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Fashion Gets Political, Using Fashion for Social Justice

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Politics and the things that we wear have long overlapped. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s brought with it a slew of feminist shirts, buttons, pins, and other wearable messages. The same applies to the origins of the modern Gay Rights Movement—pins that have messages like “We Are Everywhere,” “Our Body, Our Choice,” “Lesbian Feminist Witch,” and many other messages that are satirical, sardonic, genuine, and politically rebellious, cropped up in our collective consciousness.

Today, the messages have expanded to encompass even broader reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ issues including transgender and nonbinary discrimination, racial injustice and Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, and environmental issues. All of the above have been affected by Donald Trump’s presidential election. Since his inauguration, I have seen people wear shirts and bags that say “Not My President,” and “F— Trump,” as well as clothing with statements and prints like “#BlackLivesMatter,” the American flag but with rainbow stripes to show allyship to the LGBTQ community, and shirts with coat hangers overlaid with a huge red X to signify support of women’s reproductive choice. There has also been a massive outpouring of popular clothing stores like H&M, Forever21, and Rue 21 with shirts that say “GRL POWER,” “Girl Gang,” “Not Your Baby,” “Girls Supporting Girls,” and “EMPOWER WOMEN.”

Why is clothing so relevant to our current political climate, and what power does it have? For one, it is highly visible. Briana Wright, a 20-year-old UAlbany student, said, “To use fashion, which is something literally on our bodies, is so powerful during these times because it is forcing something to be seen. Saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ or ‘Women deserve basic human rights’ is one thing when it’s being said, but another when it’s something that is in your face because it’s on a t-shirt or book bag. It can’t as easily be ignored.” This is accurate — I regularly use my necklace of two women’s symbols connected, to signify to people I interact with that I am gay. I also wear shirts and buttons that have feminist messaging on them frequently, for the same purpose Wright spoke of. Once something is on your body, it is hard to ignore.

Raven Evans, a 19-year-old sociology and women’s and gender studies major, spoke about how they use style and aesthetic to express themselves as a queer, nonbinary person. “I grew up in a roman catholic conservative town as a queer Jewish person,” Evans said, “and that made merely existing there difficult. One of the first times I made my own statement shirt was in 10th grade and it said ‘Not a girl, Not a boy’ on the front and ‘Nothing in-between on the back.” Evans showed me with a photo of themselves in an oversized, DIY denim jacket with a large patch on the back that says, “Queer Liberation.” It is eye-catching and unmistakable. “That was the year I discovered my identity as an agender person,” said Evans, “and I guess I was tired of hiding and being treated like a girl. Society may expect me to have long hair and wear feminine clothing but that’s just not how I roll. I’m gonna have a green mohawk and wear a crop top and cargo shorts if I want to.”

The power and politics of style run deep. “There is something so strong and impactful about using fashion to spread messages of equality and love,” said 18-year-old student Isabella Gomes Dias, a psychology major and talented photographer. “Since fashion is something so visible and present in our daily lives, it becomes a great tool that should be used by those that fight for minorities to share their message.” Gomes Dias also uses body hair to promote respect for women free of misogynistic beauty standards. She does not shave her armpit hair, and enjoys wearing shirts that show her natural hair, “instead of hurting my body constantly.”

Social justice is a blend of law, policy, grassroots organizing, and individual voices, but what happens on a college campus or on the streets of Albany is just as important as what is going on in Congress or the senate right now. It says so much about our country’s political psyche. Young people are speaking, and we are speaking with the way we present ourselves to the public. A simple button with “Not My President” or a Planned Parenthood shirt, or a hoodie that says “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” or a hat that says “Bet You Didn’t Know I was a Lesbian” are all forms of social protest.

“Fashion is how we tell the world what we want them to know about us,” said Evans. The political messages coded in clothing are visible and brave and meaningful, even if they are not stated out loud.

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