By Rena Niamh Smith
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Dressing for the revolution

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From the gilets jaunes to the sans-culottes, clothing might not be the central question when considering radical movements, but there is more to it than you might expect, writes Rena Niamh Smith.
Issue 443

When I titled a recent talk on the politics of fashion “What will you Wear to the Revolution?”, some queried if a consideration of what we wear may be beneath the serious politics of the Marxist tradition.

Yet if the revolution were to happen tomorrow, we know exactly what we would wear. The once anonymous hi-vis vest has proved such an electrifying feature of the French anti-establishment protests, that their sale was banned in Egypt, site of serious revolution in recent memory.

The hi-vis vest is an interesting garment. While we continue to use the terms of blue- and white-collar workers, reflective clothing has taken the place of overalls as the uniform of the 21st century manual worker. Further, for drivers in France, required to carry one in their car since 2011, it represents the depersonalised contempt with which the state treats ordinary people through petty regulations.

This is not the first time a French movement was named after a garment as shorthand for egalitarian values. ‘Sans culottes’ was the term for the peasants who challenged the authority of the state during the French Revolution, who wore trousers instead of the silk culottes (knee-breeches) of the aristocracy. The word sabotage comes from the sabot, the wooden clogs workers wore and used to literally make noise during industrial disputes in the 19th century.

Developing a recognisable style gives confidence to those building a movement. Writing in Black Style, Susan Kaiser, Leslie Rabine, Carol Hall and Karyl Ketchum write: “Beginning their American experience as slaves…and economically oppressed in contemporary US society, African Americans have always struggled for respect… Respect cultivated through image — styling of the self — can therefore be seen as a way of being and becoming. Style — materialised in a dapper fedora with a large brim perfectly snapped over the eyes; a hip-hop outfit of silver studded miniskirt… or a sharply cut women’s suit in West African kente or print fabric — has been the visual manifestation of a consciousness that breaks away from the dominant social order.”

In the book Fashion in the Oxford History of Art series, Christopher Brewer traces a link between political thought and fashion back to the 19th century figure of the bohemian. The dandy was a fashion consummate in the mainstream sense, his modernity tied to his conspicuous fashionable taste in all things:

“Standing in opposition to the controlled and artificial posturing of the dandy, the shambolic but fiercely honest gestures of the bohemian have revealed the manner in which fashion can communicate individual passions and authentic cultural meanings as effectively as it tries to disguise or mould them.”

This legacy has been complex. As Brewer argues, it means that for “many less privileged consumers, the progressive politics of bohemianism offered a more sympathetic framework for dressing the self.”

As capitalism has progressed, it has taken the ideas of both the dandy and the bohemian. To be fashionable is to be modern, yet on another level, clothing is understood to reflect something of our moral fibre. As Frances Corner writes in Why Fashion Matters: “Where, why and how we choose to buy our clothes has become a reflection of who we are, and as consumers we are ever more keen to explore and express our individuality through our purchases.”

Rebellious styles are often subsumed back into the mainstream by eager marketeers. Fashion curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Andrew Bolton wrote that “although punk’s democracy stands in opposition to fashion’s autocracy, designers continue to appropriate punk’s aesthetic vocabulary to capture its youthful rebelliousness and aggressive forcefulness.” Similarly, socialists will be familiar with the feeling of dismay at seeing capitalists cashing in on the symbolism of Frida Kahlo and Che Guevara.

But to dismiss aesthetics as nothing more than marketing ploy would be to miss the point. Speaking at the Fashion Retail Academy late last year, British Black Panther Neil Kenlock told of how the politics of the Black liberation movement formed him as a young man. Aligning his personal style to the aesthetic of the movement, while not his primary focus, helped him to express this newfound identity.

Under capitalism, one person’s form of self-expression becomes another’s quick buck. In Stitched Up, Tansy Hoskins wonders what fashion would look like post-revolution. “Will we all have to wear Maoist smocks?” She argues that in fact, artistic work would flourish, a precious means of expression that could not be automated, as some dystopias imagine.

Hoskins argues that a different economic model would treat a myriad of problems in fashion. Social production “would end unsafe working practices, because no one is going to vote to work in a death trap… [it] would end over-production because no one not reliant on wages is going to vote for 15-hour days seven days a week on an assembly line to produce 20 billion pieces of clothing… [it] would bring about a return for use-value over exchange value.”

Fashion, clothing and style are always reflections of the culture at hand, nothing more, nothing less. If revolutionary style is reappropriated by capitalism, it is because of its need to cut revolutionary movements off before they begin, and siphon their energy into reforming a broken system.

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