Democrat MK Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sparked both controversy and celebration after wearing a dress to the Met Gala sporting red graffiti text with the statement “Tax the Rich”.
Appearing as a guest of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the annual fundraiser (for which tickets cost tens of thousands of dollars), the left-wing politician wore a custom dress from fashion label Brother Vellies, bringing with her the brand’s founder, the young black designer and activist Aurora James.
Using fashion as a tool to address broader social concerns has, in fact, long been a strategy for people seeking to effect change, including wearing these garments in spaces of influence.
From 19th century suffragists who took to the streets in heels, ultra-feminine dresses and large ‘photo’ hats to refute claims they weren’t feminine, to patriotic WWII textiles, clothing street and native Australian accessories from a brand such as Dizzy Couture today, attire has historically conveyed political messages, creating ‘looks’ for generations of change agents.
Here are 5 sartorial acts like provocations that changed history:
1. George Washington’s costume
The founders of the American Revolution wanted to break with the old codes of European aristocracy. Much of the world still had “sumptuary laws”: legal edicts that regulated the types, materials, and quantities of fabrics, colors, jewelry, and accessories permitted to various social groups.
In North America, the formal dress codes of the Old Regime were actively opposed: men were not expected to wear the expensive and colorful embroidered silks typically worn in European courts. Their imported fabrics were seen as bad for local economies and their elite seemed at odds with the idea that all men could now be (relatively) equal.
The President-elect of the United States, George Washington, was sculpted by Houdon in the late 18th century with a button missing from his waistcoat. It was a deliberate move to show that his actions were more important than his appearance. He also wore a plain, home-spun American woolen cloth for his inauguration instead of the expected silk or velvet. It was a staunch demonstration of North American independence and perhaps America’s first “business casual”.
2. Abolitionist handbag
Since the late 18th century, a range of objects ranging from jewelry to printed dishes have been produced to criticize the slave trade.
British Quakers argued for abolition in 1783. The Female Society for Birmingham (originally the Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, the first such group) mobilized its anti-slavery supporters with handbags printed with images and slogans designed to gain the support of the Abolitionist Movement.
Silk drawstring bags, made by women in sewing circles, were presented to such figures as George IV and Princess Victoria. The bags contained newspaper articles and leaflets in favor of abolition.
The Slavery Abolition Act, which provided for the immediate abolition of slavery in most of the British Empire, was passed ten years later, in 1833. A similar law was not ratified in the United States. United only in 1865.
3. No feather hats
The ostrich and exotic bird industry was massive in the 19th century: in addition to plumes, women wore entire bird bodies as accessories, like hummingbird earrings.
The ostrich plume “double fluff” industry was centered in South Africa, where feathers were worth more than gold. They were exported to theaters in London and New York where exhausted young girls finished and dyed them for retail sale.
In 1914, a huge “feather crash” saw the raw material become almost worthless. Young women interested in the growing national park and conservation movements opposed the trade on ecological grounds. They simply stopped wearing fashion, starting a global “anti-plumage” movement.
The women involved in the Massachusetts Audubon Society were so successful that their lobbying led to the first US federal conservation legislation, The Lacey Act (1900). Taxidermy birds, feather boas, and birds as earrings have largely gone out of fashion and have rarely been seen in women’s fashion again.
4. ACT UP T-shirt
The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s saw the mobilization of a unique blend of activism born out of the feminist, Hispanic, black and gay movements of the 1970s. ACT UP New York determined that only anger and civil disobedience would attract the attention of the government and the big pharmaceutical companies on the health plight of mainly gay men.
A series of extraordinary “zaps” or site-specific, often theatrical, events were designed. ACT UP members included skilled advertising and design personalities who created unified and stylish T-shirts, posters and banners. The designs were clean, smooth, and looked like good advertising.
As Sarah Schulman recently demonstrated over her 20-year history of ACT UP, bold t-shirt designs have both created optimal impact for ACT UP’s news shows and a great impact. new pro-gay identity. Worn with Doc Marten shoes, leather jackets, clean tight jeans or denim shorts, ACT UP established the look of gay urban men for a generation.
Government agencies and big pharmaceutical companies have been shamed by public protests to adopt better and more rational health messages, to conduct better funded and fairer drug trials, and to sell cheaper retrovirals.
5. Katharine’s t-shirt
In 1984, designer Katharine Hamnett wore a t-shirt that read “58% DONT WANT PERSHING” (a reference to nuclear missiles) during a high-profile fashion night attended by British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Hamnett made her T-shirt the day before, acknowledging the opportunity she had, and hid it under her coat at the entrance. Its graphic format owes both 1970s Punk and ACT UP. She later recalled the widely photographed encounter with Thatcher:
She looked down and said, “You seem to have a pretty strong message on your T-shirt,” then leaned down to read it and screamed, like a chicken.
Social change needs its visual forms. Fashion is one of them. Fashion is a brilliant communicator of new ideas. What we read about AOC’s clothing “controversy” shows that she fully understands the power of fashion.
Peter McNeil is Emeritus Professor of Design History, UTS, Sydney University of Technology.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.