In the months leading up to the 2020 US Presidential elections, the socio-political climate in the United States of America was visibly turbulent. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the country resounded with cries of racial injustice. Protests followed, and soon the world joined to participate in the Black Lives Matter movement – all in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Of the many things that came out of the movement, one was that the fashion and the cosmetic industry began to make strong political statements – more often about the importance of being aware of the socio-political happenings in the US and around the world, along with the significance of exercising the power to vote and bring about change.
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As brands began rolling out politically-relevant merchandise, celebrities took to social media to make public their political leanings. Hollywood began openly showing support for the socio-political movement, asking people to vote–one of the most effective ways of bringing about the change for which countless Americans had taken to the streets to protest. Accessories, clothing items, face masks that read ‘vote’, makeup trends and other similar fashion products, became more visible on social media and on America’s streets.
It was clear that fashion and beauty brands that had previously stayed away from social and political causes now wanted to acknowledge the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. Soon, the voices of the Black community were amplified. But did their personal sense of fashion change? indianexpress.com reached out to some social media users to understand how the movement has impacted their personal style, and how their clothes and accessories have become a way of expressing their political leanings.
A culture that inspires fashion
For 39-year-old Corey Wright from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, denim pants, fitted sweatshirts and T-shirts make up his wardrobe’ but it is his culture that influences his style. “I don’t dress for functionality, but for artistic purposes,” he tells indianexpress.com.
Ever since the BLM movement started, Wright’s fashion choices have changed. “Before this, I would buy something because I liked it. Now, I’m more specific about my purchases,” he says. Now before buying a piece of clothing, he asks himself several questions: where is the money going? What does the company stand for? Is it a Black-owned company?
Just like Wright, Britnii Mitchell, 34, from Naperville, Illinois has found herself purchasing more apparel that symbolises the Black Lives Matter movement — T-shirts and shirts depicting iconic figures in the Black community, shirts with the movement’s slogans, etc. “I have always been a lover of highlighting Black history because I believe expressive fashion plays a significant role.”
Even for 35-year-old Aundrea Parsons, a Chicago resident, her personal style is heavily influenced by her culture, “I am a Black American; style has always been a part of movements,” she says.
Parsons says that many from the Black community “wore their hair in Afros to push back on Eurocentric beauty standards”. For them, fashion was always about equality and better living, something that will continue even after the 2020 presidential elections. “Being who I am includes representing myself in its fullest form. My style allows me to speak my views without saying a word. It started with my hair a decade ago, and right now I’m proud to take up that space as my whole self.”
‘Don’t need the BLM movement to tell me I matter’
While racial discrimination has historically been a socio-political issue around the world, it took the Black Lives Matter movement to finally galvanize people. So then, how has it shaped or even reshaped personal fashion?
“In its true sense,” says Parsons, “the BLM movement is simply a continuation of the fight for equality.” Wright agrees, saying that while the movement has been around for a while, “it is sad that people are only now catching up to it”. “So when someone joins, instead of asking ‘where were you?’, I say ‘welcome’.”
Parsons does not think that her personal style has changed much post the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, but these days, she does buy more shirts that read ‘Black Lives Matter’ or those that have black comic superheroes on them like Storm, Black Panther, Misty Knight, Bishop and other similar characters. “I have another that says ‘Black Women Matter’”.
But for 48-year-old filmmaker Jermaine Thomas from Los Angeles, who thinks of himself as a “laid back guy with an ever laid back fashion”, his style has never really changed. “As a Black man, Black has always mattered to me. I grew up in the ‘80s, during which I saw many Blacks kill other Blacks. I don’t need a movement to tell me that I matter. I have always mattered.”
Wright says now there is an increased interest in Black-owned businesses. “That’s not an exaggeration; fashion is a part of that search effort and I’ve contributed to that. I want Black brands to succeed and there’s no reason why they can’t or shouldn’t.”
Mitchell, who is bi-racial and teaches in a predominantly White high school, believes that wearing outfits to represent a particular political stance has never been an issue for her. “Some parents have an issue with my leanings, but it just reminds me that I need to keep going.”
Wright says he is comfortable expressing himself through his fashion because there are those who are “comfortable with their bigotry”. “So as long as those people exist, so will I.”
The politics of fashion
Fashion intersecting with race isn’t recent. Take Donald Trump’s victory for example, that led to the popularization of ‘MAGA’ hats among his followers, over the past four years. So, what is it that has been making fashion socially and politically relevant? According to some members of the Black community whom indianexpress.com interviewed, the US Presidential elections have significantly changed the game.
Wright says it always happens whenever the country gets around to vote. “I believe there has been an increase in this type of gear, but not because of the election. The last four years have seen a spike in candidate support via fashion. I hate the dumb ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, but that is the sort of thing I’m addressing. Barring that, I think people are in a place where they want to identify themselves and what they stand for more readily.”
Parsons is of the opinion that the recent trend of making unconcealed statements through clothes and accessories is here to stay — even post the US elections. “Mostly because it’s been here before the elections. A brand’s job is to make money and make their ‘thing’ a household name. I don’t personally think there’s anything wrong with a brand aligning themselves with something positive like a ‘VOTE’ merchandise,” she says.
Thomas however, has a slightly different view. He says that American social movements tend to be an ‘in the moment’ kind of thing. “We are always revved up during elections. Trends come and go here in the US. Not many fashion statements stay around for a long time. That’s why I try not to get caught up in them,” he says. “Also, America is an opportunistic country. We are experts at cashing in on the latest trends. As long as something is hot and trending, there is money to be made.”