June 14, 2013 6:47 pm

What to wear at the revolution

Clothes have the power to provoke a whole set of assumptions and personal reactions on the part of a viewer
A Turkish riot policeman uses tear gas on a woman©Reuters

‘The woman in red’

Once upon a time, to most people, “the woman in red” meant a mediocre 1980s comedy starring Gene Wilder and Kelly LeBrock. Not any more. These days, the phrase is shorthand for the protests in Turkey over the past two weeks. That the latter has so overtaken the former is testament to the power of the image in the age of social media. And clothing has a lot to do with that power.

The picture of a woman, whose name (rarely used) is Ceyda Sungur, standing on the grass in Taksim Square in a puff-sleeved, scooped-neck, flared red frock and trainers, a tote bag slung over her shoulder, and then turning away, her hair blown up in the breeze of tear gas, went viral on the internet. It has since been made into a billboard in Izmir and inspired article after article. For me, the picture is not the starting point, it is the point. Or to be specific, there is a reason the photograph is not being called “woman being tear gassed.”

For me, this has to do with the power of clothes to provoke a whole set of assumptions and personal reactions on the part of a viewer; and with why clothes become the visual hook on which everyone hangs their horror. It’s not often that one single image comes to represent a point of change. Especially an image that is associated with clothes. I can think of only a few: the lone man in black trousers and white button-down shirt facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing; student Neda Agha-Soltan being shot in Iran, her hijab framing her face; students putting flowers on soldiers during the Prague spring. And, now, the woman in red.

The natural reaction is to assume the strength of the image has partly to do with colour: that it’s the red that draws the eye. This is true to a certain extent; just consider the photograph of the women MPs taken in 1997 when Tony Blair first won office, and the way the red suits stood out. Over a decade later, in a shot of masked men in black (also known as police), it especially demands attention. Plus there’s the whole red-equals-blood thing, and red-and-white are the colours of the Turkish flag; subliminal indicators that add depth to the colour narrative. And yet I don’t think it is the colour that is the point here. I think it has to do with the form itself.

Because here’s the thing: in that dress, with those shoes and that bag, the woman in red doesn’t look like an activist or a revolutionary. She’s not wearing any of the clothes we normally associate with protest movements, be it the Mao jacket or the safari suit. She doesn’t look like a soldier. Nor does she look like a student – another group we are used to seeing in protest mode – or, for that matter, a victim. She isn’t covering her head and cowering; she isn’t wearing traditional robes. She is wearing the sort of neat day dress that looks an awful lot like what is known these days as the “soft power dress”: the feminine look that has replaced the shoulder-padded jacket as the outfit of choice for very successful public women from Anna Wintour to Samantha Cameron.

In other words, she looks like a nice well-groomed working woman. She looks like us. Or to be more specific: she dresses like us. This is part of why the billboard of the photograph works so well. If clothes indicate membership in a group, Sungur’s clothes indicate membership of the professional classes. She seems recognisable – even though it’s very hard to see her face. And it’s seeing someone you recognise tear gassed that accounts for the power of the photo; it hits very close to home.

Whether or not that’s a good thing – whether we should all question our own assumptions and stereotypes – is a separate issue but I think it’s to be expected. And it makes me wonder if there isn’t a lesson here for propagandists everywhere. I have always thought an identifiable look is a good thing for any anti-establishment movement; it creates cohesion and visual identity. But it also, as this photograph demonstrates, creates distinctions: them over there, and us over here. It creates distance, philosophical and emotional. And, perhaps, that is not always such a good thing if you are trying to build support and to create a majority.

There’s a reason everyone in Washington seems to have adopted the Obama dark-suit-white-shirt-blue-tie uniform and a reason visiting dignitaries wear it too: reflective dressing sends team-building signals. It’s a psychological tool, as effective as any speech. Think of it this way: the woman in red is not a bad movie or a symbol; c’est nous.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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