Written by Laura Dionne
May 20, 2021
PROTESTS THAT MATTER
Fig. 1. Left: Woolston, Bryan. Women’s March on Washington, 2017, Reuters, Web. 20 April 2021. Middle: Felix, Mark. Protests for George Floyd, 2020, Getty Images, Web. 20 April 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/george-floyd-houstons-protests-and-the-privilege-of-the-benefit-of-the-doubt.
Right: Stapleton, Shannon. Trump supporters storm the Capitol during clashes with police, 2021, Reuters, Web. 20 April 2021. https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/06/politics/gallery/electoral-college-vote-count/index.html.
There have been an increasing number of high-attendance protests in the United States since January 20th, 2017. Globally, we have witnessed countless protests promoting socially progressive movements, such as the annual Women’s March, a multitude of protests regarding police brutality and social justice, the March for our Lives for gun control, and environmental climate strikes (Economist). Although these protests have garnered interest and criticized flawed systems, protests have not always been as progressive. There has been a rise in far-right extremists who have decided to make their voices heard, most notably in the context of the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, the Capitol Riot in 2021 and various anti-mask protests throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. These protests and movements have not gone unnoticed, and have put America at the center of the world stage for inequality, systematic racism, and the rise of white supremacy (Henley et al.).
“As generally understood, white supremacy refers to the attitudes, ideologies, and policies associated with the rise of blatant forms of white or European dominance over “nonwhite” populations” (Fredrickson 11).
There exists some scholarship on modern protest wear, but there is still very sparse information on the clothing worn during extremist protests (Benton). Bond Benton and Daniela Peterka-Benton, for example, wrote an article about extremist wear focusing on the highjacking of brands by extremist groups. Traditionally, who gets to participate in fashion is something that is always questioned and gatekept. While extremists might not believe they are participating in fashion, and fashion scholars and consumers might not want to include them in the discourse, everyone, including those with radical beliefs, are participating in the overarching fashion system. Since this discussion is relatively new, there are many ways to approach these controversial clothes. Semiotics, specifically theories developed by Roland Barthes, provide an interesting approach to analyzing fashion worn at extremist rallies. Semiology advances the idea that everything is a text and can be decoded as a sign. The signified object, in this case text and symbols at protests, is not a single word, but rather a sentence in its own right (Jobling 136). The meaning of clothes changes, depending on how they are read, and for this analysis of extremist wear, there are many deeper understandings than meet the eye.
Origins Of White Supremacy
White Supremacists and far-right ideologies are not new to the American political discourse. White supremacy can be traced back to early forms of colonization and slavery but currently takes different forms, including racial profiling, unequal opportunities for certain groups, violence, and general aggression towards non- white communities. White supremacist groups in America, most notably the Ku Klux Klan, established themselves after the Civil war.
Fig. 2. The Masked Sentinel from Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction- Era Ku Klux Klan. Reprinted from Albion Tourgie, The Invisible Empire (New York, 1880). Courtesy Special Collections, Pelletier Library, Allegheny College. Web. April 20. 2021.
Although there were certainly more groups forming before and after the Civil War, the iconography and performativity of the Ku Klux Klan has re-appeared in protests today. During the summer of 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, the original Ku Klux Klan was founded (Parsons 811). Today people understand the Klan as wearing white gowns with pointy conical hoods. This is not wrong, but it represents only part of the group’s outlandish performances. Many argue that the Klansmen wore this dress for their own amusement, to frighten people and hide their identities. What many fail to understand is the broader performative nature of the group’s origin stories. Many Klansmen were performers, played instruments, and participated in minstrel shows and carnivals. Figure 3 displays a quote about the elaborate costumes from the Reconstruction Era Ku Klux Klan. Members chose to wear costumes so the violent attacks they ignited would we read as theatrical and understood as popular entertainment (Parsons 818). This performativity, from the 1860s onward, is something that can be understood in the context of contemporary protests. Some of the accessories and clothing worn at both the Unite the Right rally and the Capitol Riot reflect the performative nature of these protests. Figure 4 shows a comparison between the Unite the Rally in 2017 and the KKK marching in Washington in 1925. The outfits chosen at radical riots are worn to specifically ignite fear and provoke intimidation in the general public. The use of historical symbols, such as the conical hat or the swastika, creates feelings of fear and unrest. Figure 5 shows 40,000 Klansmen marching on Washington in 1925.
