We use clothing as a means of communicating. For example, a pair of black combat boots tells a different story from the “I Love Yorkies” sweater my grandma wears. For this reason, the clothes we wear and the way we wear them have been used in the name of resistance to fuel numerous activist movements.
Throughout the past decade, we’ve witnessed social media’s ability to mobilize millions of people who all believe in the same cause. Accompanying the increased outreach of movements like Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives, there has been an increase in “activist merch.” Because of the internet, I can create a logo and order 500 shirts with that logo within 10 minutes. If you go to the website of any movement, more times than not you will find a button on the home page saying Merch, Shop, or Store. It’s understandable. What we wear is supposed to represent who we are and what we believe, so if I can just buy a t-shirt reading ‘Women’s March” I will, because it is, in a way, the easiest way to show people I support the movement.
However, there is a crucial difference between apparel activism and fashion activism. For starters, fashion activism was popularized in the early 20th CE as a means of advancing social change whereas apparel activism has relied on the more recent mass production techniques of websites like Custom Ink. Apparel activism would be the example of the Women’s March t-shirt, but fashion activism require much more creativity. Fashion is stringing pieces together to make a statement. Apart, these components may become meaningless. In fashion, even the thinnest textile can carry so much weight. Wearing a t-shirt with the Greenpeace logo has a completely different impact than from wearing a dress made from recycled cardboard and bottle caps.
But, you don’t have to DIY some extravagant outfit for it to be considered fashion activism. Some of the best and most memorable statements have been made from simply breaking fashion norms. Take Drag for example — an art form that dates back centuries. While we generally link Drag with the LGBTQ+ community, it originates far from this association. Surprisingly, cross-dressing was once a crucial part of tribal rites of passage for great civilizations such as the Aztecs, Incas, and Egyptians. Then, Ancient Greecians began using cross-dressing as a performance art in their theaters. Ironically, it was then adopted by sectors of the Church, who used drama to explain their worship to their illiterate members. When theater transitioned into a less religious ordeal, women were still banned from performing, so men took their place until the late 1800s. In most of Shakespeare’s plays from the 16th and 17th CE, there was not a woman to be seen on stage.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the LGBTQ+ community adopted this artform. For decades while TV and film ridiculed cross-dressing and portrayed it mockingly, real Drag Queens were forced into hiding, performing in underground nightclubs. A notable figure during the mid-20th CE was Marsha P. Johnson, an African American transgender woman and self-identified drag queen who worked tirelessy as an LGBTQ rights activist.
Pictured above: Marsha P. Johnson showcasing her iconic flower crown.
She is most famously credited with leading the Stonewall Riots against police brutality, after the police raided the gay bar at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1969. Her contributions helped bring transgender people of color to the forefront of the gay liberation movement — a spot prevously occupied by white cisgender people. A year after the riot, the first gay pride parade was held in honor of the anniversary.
Pictured above: An image from the very first gay pride parade in New York City on June 28th in 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots.
Johnson didn’t stop there, however. She recognized that many transgender youths were kicked out of home, and forced to live on the streets. Thus, she founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which is an organization that provids housing for the homeless and welcomes the transgender youth. She also was quick to recognize that, for expressing themselves through fashion, many people in the transgender community were ostracised and refused work opportuinites. Those who couldn’t find work were often forced into prostitution, until Johnson provided shelter for them. Her activism didn’t only focus on the LGBTQ+ community. She worked tirelessly to fight for all sex workers, prisoners, the homeless, and people who were HIV positive. Devastatingly, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River on July 6, 1992. There is still mystery surrounding the case — which was ruled a suicide.
Due to Johnson’s influence, New York’s LGBTQ+ community came out of hiding, creating a powerful movement during the 80s and 90s. She spent her life advocating on behalf of multiple communities, all while sporting jauntry outfits, extravagant flower headpieces, and a radiant smile. As drag became more prevalent, drag queens gained huge followings and mainstream media portrayed a more accurate and more flattering depiction of them. They, again, remained outspoken during the AIDS epidemic, which deeply affected the LGBTQ+ community. Then, in 2009, drag was pushed even further into mainstream media with the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Pictured Above: The cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10, Spring 2018.
Over 100 Drag Queens have competed on the show so far, each bringing their own take on drag with various styles, aesthetics, and characters. Many have shared heart wrenching details of their past, like Valentina talking about her battle with eating disorders, or Kim Chi discussing hiding drag from her parents. Their stories represent the human experience in a form we have never experienced before. Through breaking every fashion norm, they’ve branched off into a new genre of fashion, creating a huge circle of influence. After decades of being outspoken activists, their contributions to marginalized groups are finally being recognized, and many drag queens have perfected the craft of turning fashion into political and social statements, effectively employing fashion activism.