image: twitter @mayersinger, located on pussyhatproject.com
This astonishing image from the Women’s March on January 21, 2017 is the result of a grassroots organizing effort. No corporate sponsorship, no central organizing body. And there’s two forces at work here: a Women’s March, developed spontaneously online and then running like electrical signals along old, old networks of connections, interrelationships, and organizations, and the Pussyhat Project, another spontaneous movement that managed to paint the towns pink. Men, women, non-gender-identifying, children: millions of people showed up at marches around the world, and millions of those people wore hand-knit pink pussy hats. (For a terrific analysis of the organization feat the marches represent, Anne Helen Petersen’s essay covers the ground!)
From the 1940s to 1960s African Americans and their allies protested constantly, unceasingly, with great endurance. Non-violent protests work — they are one of the most powerful tools of social change (if you love that idea, Erica Chenoweth’s book, Why Civil Resistance Works, is a thing you can buy, and her columns in the Guardian have been burning! Such as “It may only take 3.5%”.) African-American protests slowly, incrementally chipped away at segregation, at inequality. Each protest had a focus, with the well-known national marches bringing the fundamental issues (injustice, inequality, racism, labor issues, economic issues) together. So let’s take a look at how people dressed at the smaller, more focused protests that happened all over the nation, in small towns and large, with wide public support to almost none.
Here, the signage covers an awful lot of inter-related territory. First, the historical moment is clear: in the face of WWII service of African American men, segregation continued. The signs refer to White City, an amusement park area outside of Chicago that was segregated (including the roller rink — an issue that you can glimpse in the sign in the center back, cut off by signs held in front of it). Fascism, Racism, discrimination, the Constitution, the immoral irony of WWII service and segregation: All present and accounted for.
What they wore in this chilly night protest? Dress overcoats ranged from tweed to black wool; neatly tucked scarves, military uniform hats. The collars are long and wide. The boys are likewise carefully dressed, plaid scarves crossed and tucked in, ties under collars.
In the lower right corner, seen here in a closer view, crouches a young man departing a bit from the more formal dress of his colleagues. He’s wearing a leather bomber jacket (possibly WWII military) and a cap. I don’t know if he’s wearing an Air Force bomber jacket but the lay of that collar and the sheen certainly made me think of this photograph of the Tuskegee Airmen…
The White City protests started in 1942 and continued until the park was desegregated — it closed not long after that.
Here, we get a better sense of clothing choices. Behind the young boy stands a woman in an overcoat with a fur collar, an exceptionally popular look through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Behind her a woman walk in opaque black tights and ankle-high insulated, flat-soled boots. The women are not wearing hats. To the left walks a tall man, a casual and well-worn overcoat, rumpled pants and tie oxford shoes. By far the best dressed is the boy in the center, fedora cocked back, dotted bow tie, gleaming white shirt, overcoat and his brilliant sign (whose wording would leave most onlookers today googling the phrase on their phones). Careful punctuation on the signs, neat wording, and twine is used to hang the signs over the neck, sandwich board style.
A summertime protest in an image provided by the Oklahoma Historical Society gives us a wonderful look at the fashion of activism. To say that there is a fashion element to activism is not to denigrate protests but to acknowledge that protesting is a public act. What one wears is a statement, ipso facto. To be politically engaged does not mean one can’t pay attention to what one chooses to wear.
I believe this is part of the lunch counter protests of 1958. I think this crowd is assembled outside the drug store, while others are on the front lines, sitting at the lunch counter not being served. For more about the Oklahoma City protests and the amazing Clara Luper, see “Progress and Potential” online. Here is Clara with her children — Children, people, little kids. This sit-in ended when some white folk stepped in and asked to pay for their lunches, the staff set about serving them, and Clara won one of the many, many battles she waged in Oklahoma, making the state a better, stronger place.
The sidewalk scene gives us an idea of the fashions of 1958, and how those expecting to walk, gather, and be on their feet on a warm day dressed for a protest.
Cotton dresses, some with the skirts puffed out by crinolines, sleeveless. Belts galore — narrow self-fabric, contrasting colors, wide. Hair up and tidy. The younger girls stand without crinolines, their dresses reflecting more wear and tear. The footwear looks familiar, doesn’t it? Heels? Forget it! Flats of various sorts and colors, some worn with sock. The younger girls wear ballet-style flats or mary-janes with white socks. Arms crossed, feet solid on the ground: these women are in this for the long haul. And in the meantime, the lunch counter protesters sit reading, their tidy clothes a contrast with the sweat-stained knit wear of the white men walking in the aisle behind them.
Two later images show little shift in the ways protesters presented themselves: tidily dressed. Two men in dark suits sit next to a column. In the second photograph dating from the just-mid-1960s, solid, chunky patent-leather heeled shoes make an appearance, but the women are wearing pants as often as skirts. And dang! a leopard print fake fur coat makes its appearance just behind signs demanding equal pay.
Historically, dress was deployed as part of the resistance: to dress formally, carefully, tidily was to make a gesture towards a narrative of good people resisting. Today, fashion and clothing has moved long past the idea of heels, dresses and suits. And edgier style plays a far bigger role. I’ll look at SNNC and CORE style choices in upcoming blogs, but for now, let’s sit on the idea of protesters who with their presence, their constant marching, walking, signs, and efforts, slowly bent the arc of history. It really does happen.