Politics and fashion have long been intertwined. Fashion has been used to make very strong political statements. So, when I see Kanye West’s name associated with “Blexit” (the Black community’s exit from the democratic party), I am also reminded of how Black people have used fashion to stand for their rights.
Tanisha C. Ford recounts the importance and thought put into Black fashion throughout the 20th century in her book Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and Global Politics.
Ford discusses the reimagining of Africa in her book, as there was a growing interest in the African independence movement as well as a back to Africa sentiment in the 1950s. During this time, African prints and big, natural hair symbolized a positivity and desire to be connected with Africa. This was something that was adopted by many during the time and continues to be used in fashion today to emphasize pride in Black identity.
We also see the importance of Black fashion with the Black Panther style in the 1970s. This style, with natural hair and a more militant styling in all black, was one that expressed unapologetic blackness. Additionally, the black beret that was also worn within this uniform became a part of the symbolic look as a protest to the racism and a sign of Black power.
This look isn’t just something of the past. It is a fashioning that still holds many of the symbolic meaning that it had in the 70s. It is the look that made Beyonce’s 2016 performance at the Superbowl so controversial and iconic. It is also the look that many chose to wear when they showed out at Marvel’s Black Panther just this past year.
Political fashion isn’t something that has a monopoly in the Black community. It has been used in many communities and on behalf of many beliefs and ideologies. Women’s fashion has always been a facet of styling that is quite political. For example, heels are now often associated with sexism, but they were actually first worn by men to symbolize power and status. But since then, heels have been attributed to women along with sexist sentiments.
Pyer Moss recently made a political statement on the runway during New York Fashion Week with his spring 2019 collection. In the wake of videos and reports of white people calling the police on Black people just living, the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack has gone viral. Moss addressed this with a “Stop calling 911 on the culture” tee shirt.
This shirt highlights racism and expresses the unease of Black people who are constantly villainized for doing everyday activities. While consumerism runs rampant when it comes to activism, this shirt serves as a form of expression, not only for Moss but for other Black people as well. This shirt tells others that the over-policing of Black people must end.
Additionally, with a major election coming up, influential figures have been encouraging their supporters to vote by wearing tee shirts and other styles that explicitly state that they’re voters. Recently, Tracee Ellis Ross shared a throwback of her wearing an “I am a voter.” tee to the 2018 American Music Awards on Instagram.
Voting has a racist history, deep with suppression and exclusion. But these shirts encourage others to vote and can even serve as a moment to learn more about voting and what it entails. It’s not just a shirt; it’s a statement.
Fashion has always been more than just clothes. It has helped to express political stands and has continued to be an indicator of our personal politics. Fashion has particularly been a useful tool in unifying and mobilizing the Black community. So shirts with socially conscious and political statements worn today aren’t just shirts, they’re a way of fashioning our politics.