November 11, 2011 9:52 pm

Dress to protest

How do you signal your membership in the underground when its clothes have become part of the establishment?

One of the prime complaints about the ever-burgeoning Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement that has gripped cities worldwide from London to Ljubljana and Reykjavik to Rio since it started in the summer in New York, has been the diversity of its protest. Yes, it’s about that whole 1 per cent versus 99 per cent thing, and bankers and bonuses, but also education, healthcare, taxes, public transport – you name the cause, it seems to be in there. Non-sympathisers, unclear about the overall aim of the movement, whine that they are confused.

I sympathise with the whiners to an extent, largely because I think the source of the confusion goes beyond words to style – or to be specific, the lack of it. If the demands of the OWS-ers are myriad and diffuse, so too are their looks, and not because they are living in a public park and have limited access to wardrobe, but because there actually isn’t a unified aesthetic to the movement.

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Vanessa Friedman

As David Hayes points out in his article on duffles, previous counterculture campaigns have all had a defining look: long hair, tie-dye, flowing peasant skirts in the 1960s; long hair, duffles and denim towards the end of that decade. Jeans, of course, often faded or shredded. Spiky hair and ripped T-shirts and safety pins in the late 1970s. Thus did angry youth signpost their values, and thus could outsiders both identify them and respond.

But not anymore. Consider this list of outfits in Manhattan’s Zuccotti park, as observed by Barney’s Simon Doonan: H&M angora scarf, fake Le Sportsac bag, Urban Outfitters checked shirts, and Woodstock-ready Birkenstocks. In other interviews, protesters have name-checked Club Monaco, American Apparel and Michael Kors. Kanye West went down to lend his support in a Givenchy plaid shirt (reported cost: $355) and Susan Sarandon showed up in very trendy polka dots. The net effect is less “We Are the World” than “We Are Fifth Avenue (or Regent Street)”.

Arguably, this is partly because so few clothing options remain when it comes to rebellion or protest, high fashion having co-opted them all. Vivienne Westwood took the trappings of punk and put them on the catwalk, followed recently by Balmain. Skulls have been embraced by the luxury community from Alexander McQueen to Lucien Pellat-Finet and Garrard. Black leather is a staple of brands such as Junya Watanabe, Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh, all of whom show to wild acclaim in Paris. Ripped denim is an essential at D&G and Just Cavalli. T-shirts now cost upwards of $100 at Theyskens’ Theory and Jil Sander. Lanvin is doing trainers, and Liberty is about to strew flowers all over Doc Marten’s, the workwear boot of choice.

So what’s a poor counterculture participant to do? Or rather to wear? How do you signal your membership in the underground, when the clothes of the underground have become the indulgence of the establishment?

It’s a problem because, despite the OWS-ers being against the trappings of capitalism, clothes do matter in these situations. Historically, successful movements have had a uniform, even if it isn’t formal: it creates a sense of visual unity that matters; a sense of belonging to a group. There’s a reason Supreme Court justices all wear the same robes: it makes them look like they are on the same page. It’s the same reason armies and schools have uniforms; a reason why the Black Panthers wore blue shirts, black trousers, and black leather jackets. I’m not saying OWS has anything to do with any of these groups, simply pointing out that despite their disparity, they share one strategy: consistent clothing choices. It also makes them easy to remember.

. . .

Yes, OWS is all about democracy – or what Princeton professor Cornel West identified as “a democratic awakening” – and democracy is about individual choice. But it is not about anarchy (or mostly not; there are some anarchists involved), and right now the movement has a visual anarchy that leads to the perception of confusion on the part of outsiders. And that is not in the protestors’ interest. This is a media age, and the image you present matters.

Perhaps the really subversive thing to do would be for everyone to wear suits – assume the outfit of the enemy! – that could degrade over time, along the lines of a sign that read “this country was built by men in denim and will be destroyed by men in suits”, except that instead of destroying the country, the OWS-ers would be symbolically destroying the suit. This might also inspire some regular suit-wearers to resort to their weekend mufti to distinguish themselves from the protesters, which might in turn inspire an entirely new kind of professional dress, which really would be a revolution.

In the meantime, I wonder why some fashion brand hasn’t offered to outfit the protesters: why it hasn’t gone down to the sit-in site and handed out, say, warm sweaters or trench coats as temperatures drop. Kanye West, whose debut fashion line in Paris did not get the warmest reviews, could use this as an opportunity to get his name out there and show how good his clothes look on all sorts of people, while Vivienne Westwood, who showed up earlier this month at Occupy London, seems another obvious choice.

After all, wouldn’t the gift of a uniform be more helpful than just the gift of their occasional presence? And just think of the marketing potential – for both groups.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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