling out their Sunday best.
“Any Civil Rights movement of that time, respectability and dignity was paramount,” Davis said. “Often they would wear church clothes, women with dresses and proper shoes [men in suits and ties] — and everyone had hard shoes, there were no Nikes. Everyone was dressed to promote dignity.”
That sense of dressing for dignity was part of the Black experience, both inside and outside of a protest or movement.
“Black folks just like to look good in general,” Davis said, “There’s this inherent sense of style, because your body was probably the one small piece of real estate, you had some kind of faculty over and some kind of agency. And even then, you didn’t, because your body could be beaten and pummeled.”
What the collective community understood, as well, she said, was how powerful their appearance would be in shaping the narrative around what was happening in America.
“All of the movements were very savvy around media, that they were creating images that would tell the story, and the horror and the brutality that was illustrated in such a way, like when you are brutally beating a man in a suit, when you’re brutally beating a young girl in an A-line skirt…the juxtaposition of violence and elegance was very intentional and very powerful,” Davis said. “We see pictures of Martin Luther King in a perp walk in a proper hat with his brim tilted just to the right side. His tie was always straight….Even watching when John Lewis was being honored and we kept seeing the reel of them walking over the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge, the crispness of his trenchcoat and the white shirt and his tie, even his backpack, knowing that he would probably get bloodied by the police, but there was a respectability to it, like they could have been walking to church.”
The aesthetics of the period spoke to being non-threatening at a time when Black people could, more easily than now, be beaten or jailed for their mere existence.
“There were different cultural norms and that era definitely embraced what was happening with the times,” said Eulanda Sanders, a professor of textiles and clothing, and chair of the Department of Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management at Iowa State University, who has focused on symbolic meanings of Black appearance. Leaders of the movement, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, as well as Malcolm X and others, she said, drove home the need for respectability to stay the course in the struggle for social justice, and they were outfitted accordingly. “That’s how they used fashion to navigate the change that was needed during that time.”
From left are Black Panther members, 2nd Lt. James Pelser, Capt. Jerry James, 1st Lt. Greg Criner and 1st Lt. Robert Reynolds, shown Feb. 20, 1969, in New Brunswick, N.J. John Rooney/AP
When the Black Panther Party entered the scene, however, the conversation shifted and so did the clothing. Then, with some in the Black community grown weary from politely asking for human rights, the movement became about power and self-defense. And the party’s uniform artfully addressed each.
The Black Panther Party, a political organization founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966, adopted a uniform for the fight to challenge police brutality: blue shirts, black pants, black leather jackets and black berets.
“It was an evolution of the respectability,” Davis said. “It was rebellious but also very, very intentional.”
The look tapped into the toughness and counter culture connotation that came with leather, and drew on the beret’s history as a component of military uniforms.
“They took it to another level of very military-oriented, Black power, black clothing, black leather, very much sending a different message…[it] was using appearance to help tell a message that change was being demanded,” Sanders said. “It definitely wasn’t assimilation into the culture, it wasn’t trying to parallel the appearance with cultural norms. It was a direct way of pushing back against the cultural norms visually, through body, dress, appearance.”
The color black, in the Panther era of the ’60s and ’70s, was being reclaimed as power and pride, as beauty, refuting the stigma of black as bad. That’s when the mantras “Black power” and “Black is beautiful” began to surface. And that’s when the natural hair movement got underway, with the afro becoming a statement of its own. Rules dictating that only certain looks or behaviors were “right” were abandoned.
“To say ‘Black is beautiful’ was disruptive, to say ‘Black power’ was disruptive and their look reflected that. Those beautiful afros; shiny, glowing, radiant skin; hoop earrings — was very intentional, not overdone, not complicated. It was chic,” Davis said. “Often people think all Black people look alike, so if you dress alike, it’s harder to also single you out, pick you out, pick you off. So there was power and protection in those black trenchcoats, in those black A-line dresses, in the turtlenecks — the silhouette is iconic. And then you put a beret on top of an afro…they were promoting that they were organized, that they were powerful and it was badass.”
What the Panthers were communicating with their fashion was a duality of being both radical and regimented, of being determined to solidify civil rights, but also disciplined.
“They were kind of the antithesis of Martin Luther King…it’s an interesting tension because in many ways they were so radical but then their clothing was…so uniform, it was so regimented,” said Mikaila Brown, fashion anthropologist and professor at Cornell University. “So it was a straddle…it’s this cognitive dissonance that most African Americans feel of, ‘I can only give you so much of who I am, where I’ve got to balance it a little bit in order for you to accept me.’ That really served the community because [the Panthers] were feeding people and they were organizing in really disciplined ways but then they were also so radical because they were Black men walking in the street with guns in the face of police. That duality is amazing and I think it’s just exemplary of the dual psyche that Black people have to have sometimes to operate in America.”
What’s more, as Davis explained, the look also represented a “cleanliness” against the backdrop of the Hippie movement happening around the same time, which saw an embrace of freedom, at times to the extent of rebelling against dominant norms around personal appearance and hygiene.
“It was never glamorous or fun to be grungy or a hippie because you weren’t rebelling against wealth and privilege, because we didn’t get that s–t yet. The Black Panther look was a sharp contrast to sort of the white Hippie movement,” she said. “We’re also watching the society get more complex, so the visual style response was reaching to that…[and] I believe the Panthers, like the Civil Rights movement, knew that they were making iconic images. They were defining a time, they were creating iconography. And I think that’s a very African impulse to the idea of symbolism and iconography and using one’s body and hair to communicate, political and spiritual messages.”
