Demonstrators raise their fists at the Lincoln Memorial on June 6, 2020, in Washington. Photographer: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The story of resistance through clothes.

By Taya Coates | Contributing Writer

Imagine seeing a group of Black men walking down the street at dusk. They are wearing T-shirts, shorts, snapbacks, and slides. Now imagine that same group of men with suits walking down the road. How would they be perceived now? 

An outfit molds the majority of a first impression, no matter who you are. But this automatic judgment can have dark consequences, especially for people of color. In the case of bright 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the difference between life and death ultimately was blamed on a hoodie. 

Each generation has communicated its ideals and morals to the outside world through clothing choice. The protest-goers of today dress very differently than the protest goers of the past. Part of the difference comes from changing fashion trends but mainly has to do with what the generation wishes to say.

Black panthers marching. Photographer: Stephen Shames

Before someone opens their mouth to speak, clothing provides the opportunity to make a statement about how they view themselves and the world around them. Black Panther founders Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, and Elbert Howard understood this and thus created the Black Panthers’ iconic image. You couldn’t miss the bold monochrome black looks. Truly like something off a runway, proud panthers often went to protest in black leather jackets, black pants, usually black or blue shirts, and finished the look off with a Black beret.

The most recognizable symbol, the black beret, was a nod to the many other military groups that wore them before them, such as Fidel Castro and the “Green Berets.” The hat choice was intentional and communicated a deeper understanding of not only the Black community’s struggles but the hardships of people everywhere. 

Their uniformity communicated seriousness, as did their policies. The Black Panther Party simply looked like it was one of the most controversial and revolutionary organizations of the 20th century. Never timid, they fought for civil rights and socialist policy.

The softer alternative to the renegade Black Panther and Malcolm X’s attitude was the non-violent Martin Luther King Jr. After the displays of worldwide anger that incited protests and riots in the summer, “Angry Black man” and “Angry Black woman” stereotypes have been a massive topic of discussion. 

Protesters at the March on Washington. Photographer: AP IMAGES

To take a different approach to protest, a group of Black men in Harlem decided to dress just as protestors from the Civil Rights Movement did when they marched to Washington and Montgomery. As explained by Selma Costume Designer Ruth Cater in a Refinery29 interview, “A man’s suit in the ‘60s was an everyday thing. A guy would walk into your home in a suit, and it would be reasonable. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that he came from work.” Naturally, as time has progressed, culture has leaned toward leisure rather than work. These men decided to peacefully take to the streets and pay homage while standing out in the best way. Rather than being a one time blast from the past, this viral effort may revive that standard.

A suit communicates education, wealth, and couth. By promoting a completely different image of Black men than the ones seen in the media, this group changed the world’s perspective for a second. Representation of Black men doing well is essential in an era when most of the famous images of Black men were either horrific videos of them facing police brutality or pictures of them breaking into businesses solely for their profit. Other organizations, such as the St.Louis chapter of 100 Black Men, also put on their suits to hit the streets and serve as an example for everyone watching.

In an interview with Vogue, Elias Hightower, a fashion consultant at the protest, said, “I asked myself, would I wear this to someone’s funeral? To a relative’s funeral? How would I bring myself? I almost wore Vans with my suit, but I knew I couldn’t do this by halves. This was really about changing the narrative and showing the power of dress.”

In addition to being an iconic Civil Rights Activist and Congressman, John Lewis impacted fashion with his personal protest style. He was on board with dressing his best but added a futuristic flair. At his funeral in August, Bill Clinton noted his fashion sense in his eulogy. “So he’s getting ready to march from Selma to Montgomery…He had a trench coat and a backpack. Now young people would probably think that’s no big deal, but there weren’t that many backpacks back then, and you never saw anybody in a trench coat looking halfway dressed up with a backpack.” he said. There is no way to know if Lewis created the trend, but it is definite that the mix of formal and casual clothing was ahead of his time. 

Men in Harlem protesting in June 2020. Photographer: Simbarashe Cha for The New York Times

Activism is changing, and today can be as easy as wearing a T-shirt with a message. You no longer need a full organized protest to communicate what you stand for. The T-shirt has defined this era of fashion, and now T-shirt activism is the next advent. With the rise of social media, this short and to-the-point messaging has become prominent over the subliminal. Black Lives Matter T-shirts were the inspiration for other causes to make statement shirts such as the Feminist movement and the LGBTQ+ community. The impact even made its way to the top runways in 2017, shortly after the first height of the BLM movement mid-2015. Black activists have always made waves in the fashion world, and the story only continues.

T-shirts aren’t the only trend that has recently come out of Black protest fashion. To draw attention to the injustice of the Trayvon Martin case, the Black community wore hoodies as a symbol of resistance. In New York in 2012, many took to the streets for the Million Hoodie March. Those thousands who could not attend the march used #HoodiesUp to share images of themselves wearing hoodies on social media. Along with the posts, links about how to help the Martin family were posted and helped spread awareness. This type of social media activism started with a hoodie and now has grown to become the most prominent way racism and police brutality incidents first break.

Sammy B. at Dallas City Hall protest on June 3, 2020. Photographer: Richard Andrew Sharum. 
Taya Coates
Taya Coates

Taya is a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA majoring in Fashion Merchandising and minoring in Journalism. She hopes to pursue a career as a fashion editor and eventually start her own publication. She is passionate about covering stories on style, social activism, and culture.