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There’s nothing like walking in downtown Los Angeles and seeing a group of people dressed up as vaginas, posing for photos with a group dressed as Wonder Woman, all for a protest march.
Activists have been coordinating clothing since as long as protest has taken to the streets. Suffragettes utilized colors such as green and purple, while the LGBTQ+ movement uses the colors of the rainbow. However, the past century has seen a rise in not just uniforms or matching outfits, but in the use of costumes. Whether it’s replicating pop culture or anthropomorphizing vaginas (which is more common than you’d think), dressing up is on the rise.
The red cloaks and white bonnets from The Handmaid’s Tale are now popular at demonstrations, like a march in March of 2017 at the Texas State Capitol, to address the state’s anti-abortion measures. Whether we realize it or not, we continue to go back to costumes during our protests, sometimes creating new symbols, not simply because it’s fun or creative, but because it works. Costumes are a vital part of social movements, impacting our thinking in subtle but powerful ways. They create images that become lasting impressions of a movement and evoke an emotional response. A picture says a thousand words, after all.
The Women’s March was full of costumes. There were people wearing Wonder Woman attire and people dressed up as Princess Leia, flashing symbols of the Resistance, both as a tribute to the recently deceased Carrie Fisher and to evoke the rebellious spirit of the Star Wars films. Despite the differences in costume choice, they all accomplished the same goal.
Costumes send a concise message about the content of their wearers’ grievances and the tone of their group. It’s more of a uniform than a costume, but the Black Panthers’ beret, paired with weaponry and tight formations, made the group look “militant” and gave them a unified front. The same goes for veterans, who often take part in protests dressed up in their old military uniforms. Vietnam Veterans Against the War, founded in 1967, was one of the first organizations to do this on a national scale.
Code Pink, an organization that works to end US-led wars and militarism, among other things, often uses costume in its demonstrations. Its members often simply wear pink or branded T-shirts, but sometimes the group creates themed protests with intricate costumes. Protesters have been spotted in rough-looking pageant wear complete with homemade sashes or Statue of Liberty-inspired crowns to call attention to immigration or military issues — all in pink, of course.
Cami Rowe, a lecturer on theater and performance theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of the book The Politics of Protest and US Foreign Policy: Performative Construction of the War on Terror, marched with Code Pink in the early 2000s. She says their costume strategy was a direct response to the fear enveloping Americans following September 11th.
“This was the early days of the War on Terror… if you spoke out against the war, it was equated with treason,” she explains. The members of Code Pink “weren’t just creative and vibrant and fun, but they were also directly tackling what was going on in the political environment at the time.”
Code Pink took on serious and dark issues, but doing it in a lighthearted way, which appealed to people living under constant anxiety. It also eased a lot of the tension in large crowds or with groups they may be protesting.
In her book, Rowe recalls a protest from 2008 where members dressed up as a pink police force complete with police-inspired hats and pink shirts. At one point, Code Pink protesters started a dance party in the middle of an intersection, blocking traffic and refusing to move. The real police wanted to intervene, but a few officers broke down in laughter. Rowe described some police as “chuckling reluctantly at the sight of the pink police, and some clearly enjoyed the comedy and became more willing to laugh at themselves.”
“It was a brilliant demonstration of the potential of carnival laughter and parody to undermine boundaries of authority and social hierarchy,” Rowe wrote.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, says that the organization realized that its costumes also made their members more approachable and ultimately, more successful.
“People wanted to come up and talk to us. Media wanted to talk to us, people wanted to join, and we realized the power of wearing things that stood out, that made people smile,” she says. “Dealing with such a horrible issue like war, it’s really depressing. Doing it in a more playful joyful way or satirical way, it attracts more attention and more people.”
A good protest costume acts like a picket sign, sending a message quickly and efficiently. Costumes need to be recognizable to people not participating in the protests, which is why beyond the obvious and relatable choices Code Pink makes, pop culture iconography is common. The Occupy movement, for example, adopted the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of their protests. The mask became a mainstream icon thanks to the 2005 adaptation of the graphic novel V for Vendetta, which depicted an alternate timeline where the UK continues to thrive as a police state after the onset of nuclear war. The title character, a vigilante named V, uses the mask as an homage to Fawkes himself, who was part of a plot in 1605 to blow up the House of Lords. Fawkes, along with the rest of the members of the Gunpowder Plot, wanted to restore Catholicism to the monarchy. That specific ideal doesn’t hold weight in 2018 America, but the idea of a grassroots, anarchist organization rallying against the government resonates. The mask has also been used by Anonymous, a hacktivist group that’s taken responsibility for major attacks on government websites, specifically in its rally against Scientology in around 2008.
