This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
May Day. Recognized worldwide as the International Worker’s Day, May 1 has come to symbolize a time for community organizing, political demonstrations, and social reform. In many ways, the start of May stands for the power of revolution and radical action, of workers’ rights and class struggle.
So, while style and luxury often feel frivolous next to these larger human causes, it’s important to remember: What you wear is a part of your identity, and identity is, well, pretty darn political. Social movements, class, and our gender roles influence (intentionally or not) the way we choose to represent ourselves, and throughout history, revolutions have played out inside of closets, on feet, or by a hemline. As we all know, style can help affirm — or disrupt — the status quo.
With that in mind, power to the (well-dressed) people.
The French Revolution Gets Rid Of Frills
“The French Revolution,” says Beth Dincuff, associate professor of fashion history at Parsons, “is a great place to start. Clothing, especially for women, gets so much simpler.” The ostentatious show of wealth that characterized Marie Antoinette — and much of late 18th century France — was no longer in vogue. Less expensive fabrics like muslin became more accessible, and the ornate bodices of “salon-style” gowns were generally anti-revolutionary.
Nowhere was this shift away from the monarchy more visible in the sans-culottes movement, which literally meant “those without culottes,” which were a fancy silk pant. The leftist sans-culottes stood for pro-labor, pro-equality ideals. Writes French historian Albert Soboul, “The sans-culottes often estimated a person’s worth by external appearance, deducing character from costume and political convictions from character; everything that jarred their sense of equality was suspect of being ‘aristocratic.'” Eek. And you thought wearing Crocs got you some serious looks…
Photo: Stapleton Collection/Corbis
The Bloomer Takes Pants Public
There may be no part of the woman’s body that has been so fiercely debated in Western society quite like the leg and what houses it. The bloomer was the first bifurcated garment for ladies, but it did more than just suggest that women craved less restrictive clothing; it also spoke to a desire women now had to “wear the pants,” so to speak, in their own lives.
Named after 19th century women’s rights advocate Amelia Bloomer, the long, tapered leg was often worn with a tunic or knee-length overcoat to allow for better movement. Writes Bloomer, “The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.”
The advent of the bloomer meant one thing for American and European women: They longed to be comfortable…and mobile.
Photo: CSU Archives / Everett Collection/ Rex USA
The Rational Dress Society Makes Sense
The bloomer was just the start. Says Dincuff, “Women are looking at men and thinking about how much more comfortable they appear.” Dincuff suggests that the bra-burning moment in the ’60s has its historical precedent during the late 19th century’s clothing reform. Nothing was more inhibited than the corset, and undergarment reform was one of the major parts of the “Rational Dress Society.” Tight-lacing, hoop-skirts, and heavy skirts became unfashionable, as the Society aimed for “…all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to birth, comfort, and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.”
Photo: Via Wikipedia
Suffragettes: Original Fashion Activists
Here’s a factoid that is still a bit shocking: 100 years ago, American women still didn’t have the right to vote. It wasn’t until 1919 that females were granted suffrage. The suffragette movement started in the early 20th century, and the way that women (often from the upper and middle classes) showed their unity was to wear coordinating colors. White, violet, and green became the classic hues of the early feminist movement — so much so that enterprising jewelers allowed women to show their pride by creating wildly popular “Suffragette jewelry” to send a message.
Photo: CSU Archives / Everett Collection/ Rex USA
In a similar vein to suffragettes wearing united colors, fashion has been used to create a national identity, one that helps fuel a countrywide revolution. Fashion as a mode of expression is perhaps most powerful (and totalitarian) when that expression is unified. Just like dress can be used to emphasize the identity, it can also be used to conform to a particular ideal.
The Bolshevik Revolution, which was the fall of the Russian monarchy to communism, is an excellent example of idealizing the uniformed worker. Peasant and proletariat items like aprons, rough cotton, rural dresses, and balaclavas became preferred over the more ornate styles of the bourgeoisie. In a heavily nationalistic revolution, style loses out to uniformity.
