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Protest fashion and its cultivation throughout time

By Sophia Qin Nov. 3, 2021

Ellie Kim Art

Sporting a white gown emblazoned with the words “Tax the Rich” across its back, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) went viral on Twitter for her 2021 Met Gala outfit. The Met Gala, one of the fashion industry’s biggest nights, has typically been construed as a symbol for elitism due to the exclusivity of its invitations and ticket prices starting at $35,000 for individuals and ranging up to $200,000 for tables. Although the Congresswoman originally intended to make a statement advocating for working-class ideals at the event, controversy erupted from both ends of the political spectrum mocking her fashion choices as performative. Both liberals and conservatives were quick to brand Ocasio-Cortez a hypocrite, pointing out the contrast between her message and circumstance.

The “Tax the Rich” gown and ensuing response follow a tradition of commentary on celebrity fashion choices displaying overt political messaging. Several pundits criticized WNBA players in 2016 for bringing politics to sports by donning Black Lives Matter (BLM) T-shirts. Similarly, right-wing commentators criticized the congresswomen who dressed in white pantsuits at Trump’s 2017 inauguration for subverting tradition.

Best known as protest fashion, this trend became popularized in the mid-1950s as a byproduct of the civil rights movement. As the trend proliferated, Black women began wearing button-up shirts, stockings, skirts and cardigans while Black men wore tailored suits to challenge the racist stereotype of Black Americans as “unkept,” “messy” and “primitive.” Concurrently, public figures like Martin Luther King Jr. dressed in denim to fight against workplace discrimination, inspiring thousands of other Black Americans to do the same for social equality. Later on in the 1970s as part of the fight for gender equality, women purposefully donned wide-legged pants instead of “feminine” dresses and skirts to counter entrenched gender norms.

“When celebrities advocate beliefs using fashion, it can appeal and spread to their wide range of viewers. Since fashion interests people, using it as a way to protest can be extremely effective if done in a style that captures attention,” Freshman Sophie Xu said.

Ellie Kim Art

Although protest fashion is now far more easily accessible than before, it still provides the same symbolic forms of expression and rebellion against traditions. Despite this purpose of protest fashion, some celebrities and public figures use it to attract attention from viewers and fans and gain what is called “clout.” Since these celebrities are famous amongst diverse groups of people, some question if their method of dissenting is truly effective.

Similar to the political signaling by Ocasio-Cortez, actress and model Cara Delevigne walked the red carpet of the Met Gala displaying the words “Peg the Patriarchy” in bold on a white bulletproof vest. During her interview with Vogue, Delevigne explained that she came up with the catchphrase in collaboration with Dior designer Maria Grazia to represent female empowerment and gender equality—more specifically, to represent an act of rebellion against the patriarchy. However, the slogan was originally coined by Black and queer sex educator Luna Matatas back in 2015, when she decided to start her own business after receiving substantial publicity for the phrase. Matatas quickly took to Twitter to point out how Delveigne failed to credit her, clarifying the meaning of the motto in the process: to subvert the patriarchal system that “requires subservience within a gender binary.” Although Matatas appreciated how many were talking about her motto, the lack of credit negatively impacted her business growth as she is now dealing with more copycats than before.

The Met Gala, with an online viewership of over 7.5 million according to Paper Magazine, presented an opportunity for many celebrities and designers to make a statement with their dress. From BLM to campaigns against gender roles, the variability of fashion has been harnessed as protest in modern society, leading many to ponder the direction it will develop and whether it is truly effective in spreading political and social messages.


About the Contributors

Sophia Qin

Staff Writer

Sophia Qin is a freshman at Leland High School and a staff writer for The Charger Account. During her free time, she loves dancing, baking, reading, hanging out with friends and family, and drawing.

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