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Looks Like a Lefty

Every generation of rabble-rousers believes it has invented its own unique style and negotiated its own sartorial relationship with the larger world.
February 22, 2012, 1:40pm

Even as you pull that flak jacket over your camo trousers and stuff a sequined sweater into your knapsack (there might be a dance party after the demo), even as you draw an A on your arm and circle it or tattoo meat is murder on your vegan-sleek tummy, the ghosts of progressive fashions past are cheering you on. Every generation of rabble-rousers believes it has invented its own unique style and negotiated its own sartorial relationship with the larger world, but those activists who have gone before, on whose incendiary shoulders we proudly stand, also had their special ways of signifying to one another. Without saying a word, they were members of a larger movement. The subject is far too vast to tackle in one little article, but as natty dressers around the globe prepare to suit up and carry the tumultuous messages of 2011 forward—from Occupy Wall Street to the streets of the Middle East and collective actions in the squares of Leicester, Tahrir, Red, and Pearl—it could be a fun exercise to take a moment to examine the outfits favored by our illustrious activist ancestors over the past 100 or so years. Herein is a brief, deeply personal, resolutely nonexhaustive, highly abbreviated look at a century of great moments in our shared revolutionary sartorial history.

WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE

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These valiant early-20th-century feminists, properly know as suffragists (

suffragette

is a derogatory term, invented by the right-wing press of the time), may have employed everything from hunger strikes to violent civil disobedience in their struggle for the franchise, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have their own pristine fashion code. This included long white dresses enhanced with slogan-bearing sashes, which were frequently rendered in distinctive color schemes: purple, white, and green in England; purple, white, and gold in the US. There was even suffrage jewelry crafted in these hues, not to mention the famous Holloway brooch—a simple silver pin fashioned to resemble a prison gate, bestowed by the British Women’s Social and Political Union on suffragists who had done time in London’s Holloway Prison for their public dissent.

BEAT GENERATION

“Add zest to your Tuxedo Park party… rent a beatnik, completely equipped: beard, eye shades, old army jacket, Levis, frayed shirts, sneakers or sandals (optional). Deductions allowed for no beard, baths, shoes, or haircuts. Lady beatniks also available, usual garb: all black.” Believe it or not, in 1959 New York photographer Fred McDarrah actually advertised this “Rent-a-Beatnik” service, a (one assumes) largely tongue-in-cheek venture that would dispatch a dissolute citizen of bohemia to your middle-class, middlebrow fete for a fee of $40 per night. And what would this emissary wear? If he were a poetry spouting, finger-snapping swinger, maybe a turtleneck and a beret; if a female existentialist were sent to liven things up, she would have perhaps sported a leotard with a pencil skirt or capri pants, free-form silver jewelry, and ballet flats. (Have a look at Audrey Hepburn in 1957’s

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Funny Face

if you need proof of just how glamorous black tights and dance slippers can be.)

CIVIL RIGHTS

Sometimes the connection between fashion styles and social protest is oblique; in other instances it mounts a soapbox of its own. In the case of the civil rights movement, the slogan “Black Is Beautiful” was a direct refutation of the racist ideas about style and fashion that white society forced down everyone’s throats, including the belief that there was such a thing as “good” (i.e., straight) hair. Like so many other examples of what leftists call false consciousness, this notion was rightly turned on its head: By the height of the movement in the late 60s, a woman like the gorgeous activist Angela Davis (who, by the way, is still out there today—Professor Davis even visited New York’s Occupy Wall Street last October) was resplendent in high-waisted bell-bottoms, riding boots, denim jackets, and a legendarily humongous and stunning Afro. (So threatening was this coiffure that Davis was rumored to have smuggled a firearm in her tresses.)

THE PEACE MOVEMENT

How does one sum up the fashion preferences of the 1960s antiwar movement in a few sentences? It was a decade of profound shifts, an era that began with helmet hair, girdles, garters, bullet bras, pillbox hats, and depressing little white gloves for women (worn even in the dead of summer) and ended with a miniskirted Bernardine Dohrn strutting on the floor of the Students for a Democratic Society convention wearing, in the recollection of then SDS president Greg Calvert, “an orange sweater and purple skirt, and while everyone else had ‘Stop the War’ buttons, hers said: ‘Cunnilingus Is Cool, Fellatio Is Fun.’” The decade saw the ascendance of conceits like fringe and tie-dye, when the freethinking students who took to the streets experimented not just with new political ideas but also by donning seemingly unlikely clothing combinations—army jackets over Victorian lace dresses worthy of suffragists, dashikis dancing with denim, men with the kind of long, flowing hair that hadn’t been fashionable in more than 100 years.

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GAY RIGHTS

Recalling her participation in the Stonewall Rebellion of June 1969, Maria Ritter, who at the time was known to her family as Steve, said, “My biggest fear was that I would get arrested. My second-biggest fear was that my picture would be in a newspaper or on a television report in my mother’s dress!”

Audiences may now indulge in the guilty pleasure of

RuPaul’s Drag Race

, and Cher’s son, born a daughter, may be endearing to those glued to

Dancing with the Stars

, but not so long ago the simple act of men dressing as women, or women donning men’s clothing, constituted a criminal offense. The insanity of these laws was exemplified by New York statutes, which required citizens to wear at least three items appropriate to their “real sex” or risk arrest. Drag was civil disobedience.

WOMEN’S LIBERATION

As it turns out, the myth of rabid feminists burning their bras is just that—a fable. (The conceit was apparently dreamed up by a feminist journalist to liken the nascent women’s movement to draft-card-burning rallies.) While they may not have torched their dainties, on September 7, 1968, woman’s rights advocates demonstrated on the boardwalk outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, where participants (many in t-shirts, more than a few no doubt sans brassieres) were encouraged to toss materials that symbolized their gender oppression—girdles, high heels, hair curlers, etc.—into a “Freedom Trash Can.” Their original intent was to immolate these offending items, but alas, protesters weren’t granted a permit to light a fire on the boardwalk.

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PUNKS

“God save the queen/ She ain’t no human being/ And there’s no future/ In England’s dreaming,” the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten sang in 1977. Though he insisted the band and their songs were apolitical (and that he didn’t “even know the name of the prime minister”), history has proved otherwise.

In 1976, Vivienne Westwood and her partner, the late Malcolm McLaren, opened a shop on the King’s Road in London called Seditionaries. The name embodied the nihilistic rebelliousness of their young customers, such as Rotten, whose Pink Floyd t-shirt featuring the band members’ eyes scratched out and the added slogan of “Hate” was one of McLaren’s favorites.

Of course, dissolute street kids had no money to shop at Seditionaries or its offspring, but anyone wishing to express their dark enthusiasms could afford the price of a safety pin to pierce a cheek, or a jar of pomade to grease up a Mohawk, or a knife to tear up a pair of trousers to let a swath of bruised flesh show through.

OCCUPY WALL STREET

To look back on the encampment in Zuccotti Park, and its sister demonstrations around the globe, is to see in living color virtually all the progressive fashion trends of the past century—Afros and army jackets, Beat berets and pierced protuberances, denim and Doc Martens. And if long white suffrage dresses have yet to make an appearance, there is certainly the occasional long flowery frock, along with plenty of slogan-bearing buttons and badges—the modern-day equivalent of those Holloway brooches.

This brings us to 2012, and the question of what looks will show up at this summer’s potentially scorching political conventions (fashion inspired by Chicago 1968?). Regardless of how young activists decide to costume themselves at these gatherings and what people make of it, we all owe a great debt to our cross-dressing, bearded, white-gowned, braless elders. They paved the way for us not only with their clothes but with their lives.