“Under the red banner, in the same ranks as the men! We bring fear to the bourgeoisie of the world,”Russian Posters Collection, 1919-1989 and undated, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Zoot Suit Riots Make An Oversized Statement
Though it’s the only men’s trend on this list, the racial and class implications of the Zoot Suit Riots shouldn’t be overlooked. In the midst of World War II, young Mexican Americans in the Los Angeles area were targeted by military servicemen who determined that the Zoot suit was unpatriotic. As Dincuff explains, “The Zoot suit used a lot of fabric, which was expensive during wartime, and is a super exaggerated fit. Sometimes the jacket goes down to the knee, which was a sign of wealth — and a lack of patriotism — when rationing was such a serious issue.”
By wearing the suit, poor Mexican men were able to flout authority and send a message to a government they didn’t feel invested in them.As Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “The question goes deeper than just suits. It is a racial protest. I have been worried for a long time about the Mexican racial situation. It is a problem with roots going a long way back, and we do not always face these problems as we should.”
Photo: Rex USA
Denim As The Great Equalizer
As most classic jeans brands have told us over and over again, denim started out as an inexpensive and durable material made for the working classes. Yet, in the ’50s, the narrative changed, with “outsiders” using the blue-collar associations of denim to mean something cool and anti-conformist. Dincuff suggests that, “Up until this point, denim belonged to the workers. But then you had Elvis and Marlon Brando recasting the jean as a cool, outsider material. It was a movement that belonged to teenagers.”
“Girls weren’t allowed to wear jeans to high school, so it was particularly taboo for women,” she goes on to say. “But in the ’60s, along with the beatniks, jeans helped usher in androgyny, and there was a move toward genderless fashion.” With blue jeans, men and women were beginning to dress not just similarly, but in the style of the worker — which signified counterculture. As Marshall McLuhan famously put it, “Jeans represent a ripoff arid a rage against the establishment.”
Photo: Everett Collection/ Rex USA
Miniskirts Make A Major Statement
We had a toss-up between the “bra-burning” and the rise of the hemline, both in the late ’60s, but Dincuff made an interesting point: “There was the idea of getting rid of confining undergarments for women for some time now. The rise of the hemline was really revolutionary.” Created by London’s Mary Quant and named after her favorite car, the miniskirt didn’t just symbolize a rejection of the “socially appropriate” but, along with birth control and rise of divorce rates, a sexual shift (as shown in the above still from the Antonioni film Blow-Up).
Perhaps the most famous wearer of the miniskirt was Gloria Steinem, who helped popularize the item as a feminist tool. Wrotefellow feminist Germaine Greer: “The women kept on dancing while their long skirts crept up, and their girdles dissolved, and their nipples burst through like hyacinth tips and their clothes withered away to the mere wisps and ghosts of draperies to adorn and glorify…”
Photo: Moviestore Collection/Rex/Rex USA
Anarchy In The U.K.
The everlasting effect of punk in fashion is the theme of this year’s MET Gala, and for good reason: The advent of punk was the first time fashion, societal anxiety, and music all coalesced on such an international scale. The March 25 issue of the New Yorker quotes Andrew Bolton, the MET curator who is behind the upcoming exhibit, saying, “Punk in London was music-based, but it quickly became a political, class-conscious thing.”
In his seminal book on subculture, theorist Dick Hebdidge points out a similar reason youths embraced the denim in the ’50s. By taking middle-class clothes, like ties, denim, work shirts, and vests, and aggressively destroying with holes, pins, and chains, punks were defying ’70s Thatcherite blue-collar norms. Says Bolton, “It was a very depressed time in London, and working-class kids were acting out the realities of being on the dole. The battle cry of the Sex Pistols was ‘No future — no future for you and no future for me.'” While no formal revolution took place, music and style helped send a disruptive worldwide message.
Photo: Feri Lukas/Rex USA
Protest Culture And Pussy Riots
Gil Scott-Heron might not be right: The revolution probably will be televised. Or YouTubed, tweeted, and live-blogged. With the advent of the Occupy Movement and the lightning-fast ways to share information, the current generation is not proving to be complacent. We all watched the drama of Pussy Riot play out, and saw the bright, solid-colored dresses and balaclavas come out to support the Russian group who stood up for women’s rights. (Color-blocking at its most progressive, right?)
Just like the Suffragettes or the socialist revolutions of yore, protest culture helps unify youth by showing a sort of “anti-establishment” uniform, be it a handkerchief and a hoodie at the G8 riots or the nylons and dresses of Pussy Riot. Always remember: Wear comfortable footwear (unless you are protesting against comfortable footwear), buy responsibly, and don’t forget to rip the system.
Photo: Rex/Rex USA
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