Fig. 3. Quote from Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan by Elaine Frantz Parsons. Image by Laura Dionne, April 20 2020.
Fig. 4. Top Image: Strange, Chet. The Ku Klux Protests, 2017, Getty Images, Web. 20 April 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ahead-far-right-wing-rally-virginia-airbnb-cancels-accounts-n790716.
Bottom Image: British Pathe, Ku Klux Klan marching in 1925, April 13, 2014, Youtube. Web. 20 April 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/08/17/the-day-30000-white-supremacists-in-kkk-robes-marched-in-the-nations-capital/.
Theory of Semiotics in Fashion
Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation (Oxford). Language does not just indicate verbal communication; rather, it includes all sign systems which help humans understand the world (Calefato). This concept is further discussed in the world of fashion by Paul Jobling as he explains Roland Barthes’s theories of semiology and rhetorical codes. Jobling quotes Barthes in “The Semantics of the Object” as he argues that “a meaning overflows the object’s use […] function gives birth to the sign, but the sign is reconverted into the spectacle of function” (Jobling 137). The object, in this instance, is clothing that can have more than one definition. According to Barthes, an image can have endless possibilities and words can have a single meaning, but when words are added to an image they communicate specific knowledge (Jobling 138). Clothing can have several different interpretations, especially in protest attire, where symbols are often used.
Fashion is an emblem of our ‘progressive awareness of the indissoluble bond between sign and society, semiology and sociology’ -Gianfranco Marrone (qtd. in Calefato).
An example of this symbolic code is pink clothing worn at the Women’s March. Pink is re-signified as a form of identification for feminists and queer culture, and is used as visual communication displaying unity in feminist activism (Titton 254). There is a growing politicization of fashion that has made clothing part of an expression of political agreement or dissatisfaction. For example, in Spring 2017, Dior debuted their feminist collection with a white t-shirt that stated “We Should All Be Feminists”. This display of ideologies reflects Barthes’s theories that objects can have more than one connotation. At first glance, this shirt marks itself as pro-feminist.
With added context, including the cost and labor for the shirt, this design may be theorized as somewhat hypocritical. This shirt was designed under the new (and first female) creative director of Dior at the time, Maria Grazia Chiuri. This shirt is also a cultural code because Dior has been criticized for its workplace labor practices in India, where unregulated facilities are used for embroidery (Shultz et al.). Also, the shirt is economically inaccessible for most women, retailing at $860.00 USD (Dior). The possible reading of this shirt could be that, although Dior is promoting feminism, it might not be for all women because of other factors such as labor and accessibility. Designers have used the runway to project their political views, similarly to the context of street protests and rallies (Titton 749). This is shown through clothing worn by models during various Fashion Weeks. This form of runway fashion was popular in the Spring/Summer collection of 2017 but politics and fashion have always been intertwined. In 2011 during London Fashion Week, Charlie Le Mindu debuted a collection on the runway with visible themes representing Nazism. When he came out after the show, he wore a bloodied apron. Many of his outfits used imperial hats, gas masks and colours of the Nazi flag (Duke). It is unclear what prompted Le Mindu to create this collection, but his designs certainly created conversation about themes of Nazism. Perhaps, this designer was re-claiming this deeply political iconography and using it his own fashion to make a statement. In Figure 7 there is use of the Nazi War Eagle, but to the naked eye, it might look like a headpiece with no context. The coded meanings in fashion appear on the runways and protests alike.
Fashion sometimes is simply a synonym for clothing. It can also be a system of signs, a symbolic sartorial language (Guenther).
Analyzing Protest Wear
Hats, in particular, have become popular during contemporary protests. The MAGA hat worn by Donald Trump and his followers has become a symbol of not only his campaign and his slogan but also a symbol of far-right ideologies. The saying on the cap, “Make America Great Again” begs the question: when was America great? The red hat, which, before 2016, would have meant nothing, has become a symbol of something else. It can have multiple meanings depending on the identity of the wearer and viewer. Fellow supporters might see this hat and feel a sense of camaraderie. Marginalized groups, specifically immigrants and people of colour, may feel scared seeing someone wearing this hat. This is because the hat represents more than just a functional accessory.
