How Color in Fashion Has Been Used Throughout History To Display Political Solidarity

In regards to clothing, color has long been used to signify social or political status as well as denote other critical messages. For example, in Ancient Greece, deities were depicted in paintings with golden halos and locks—an association with the sun gods that sparked a movement in which people dyed their hair yellow as a means to feel closer to celestial beings. Then, during the Byzantine era, royal families dressed themselves in purple robes—which were highly expensive to produce at the time—as a way to express their societal standing. Back in the Middle ages, red, was thought to be symbolic of the blood of Christ and thus, was worn by kings to pronounce their majestic power and declare their God-given right to rule. While each hue has been used in distinct ways overtime, color continues to be a symbolic tool that can spread deeper, sometimes covert meanings, and this is especially true with the advent of social media, in which information and trends spread rapidly.

This has proven especially true for marginalized groups. According to Jonathan Square, a writer and historian who specializes in fashion and visual culture of the African diaspora, color is way to communicate a mood or political view without saying a word, and thus has served as a mechanism marginalized people have often used at their disposal. “One may not have access to the press or governmental structures, but you have control over how you dress,” he tells Teen Vogue. Hannah Craggs, senior color editor at trend forecasting consultancy WGSN, agrees, saying “Throughout history, color has been used as a tool of self-expression and peaceful protest.”

Square cites “black” and “pink” as two colors that have been frequently employed to convey specific messages. In the 1960s, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party originally as a means to protect Black people from police brutality happening in Oakland, California. During that time, the group donned their own “urban militant” uniform that included black leather jackets, black pants, and a black beret. The hue is now being utilized by the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, in which black banners, posters and t-shirts help spread awareness about issues pertaining to systemic racism and violence towards Black people. Darnell-Jamal Lisby, a fashion historian, scholar and independent curator, further asserts, “The Black Panther party formalized the uniform of all black because it showed a strength and solidarity.”

For the 75th Golden Globe Awards in 2018, the color black was also strategically used by female actors in support of the #TimesUp movement, which ignited in reaction to the Harvey Weinstein case, as well as the sexual misconduct and gender inequality that is pervasive in all realms of Hollywood. The conscious and serious color choice was a departure from the more traditionally feminine hues and styles typically seen on the red carpet, serving as a means of protesting harmful gendered prescriptions.

Regarding this moment, Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology and author of “The Black Dress”, told the New York Post, “Black has always had really complicated and multifaceted meanings.” Craggs argues the decision also showed how color can be used as, “an easy signifier to align with a cause” and in this case, that cause was steeped in equality and democracy.

In January 2019, women politicians wore white to the State of the Union as a means to honor suffragists, while also making a pointed statement about the landmark number of women elected to congress. Earlier, in January 2017 Hillary Clinton wore a white pantsuit to Donald Trump’s Presidential Inauguration. The color speaks to the work of women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who donned white while campaigning in the early 1900s, in an effort to portray “purity and virtue,” according to an CR Fashion Book article “The History of Women Wearing Suffrage White.” The article notes that, “as the movement spread, wearing white became an accessible way for anyone to join the cause.”

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