The moralities of protest clothing

01.08.2018 | Culture , Fashion | BY:

Four years ago, Nigerian author/activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published a book length essay titled “We Should All Be Feminists.” In summary, the book is an outstanding revelation which aims to give a definition to modern day feminism and it’s relevance to society.

In 2013,  Adichie delivered a TEDx Talk on the subject which was sampled by Beyonce in her 2013 hit single ***Flawless. This boost of popularity as an author/activist introduced to pop culture was just in time for the book’s launch. 

In 2017, three years after the launch, for her debut as the first woman to take charge as creative director of french fashion house Christian Dior, Maria Grazia Chiuri presented her SS17 collection which included a t-shirt aptly-bearing the title of Chimamanda’s essay , “We Should All Be Feminists.”  Since then, the t-shirts have gained popularity and have been sported by celebrities and influencers such as Rihanna , Jennifer Lawrence, ASAP Rocky, Chiara Ferragni, etc. To say this trend was a success is a gross understatement.

And as we have witnessed time after time, messages being told through fashion tend to often have quite an effect: dating from as far as back as the 80’s when fashion designer Katharine Hamnett wore a T-shirt in protest against nuclear missiles in her meeting of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. More recently Black Lives Matter protesters marched through American streets bearing variations of the slogan across their chests after the Trayvon Martin injustice, and who can forget the jacket which read “I Really Don’t Care Do You?” worn by Melania Trump on her way to visit a migrant facility in Texas.

While these garments might carry notes that can contributive to a mass shift in society, as anything that involves the internet, there are pitfalls of going ‘too’ viral.

Two seasons ago a version of the We Should All Be Feminists t-shirt was seen on the Milanese runway for the budding menswear Sunnei – an innocent play on words, altered to “We should all be Sunnei”. One might argue that such an artless move could do no harm.

Sunnei FW18 | credit: Giacomo Cabrini

However, this is where the watering down of an important message begins. Now personalised versions of the book title can be spotted on influencers, fans etc. and although the intent might be innocent, the message is undoubtedly weakened.

It’s like playing Chinese whispers. In the end, you risk losing parts through transition, but in this case, its much more important than a game. When Black Lives Matter protesters created T-shirts with the slogan it was to emphasise the fact that black lives matter, not to leave room for “All Lives Matter” spin-offs which disregarded and disrupted the original message, or when Melania Trump wore the jacket that read “I Really Don’t Care, Do You?” some might say the First Lady was genuinely sending a message henceforth the internet’s effort to change the writing to something positive was besides the point.

So I believe it’s safe to assume that when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie penned this essay, it was for the purpose of speaking out against the heinous acts of sexism, and likewise Maria Grazia Chiuri when she incorporated the unaltered title as apart of her collection. So might we be reminded that protest t-shirts and whatever other forms of fashion used to send messages, are not for the purposes of individualisation or modification, regardless of innocent intentions, but for the sole motive of emphasising an important message using an art form which can be easily outspread.

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