V for Vendetta co-creator David Lloyd called the mask a “convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny… it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way,” in an interview with the BBC.
Costumes don’t have to have existing familiarity to a general audience, but they can overcome that to become icons themselves. The Guy Fawkes mask wasn’t totally successful at first because not everybody on the outside knows its history. However, its constant use has reassigned its meaning. Whether or not you understand where the mask came from, it’s now instantly recognizable as a symbol of Anonymous.
A costume can create a culture, but it can also work to spread the word about one. In July 2017, young women in quinceanera dresses arrived at the Texas State Capitol to protest anti-immigration and deportation policies. The Women in Black are an international organization that encourages people to hold silent vigils dressed in all black as a way to protest those lost to war and militarism.
Regardless of your purpose, the more outrageous or visually striking the costume, the more attention-grabbing it is to the receiver of the message. A couple thousand protesters gathered at the United Nations headquarters in Bonn, Germany, in colorful Carnival-inspired costumes to protest climate change. It worked both as a signifier of the season, but also to attract attention. It’s hard to miss a few thousands people in crazy costumes who have something to say.
Code Pink has updated its costume strategy as American anxieties move away from the War on Terror. When it protested an oil spill in the Gulf, they dressed up as mermaids and dead animals.
“So much of our work is educating, mobilizing, shocking, cajoling, and it’s to elicit emotions from people. The costumes really help to do that,” Benjamin says.
But while costumes can entice outsiders, they also create a separation, between not only the protesters and the audience, but also the protesters and their message. The book Costume: Performing Identities through Dress, by Pravina Shukla, notes that costumes allow people to transcend their identity and inhabit an ideology. Shukla mentions the Society for Creative Anachromism, which uses Medieval European dress and ways of living to protest modernity, therefore separating “the issue from themselves.”
This is especially true when a costume utilizes a mask or other full-body covering. In August, people in dinosaur costumes gathered outside the White House not to say something about the creatures, but to protest President Trump’s proposed cuts to national service programs, which would make them go extinct (get it?). Not only are the inflatable dinosaurs hard to ignore, but they all but erase the people doing the protesting. However, they in turn highlight the message, making it all about the mission.
Costumes serve a lot of purposes in activism, whether it’s to become an eye-catching symbol of a group’s message, to create solidarity among a group, or to set a tone for a particular event, but most importantly, a good costume or uniform becomes greater than itself. The Handmaid’s Tale is a costume of the moment thanks to the popular best-selling book and award-winning Hulu show, yet because that show has become an internet phenomenon, it’ll probably have lasting power. Costumes are more ubiquitous in modern-day protesting thanks to the internet, which allows the quick spread of cultures and ideas. It makes for easier organizing and planning, but also unites larger groups. However, costumes that can go viral online are more successful.
Rowe attributes the rise in protest costumes to the 20th-century popularization of mass media, including television and the internet. She says that people typically up the visual presentation of their activism when there’s somebody watching. In the past 20 years, with the rise of the internet and social media, there’s always somebody who can see your hard work.
“In the last 20 years, [the academic theater discipline has] seen costume become much more theatrical and much more deliberate,” she explains, which is in part thanks to the internet.
It’s also become more accepted to engage in the act of protest at all. To say that it’s simply an internet phenomenon is disregarding human psychology. Costumes are popular in protests because they work and they’re fun. Who wouldn’t want the chance to dress up as Wonder Woman or a dinosaur or a vagina if they could, especially if it served a purpose?
“If you’re comparing the 21st-century environment to, say, the mid-20th century and the Vietnam War era — in order to engage in protest was to be truly transgressive, to be dangerous in a sense, and to be undertaking a degree of risk to oneself,” she adds. “It wasn’t widely accepted as a thing good citizens would engage in. That’s very much changed. People feel much freer to engage in protest. There’s a degree of celebration.”