Fashion, even at the highest and—ironically—most superficial echelons, is inherently political. For one, we read into what people wear—more than we should. There are reasons that politicians roll up their sleeves at some town halls, wear a tie of a specific color, or choose to wear a “working man’s” jacket. Then, there’s what fashion is seen to represent: a most capitalist and liberal freedom. In the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush encouraged Americans to “go shopping” to defy terrorists. Anna Wintour positioned fashion as the ultimate terror-defying purchase, launching what was framed as an anti-terror campaign, “Fashion for America: Shop to Show Support”, while arguing in Vogue that fashion was needed at such a difficult time.

Other times, specific garments become symbolic—representative of a movement. In “Insurgent Trends: The Popularity of the Keffiyeh”, which appeared in Fashion and Politics, Jane Tynan considers how the keffiyeh, which was widely worn in then-British Mandate Palestine, was seized on by guerrillas who used its omnipresence to make the identification of fighters more difficult for occupying British forces during the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. The keffiyeh thus became a symbol of Palestinian self-determination and the fight for liberation, moving from a tactical piece of clothing to a political one in the decades that followed.

Much of the fashion-as-political-tool discourse revolves around optics, subliminal cues, and nuanced interpretations. But it need not be seen as something hiding under the surface; something that overlooks the fact that clothes are, above all else, outward manifestations of our inward selves—tools we use to project our identities or beliefs or affiliations.

While political activism through clothing has become omnipresent in recent weeks as protests against police brutality and systemic racism swept across the United States (and around the world), it is by no means new. Fashion—and the simple graphic T-shirt, in particular—has been used as an incredibly visible vehicle through which people have voiced political opinions or supported movements for decades.

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(Image: Anti-war T-shirt created by Harvard University students during sit-in protests during 1968-1969. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

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