Fashion Flashback: Social Protests Through the Lens of Fashion

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It is a hard to consider in these uncertain times of social protests and a health pandemic flaunting your personal style and any new fashion trends. Uncertain times causes most folks to hunker down and hope for the best. Fashion is not on the menu. Or is it?

If you carefully consider some of the social movements over the past 60 years, fashion and social movements are often compatible bed fellows.  You cannot think of the tumultuous 1960s without reflecting on bell bottoms, tie-dyed shirts, flower power, frayed jeans, granny skirts, long hair on men, and even miniskirts. Most of the 60s fashion evolved out of a growing youth movement and protesting the establishment. Remember, fashion often reflects the times we are living in!!

Fashion Reverie looks back at how fashion over the last six decades has been influenced by political protests and cultural upheaval. You may be surprised to discover that some social protest-induced fashion survives to present time!!

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The Black Power Movement Style

“We want the power for the people
That’s all we ask in our country, dear
The sick and the hungry are unable
Protect them and those who may live in fear”

—Curtis Mayfield

No other 60s social movement organization represented power to the people more than the Black Panther Party. With their black berets and leather jackets, the Black Panther Party not only fought against a corrupt racist, capitalistic system, the Black Panther Party also instilled a sense a pride and the virtues of black empowerment.

While some Americans were terrified of empowered African Americans boldly brandishing firearms—which was their constitutional right—others were inspired by the Panthers’ militancy and incredible sense of style. Young African Americans who never joined the ranks of the Black Panther Party adopted the Panthers bold, big naturals, black berets, and black leather jackets. This defiant look also carried over to films of the late 60s and early 1970s.   

In the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, black anti-heroes were militant, defiant, and kick-ass.  You have the character of John Shaft from the 1970 movie “Shaft” in his hip-level black jacket with black turtleneck. Tamara Dobson in “Cleopatra Jones,” though glamorous, was a badass brandishing firearms and karate kicks in sexy militant garb. And who can forget “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” starring Melvin Van Peebles as a black vigilante out to get corrupt cops; also in black jacket with black hat tipped to the side!! The dude had serious ‘Power to the People’ swag.

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Flower Power Style

“War, huh, good god
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing, listen to me”

—Edwin Starr

The 1960s was a hotbed of social change.  Vietnam War protests and an anti-establishment cultural shift prompted a re-examination of cultural norms, political points of view, and racial injustice. All these cultural and political shifts were not only reflected in political marches on the ground but also in music, film, theatre, and fashion. Remember, the 1960s produced such counterculture watershed theatrical and musical experiences like the musicals “Hair,” “Tommy,” and “Godspell,” and such rock n’ roll acts as Sly and the Family Stone, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airship, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and Janis Joplin.

All this political unrest and cultural shifts were fodder for a youth culture that was set against making war and America’s imperial aspirations. Instead of strength through the military industrial complex, youth culture wanted to make love, not war. Flower power and a peaceful existence replaced macho expansion.

Many fashion designers of that era took up the clarion call. Betsey Johnson, Paco Rabanne, Mary Quant, and Barbara Hulanicki tapped into this anti-establishment thrust and created garments that reflected the love and peace mood of the hippies and drew inspiration from musical groups of that time, even dressing many of them.

Punks hanging out on the Kings Road, London 1983

“When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?”

—The Clash

The Punk Revolution

If you are old enough, you probably remember The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, The Clash, The New York Dolls, and The Damned. What you may not know is that Punk music developed out a British music scene and in many ways was an anti-establishment response to the austerity of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in the late 1970s as Great Britain’s first female prime minister, one of the first things she did was open Great Britain to free markets. She also marginalized trade unions, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and cut government spending. These measures hurt the working class in Great Britain and helped fuel the existing Punk movement. (One of the themes of the musical and movie Billy Elliot was Britain’s coalminer’s strike of the early 80s.)

The Punk movement expressed itself in loud, cacophonous music and clothes that were anti-establishment. Instead of buttoned-down shirts and smart suits, punk rockers donned torn tee shirts safety pin-embellished clothing, tartan kilts, combat boots, tight leather clothes, mohawks, shaved heads or hair dyed in bright colors.

British fashion designers Vivienne Westwood and Zandra Rhodes were early Punk devotees with Jean-Paul Gaultier and Versace making Punk fashion more commercially viable. And you could not watch any MTV videos in the 80s without seeing Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles, the Go-Go’s, Adam Ant, and Billy Idol in Punk garb.

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“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”

—Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five

Rap, in-your-face swag

Though more of a cultural phenomenon than a political expression, rap and later hip-hop music does have its roots in political unrest. If you lived in most US urban cities in the mid to late 1970s, you were surrounded by poverty and a failing political infrastructure. There were failing public schools, high unemployment, burned-out buildings, and New York City was flat broke.

This almost-dystopian culture caused many young MCs to write about the failing infrastructure of American urban cities. While some early rap gave voice to partying and feeling good—the Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and DJ Kool Herc—other rappers like KRS One, Kool Moe Dee, and Grandmaster Flash rapped about urban decay and self-empowerment. And as with all political and cultural shifts, fashion soon appropriated the swag style associated with rap music.

Early fashion designers that capitalized on rap music’s urban swag were Dapper Dan, Cross Colors, Joanne Berman, and Karl Kani. In the 1990s Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Sean John followed suit, making rap and later hip-hop fashion a commercial success.

Now you see rap/hip hop fashion everywhere. From Timbaland boots to oversized jeans to doorknocker earrings to graffiti-painted jackets; all still done with great swag and style.

—William S. Gooch


  1. […] Reverie Talks,” the panel and Gooch discuss his wonderfully insightful piece entitled Fashion Flashback: Social Protests Through the Lens of Fashion. In the episode, Gooch explains his inspiration for writing the piece and dives deeper into each […]

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