This hat is associated with white supremacist ideologies. It can be argued that not everyone who wears this hat is supporting white supremacism, but for many individuals, wearing it represents an outward expression of personal political beliefs. This accessory contrasts the “pussy hat” from the Women’s March, where a sea of women wore this knitted hat (Gökarıksel and Smith). During the 2016 presidential election, audio was released from 2005 of Donald Trump having a conversation with Billy Bush where he made crude and derogatory statements about women (Makela). The pussy hats are a direct challenge to Donald Trump’s comments “grab em by the pussy.”
Feminist activists donned the pink pussy hat. What started off as a rejection of inappropriate male commentary by the President has sparked a new debate about intersectional feminism and the inclusion of trans-identifying individuals. Feminism is meant for all women, regardless of their genitalia. Both of these dueling hats have double meanings depending on the historical and cultural codes associated with them.
The Q-Anon Shaman has become one of the most featured people from the 2021 Capitol Riots. This popularity is most likely due to his unique outfit, unlike the typical jeans and hoodies worn by other protesters. The outfit stands out for several reasons, most notably the horned hat with coyote pelts running down each side. His face paint was also noted because it looks like war paint in the colours and symbols of the American flag. Also, he is shirtless and is showing many dark tattoos. Upon further examination these tattoos (temporary or permanent) are Old Norse Symbols that have been co-opted by white supremacists. (Gawboy) The black gloves are also unusual because, along with the other accessories, they make the outfit seem suitable for both cold and warm weather. In an interview, the Q-Anon Shaman described his outfit, specifically the horns, as taking inspiration from Native American ceremonial attire. The horns were meant to represent the bison headdress that is worn by tribes in the Great Plains and Southwest (Gawboy). Much of this outfit was completely appropriated from Indigenous cultures in the United States. Without this knowledge, many people assumed he was mirroring a Viking, which is untrue because Vikings did not wear horned helmets. The choice to connect White supremacy and Indigenous clothing is an extremely harmful form of cultural appropriation echoing systematic violence and colonialism (Beltrán-Rubio). Although not the stated purpose of his look, the Q-Anon Shaman’s Capitol Riot attire can be read as a tribute to one of the most notorious hate groups in the USA.
From a brief visual analysis of the photos from the Capitol Riot, there is a discernible clothing trend. Many people at the riot wore hoodies and jeans, and Figure 11 illustrates that participants favoured dark denim. In 2016, the marketing firm Cambridge Analytica used data from Facebook to target Donald Trump advertisements to people who “liked” brands such as LL Bean and Wrangler (Kansara). These clothing companies, specifically Wrangler, are known for selling jeans. Over half the population is wearing jeans on any given day (Miller and Woodward). Although not every person who wears jeans supports Donald Trump, the specific fashion and consumption information that was used to target potential Trump voters was, to some extent, visible in the clothing worn at the Capitol Riot.
Another popular clothing choice was the hoodie. Many people, female and male presenting, wore hoodies that either had symbols on them or were completely plain. There are many potential reasons for participants to wear hoodies. Possibly, they could have been worn for the cooler weather, to hide wearers’ faces, or because it is easier to print symbols/sayings on generic items such as hoodies. Interestingly, some people chose to wear hats and hoodie simultaneously but chose not to cover half their faces with a mask. The very simple hoodie is harmless but has often been associated with criminality. Because of news outlets displaying criminals as people wearing hoods, hoodies are associated with criminal activity, antisocial behavior and out of control youth (Turney). The hoodie also serves to hide one’s identity, much like the conical hood worn by Klansmen. In this particular scenario, the hood, which is typically associated with criminality was truly worn to commit crimes, as hundreds of people at this event were criminally charged (Hymes et al.). Figure 11 and 12 show images of people wearing jeans and hoodies, which were popular attire at the Capitol Riot in 2021.
Protest wear is ever changing and complex. Among the most notable aspects of protests is the clothing. Whether it’s a sea of hand-knitted pink hats or red baseball caps, their different symbolic meanings are bound to make a statement. The garments’ signs, symbols, and colours all signify different things to various groups of people. Protests always promote a political stance, and by doing an analysis of protest wear, it is possible to understand the stance without explicitly mentioning it. Clothing tells us so much about a person, especially when politics are involved. Regarding the semiotics of symbols and clothing, analyzing protest wear is a critical and important tool to delve into the multitudes of meanings clothing can hold.
