Fashion, the clothing and accessories we wear, has facilitated and symbolised racism. However, more recently, some fashion and clothing has supported the fight against racism.
During the 1960’s, US civil rights campaigners utilised fashion to embody their struggle. The Black Panther Party (BPP) iconically wore a set fashion style of blue shirts, black berets, and dark sunglasses to symbolise their more militant form of protest, while most famously, fashion was used in a direct anti-racism protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. At the 200 metres medal ceremony, gold and bronze medalist African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos staged a silent protest by holding up a black gloved-hand each. The gloves together symbolised black unity and power, while Smith also wore a black scarf to epitomise black pride. Both also went shoeless, wearing black socks to represent black poverty. The pair suffered greatly in the protest’s immediate aftermath, although have eventually been lauded.
One early example of how clothing has enforced racially-based subjugation is the so-called ‘Black Dandy’ of the 18th century. For entertainment purposes, and to show off their own acquired wealth, many slave owners made their personal slaves wear foppish dress which mimicked their own clothes. Just as the practice allowed slave owners to showcase their material wealth, it also mocked the idea that a black person could ever be fit to achieve status in society.
I single out the 18th century Black Dandy because of the way the term has been reclaimed by black men. Now, being a Black Dandy is to be a black man who dresses extremely elegantly with sartorial sophistication, and, as such, is seen as rejecting uniform notions of black manhood. Overall, more recently in the fashion industry, new clothing lines have supported diversity and enabled positive racial identity: expressing pride in and celebrating an individual’s skin colour, seeking to counter racial discrimination.
That’s not to say that the modern fashion industry is rid of discrimination, or even without examples of racist clothing. In fact, products actually put out to retail by well-known fashion brands demonstrate this, like Abercrombie and Fitch’s ‘Two Wongs Make a White’ 2002 line. Even this year, Italian brand Big Uncle apparently failed to consider the connotations created with their ‘Colonialism’ line, and H&M had to backtrack after producing a ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’ kids’ hoodie, advertised with a small black boy. Despite this, clothing lines like “Flexin’ in My Complexion” offer hope for the future.
11-year-old schoolgirl Kheris Rogers from Los Angeles created the line in 2017, after suffering racially-based bullying at school. The range seeks to empower people to love the skin colour they have and has subsequently received endorsements from the likes of actress Lupita Nyong’o and singer Alicia Keys, and has made more than $100,000 already. Rogers has consequently been propelled to role model status with interviews with media outlets like CNN following.
The burkini is another example of fashion today combatting racism by offering people empowerment via what they wear. In 2004, Australian Muslim Aheda Zanetti invented the burkini for her niece, so she could play netball without compromising her choice to wear modest clothing. The item was brought to wider attention by its use in an Australian surf lifesaving competition and soon became a worldwide fashion trend. It’s since been the target of anti-Muslim racism, with France’s banning of the burkini on security grounds not convincing many people, including Zanetti.
The journey of the burkini, from empowering Islamic women to becoming the subject of anti-Muslim racism, perhaps can be viewed as paralleling fashion’s mixed relationship with racism, sometimes enabling or symbolising it, other times countering it.