Statement Ts Matter
Atmosphere at a demonstration outside of New York Fashion Week: Men’s on July 12, 2016. Allison Brooks/NameFace/Sipa USA/AP
Today, iconography feeds into the power of social media, too, and that’s why the statement T may be the defining apparel item of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Again, the culture is very aware of images and media, and this is the movement of social media. So, if you’re in a crowd and you have a T-shirt that says, ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Naw’ or ‘Phenomenal Woman’ or ‘Black Girls Rock’ or any of these sort of message T-shirts, you’re communicating very quickly very efficiently, what your position is,” Davis said.
That the fight for civil rights was reinvigorated after the police killing of George Floyd at the end of May 2020 — in the midst of a pandemic that has greatly altered day-to-day life and dress for a sizable swath of the population — had its influence on the movement, too.
It’s, as Sanders explained, “much more casualwear that’s then represented all over social media in a variety of ways…that’s what people are wearing because they’re at home most of the time. But it’s also just the more casual view of fashion, and it’s very accessible to a wide variety of people as a T-shirt is generally cheaper to buy.” Or, in some cases, create — many of the T-shirts worn by protesters bore slogans or messages they wrote themselves.
The Black Lives Matter protests that started last summer and stretched on for months across the U.S. and throughout the world saw the proliferation of the statement T, the statement hoodie, the statement jean jacket and, in a specific nod to the iconography of the moment, the statement face mask.
“The cool thing about BLM is that it’s the intersection between a streetwear trend and BLM, so it’s going to be much more casual,” Brown said. “Were we going to have Black people wearing suits in the same way that we did in the ‘60s? No. Because people aren’t wearing suits every day like that besides Dapper Dandies. I also think it speaks to this break from respectability politics, this kind of ‘take me as I am; if you will only listen to me when I wear a suit then I don’t want you to listen to me at all.’”
It’s also a symbol of clothing that addresses a collective feeling of not being heard, she said. The movement for Black civil rights isn’t a new one, despite the seemingly new awareness among the greater public in the country.
“It’s very much a response of, we’ve been screaming into the void and you haven’t been listening to us, so I’m just going to put it on my clothing so you know where I stand. Even if you don’t want to listen to me…I’m already talking to you. I’m making a statement right away,” Brown said. “So, in many ways, I feel like even in conjunction with social media, underrepresented communities have a voice like they never have before.”
The population that poured into the streets to proclaim that Black Lives Matter used that voice — and all colors of the rainbow — to support racial equality, gender equality and, broadly, a more inclusive nation.
“In contrast to wearing all black for power and safety, I think having individuality is what this moment is about,” Davis said. “It’s also very powerful to be queer and trans and clear about that. That kind of individuality was not prevalent in these other two movements.”
Today, though Black people are still being unjustly killed and police violence remains a very real issue, there’s a greater sense of confidence in asserting individuality, whether through articulation or appearance.
“These are all liberation movements,” Davis said. “And I’m seeing that as a sign of progression that you’re allowed to have face piercings, or tattoos, that you’re not as afraid to be who you say you are and explore your Blackness in such an unapologetic way I think is also a big leap. The respectability and the dignity before were very uniform compared to this moment where you can have any look, that you can be so radical in your beauty, and radical meaning not that it’s so othered but that it’s signature and singular and I think that’s really what’s happening in this moment.”
Adding to that, Brown said, “We’re not censoring ourselves, we’re not censoring our words, we’re not censoring our clothing.”
While the Black Panther movement may have been the contrast to the Hippie one, the Black Lives Matter movement provided stark contrast to the Capitol insurrection in January and drew into clear focus the disparity between how different groups are treated in the U.S. — no matter how they’re outfitted for the effort.
The “costume of white supremacy” as Brown referred to it, drew on the red, white and blue of the American (and even, in a few cases, Confederate) flag, the MAGA hat and clothing for combat, like military boots and camo cargo pants. Viking headdresses and fur caps served as some standouts. “In their mind, this is what America is and that shone through their clothing, like I’m not America, you’re not America, they’re America,” she said.
“It’s such an affront. And there’s a uniformity in what they’re doing — everything has ‘Trump’ on it, there’s the MAGA hat — they’re connecting iconography, too,” Davis added. “[But] this is not fighting for their lives…there’s no point, there’s no destination, it’s just railing against evolution and you’re always going to look tacky and left behind.”
The outfits of “the hunter-gatherer set” as the Capitol rioters have been called, did not, in Sanders’ opinion, reflect the same level of collective intentionality.
“That’s also part of the intentionality that Blacks have used with protesting. You want to be taken seriously, so you know that you need to appear serious or send a collective message, so there’s some uniformity in that visual message,” she said. “Blacks have been personal branding for a long time and using that either through the Civil Rights movement, Black Panthers, now….In all of [the movements] there’s been conscious decisions to use fashion and appearance to help move the movement, to help support the movement because I think that’s something Black people have always realized, and that’s appearance matters.”
This feature is the first in a series WWD will roll out over Black History Month, exploring decades of fashion, culture and beauty and the impacts and influences of each.
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