Beltrán-Rubio, Laura. “A Short Introduction to Cultural Appropriation II.” Fashion and Race Database, November 30, 2020. https://fashionandrace.org/database/reading-list-short-introduction-to-cultural-appropriation-2/.
Benton, Bond, and Daniela Peterka-Benton. “Hating in Plain Sight: The Hatejacking of Brands by Extremist Groups.” Public Relations Inquiry 9, no. 1, January 2020, pp. 7–26. Accessed May 16, 2021. doi:10.1177/2046147X19863838.
Calefato, Patrizia, “Dress, Language and Communication,” The Clothed Body, 2004. pp 5-14. Dress, Body, Culture. Bloomsbury Fashion Central. Accessed April 17, 2021. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.2752/9780857854049/CLOTHBOD0004.
Duke, Zoe. “LFW DAY 3: CHARLIE LE MINDU AT ON|OFF.” ArtsThread, February 21, 2011, https://www.artsthread.com/news/lfw-day-3-charlie-le-mindu-at-onoff/.
Fredrickson, George M. White Supremacy: a Comparative Study of American and South African History. Oxford University Press, 1981.
Gawboy, Anna. “Horned Headdress Guy Is Not A Viking.” Medium, Accessed April 20, 2021. https://medium.com/perceive-more/horned-headdress-guy-is-not-a-viking-392777632215.
Gökarıksel, Banu and Smith, Sara. “Intersectional feminism beyond U.S. flag hijab and pussy hats in Trump’s America.” Gender, Place & Culture 24, no.5, March 16, 2017, 628-644. Accessed May 15, 2021. doi: 10.1080/0966369X.2017.1343284.
Guenther, Irene. Nazi Chic. Berg, 2004.
Henley, Jon, et al. “World leaders react with horror to ‘disgraceful’ storming of US Capitol.” Guardian, January 7, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/06/trump-blows-up-us-democracy-the-world-watches-on-in-horror.
Hymes, Clare, et al. “What we know about the “unprecedented” U.S. Capitol riot arrests.” CBS News, May 18, 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/capitol-riot-arrests-2021-05-18/.
Jobling, Paul. “Roland Barthes: Semiology and the Rhetorical Codes of Fashion” Thinking Through Fashion: A Guide to Key Theorists, edited by, Rocamora, Agnès and Smelik, Anneke, Bloomsbury, 2015, pp. 132. 148.
Kansara, Vikram Alexei. “Cambridge Analytica Weaponised fashion Brands To Elect Trump, says Christopher Wylie.” Business of Fashion, November 29, 2018. https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/cambridge-analytica-weaponised-fashion-brands-to-elect-trump-says-christopher-wylie.
Makela, Mark. “Transcript: Donald Trump’s Taped Comments About Women.” New York Times, October 18, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/us/donald-trump-tape-transcript.html.
Miller, Daniel, and Sophie Woodward, eds. Global Denim. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2011. doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.2752/9781472504401.
Parsons, Elaine Frantz. “Midnight Rangers: Costume and Performance in the Reconstruction-Era Ku Klux Klan.” The Journal of American History 92, no. 3, 2005, pp 811-36. Accessed February 11, 2021. doi:10.2307/3659969.
“Political protests have become more widespread and more frequent.” Economist, May 10, 2020. https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/03/10/political-protests-have-become-more-widespread-and-more-frequent.
“Semiotics.” Oxford Learners Dictionary, Accessed April 20, 2021. https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/semiotics?q=semiotics.
Shultz, Kai, et al. “Luxury’s Hidden Indian Supply Chain.” New York Times, March 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/style/dior-saint-laurent-indian-labor-exploitation.html.
Titton, Monica. “Afterthought: Fashion, Feminism and Radical Protest.” Fashion Theory 23, no. 6, 2019, pp. 747-756, Accessed April 17, 2021. doi:10.1080/1362704X.2019.1657273.
Turney, Joanne. “The horror of the hoodie: Clothing the criminal.” Fashion Crimes: Dressing for Deviance. 2016. pp. 23–32. Accessed April 20, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781788315654.0008
“We Should All Be Feminists T-shirt.” Dior, Accessed April 20, 2021. https://www.dior.com/en_ca/products/couture-843T03TA428_X0200-we-should-all-be-feminists-t-shirt-white-linen-and-cotton-jersey.