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A Taxonomy of Protest Clothing

From costumes to t-shirts to straight up nudity, what protesters wear speaks volumes

It can be easy to write clothing off as something frivolous or materialistically indulgent. But what about when clothes exist to make a political statement? The clothes worn by protesters are, in many ways, just as significant as the chants and signs that are vital components to political demonstrations. From women’s rights marches, to Black Lives Matter protests, to Occupy Wall Street and anti-Trump takeover rallies, clothes play a pivotal role in sending a message of change.

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Here is a look at some of the most popular types of protest apparel and how they’ve a part in protest culture.

Sandwich boards

Ye olde sandwich board is a sign masquerading as clothes, and has been around for ages. Literally. The sandwich board sign began as a form of "human billboard" advertising in London in the mid-19th century, and quickly evolved into something worn at protests. In 1935, participants in British labor protests used sandwich board signs to express their discontent with working conditions, and the method of wearing a sign never really went away.

Image: Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty

In the mid-20th century, renowned photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris captured many U.S. protests, depicting the wide usage of sandwich boards in protests against unfair labor practices, pro-NAACP demonstrations, and anti-segregation protests for the Brown v Board of Education trial.

Costumes and masks

Costumes of all sorts, from elaborate to minimalist are used by protesters. In recent months, across the U.S., groups and individuals have been protesting GOP front-runner Donald Trump, and some have been dressing up to do so. One memorable Trump dissenter dressed in a giant penis costume and called Trump "a dick." Others have showed up to protest Trump dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan to reference heavy criticisms that Trump’s campaign has been a racist one.

Images from top left, clockwise: Boris Horvat, Andalou Agency, Emmanuel Dunand, and Kena Betancur/ Getty

Additionally, the Guy Fawkes mask has become an extremely popular fixture at anti-establishment protests around the world ever since the film V for Vendetta was released in 2005. The mask has become synonymous with the online hacker collective Anonymous, which uses the mask as one of its primary symbols, and has become a permanent fixture of protests organized or supported by the group.

Masses of protesters in Guy Fawkes masks have been seen quite literally all over the place: in the U.K. some photographers protesting terror stop-and-search laws donned the mask, an anti-government protester wearing a Fawkes in Caracas, Venezuela was captured on film flinging a Molotov cocktail at the police in 2014, protesters in Thailand wore the masks in 2013 to speak out against their Prime Minister, and again in 2013, the Million Mask March, organized by British comedian Russell Brand, had people in cities all over the world protesting their governments in the masks.

All black

Wearing all black at a protest, from shoes all the way up to black bandannas and everything in between, is sometimes done as a matter of symbolism, and other times for safety through anonymity (one giant group of black-dressed people makes everyone blend in, and a uniform mass of people can be intimidating; think militaries).

Image: Kristoff Van Accom/Getty

A group of protesters in all black garb is indeed a protest tactic in and of itself, called a "black bloc." In a black bloc, protesters will also cover their faces to further conceal their identity and protect their faces from pepper spray, tear gas, and other crowd-dispersing methods police will sometimes employ during protests.

Most often in the western world, black bloc formations are associated with anarchist demonstrations, and the technique was developed in West Germany in the 1980’s, when massive protests in the West broke out over Communism and the division of Berlin. Other famous iterations of black bloc protests were anti-fascist protests in Munich ahead of the G8 Summit in 2007, the NATO protests in Chicago in 2012, and of course, the Occupy Wall Street protest that began in 2011.

Protest T-shirts

The role of t-shirts in more recent protests can’t possibly be over-stated. T-shirts made for specific protests unite a group visually and in message. Black shirts are clearly part and parcel to black bloc protests, but protest t-shirts of various kinds show up at nearly every public demonstration.

In terms of using a specific color, in 2004 through 2005, Ukraine saw the Orange Revolution in response to an extremely corrupt run-off presidential election. As the name of the revolution itself gives away, many of the protests were marked by massive numbers of people wearing orange. Shirts, helmets, signs lit up the streets of Kiev.

Image: Mark Makela/Getty

Some groups of protesters opt to wear all white. One famous example of protesters donning most white or light-colored shirts was during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

But it's not just about color when it comes to protest shirts. Especially for political demonstrations, it's common people to create shirts with messages written on them. Whether homemade with a plain white T and a permanent marker, like some of the pro-Muslim protesters who showed up to the Donald Trump rally in Chicago who wore shirts that said, "Muslims United Against Trump," to the mass printed "Black Lives Matter" shirts worn across the country, T-shirts shirts can be a powerful aspect of protest. The Occupy Wall Street protests held in Zuccotti Park in 2011 and 2012 had a full range of shirts on display, many of which contained slogans of the movement regarding the corruption of the top 1% of the nation’s wealthiest people.

Nudity and body paint

On the other end of the spectrum, some protests are focused on the complete absence of clothing. While the much-vaunted bra-burning of the 60’s and 70’s feminist movement was mostly a myth, many women’s rights protests that push-back against rape culture, such as Slut Walk, involve massive groups of women taking the streets in various states of undress. Some Slut Walk protesters are fully clothed, others wear fishnets and bras, others show up wearing nothing at all.

Image: Galli Tibbon/Getty (L), Gallo Images/Getty (R)

Despite not wearing a specially-coded shirt, the message of Slut Walk is just as clear precisely because of the nudity involved: women own their own bodies and deserve respect regardless of what they do or not wear. Many Slut Walk protesters will also use their bodies as a canvas, and paint reclaimed phrases such as "Slut" across their bare stomachs or chests. Others will paint phrases that would otherwise be written on a T-shirt of protest sign, like "Never without my permission" and "Still not asking for it." In the case nudity-based protests, the absence of clothes becomes the uniform.

Protesting is about presenting a united front against oppression, and can be a powerful tool to activate change on social and political levels around the world. The clothes worn to protests serve purposes for the protesters themselves, the subjects of the protest, law enforcement who may be monitoring demonstrations, and onlookers. The way protesters dress is visually powerful not only for on-lookers, the media, and the target of their demonstrations, but also internally to unite the group and amplify their voices before they even utter a single chant.


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