An irreverently toned video on the THINX website makes you muse about the observation that a lot of sanitary products’ advertisements use a blue liquid to indicate their effectiveness. The video on the website uses a blood bag. As to whether the blood bag actually contains blood? Well, that’s up to your guessing.
How did we arrive at blue liquids? How did we get so uncomfortable with integral aspects of womanhood, of humanhood. We seem to have developed a huge tendency to sanitize experiences as natural as breastfeeding, and we seem to have in place elaborate mechanisms to enforce perceived respectability.
Politics of respectability and fashion as resistance
Yet a close study will reveal that politics of respectability are closely defined by privilege, and it is the underprivileged among us that are penalized for deviating.
We are okay with sexualized displays of breasts but cringe at the breastfeeding mother. Trump can dismiss his nasty talk as locker room talk, and we talk about boys that will always be boys, but we want girls to behave, to be good, to be respectable. Students and professional women of color must treat their hair to fit in their schools and workplaces, but we celebrate cornrows and outrageous afros on non-inclusive fashion runways.
This close relationship between respectability and privilege is the reason we celebrate fashion that is value driven, fashion that empowers people to live out their values, and fashion that resists the suppression endured by a people trying to fit
“Which dress to wear” seems an inconsequential question placed beside “how to deliver quality healthcare to the world’s poor.” It is however, a question we confront each morning when we prepare to go out and fight out the battles we’ve chosen, and there is a lot to learn from a long history of groups that have in the past used the answer to this question to assert their voices and their identities.
A history of fashion activism
In mid-19th century America for instance, a women’s publication formed as a results of the exclusion of women from reform activities publicized the “bloomer costume” a knee-length dress with pants that allowed women to get rid of the long heavy skirts that had been the norm.
In the early-to-mid-20th century, black women practiced the respectability of long skirts, modest-heel pumps, and perfectly straightened hair to preserve their image against popular segregationists’ perceptions that they were too unruly, too African, too masculine, and totally incapable of morality. Young civil right activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee would later discard the respectable image in favor of natural hair and denim overalls that aligned their fight with the working class, challenged middle class perceptions of respectability, and desexualized their bodies.
The khadi for Gandhi was more than a piece of cloth. It stood for his stance on India’s self-reliance and his view that discouraged the purchase of foreign clothes.
In recent times, fashion for the likes of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton has transcended labels.
Embracing our capacity for fashion activism
THINX makes period panties and is unafraid of the “feminism” label. Slow Factory makes items that run counter to fast fashion. Kipato Unbranded, Yakutti’s partner brand, defies the myth that beautiful is expensive and makes jewelry that is at once accessible and elegant. The Pussyhat project just two days ago was crowdsourcing knitted hats for women attending the women’s marches against Trump.
In our digital age, we can easily identify brands whose values align with ours and by buying from them, we can reallocate wealth in the trillion-dollar fashion industry towards those brands that are working for the world we want.
Create an account to share style photography of your own fashion activism.
Read Obama’s and Clinton’s versions of fashion activism, or more aptly put, their version of fashion authenticity: