Fashion activism: the debateable use of protest merchandise

A new article published on 21 August 2018, offers the opportunity to re-launch our blog post on the debate about fashion activism that, in our view, is definitively not the easiest way to change the world daily. Here is why. Without necessarily discrediting the work of fashion designers and fashion brands using show catwalks and […]

A new article published on 21 August 2018, offers the opportunity to re-launch our blog post on the debate about fashion activism that, in our view, is definitively not the easiest way to change the world daily. Here is why.

Without necessarily discrediting the work of fashion designers and fashion brands using show catwalks and glossy magazines for the greater good, it is necessary to highlight 3 main limits of the recent trend of fashion activism.

Let’s start with the easiest and most obvious. The boundary between self-promotion (and profit) goals and altruism lofty aims is difficult to establish. The doubt that the real objective is the former rather than the latter undermines the power of this activism and its communication.

Let’s continue with some elements for reflection. When t-shirts are very expensive (Dior protest t-shirt can cost more than €700,00) they automatically restrict fashion activism to wealthy people. These are not necessarily those who have first-hand experience of those issues the garments protest about.

Let’s finish with some food for thoughts. When well paid top models spread messages on behalf of those experiencing those issues the garments protest about, they cause 2 invisible drawbacks. On the one hand, they damage the dignity of the ‘victims’ of those issues. They are de facto absent from these activism actions and their communication, making them appear passive and lacking agency. On the other, they also weaken the fight against those issues on which the garments focus its protest. This is because the activism tha originates from these actions is both de-contextualised and transformed into a spectacle for the enjoyment of consumers.

Protest merchandise – like T-shirts – can be used in conventional and alternative tactics of activism.

Examples of the conventional tactic are public actions such as big rallies, protests and marches and other initiatives punctual, limited in time, and organised on occasions that are specific, exceptional, and unrelated or extra-ordinary people’s life. The communication approach of these conventional tactics is based on what Clemencia Rodriguez calls ‘epidemiological approach’. Sketchily, this means that social issues are compared to the consequences of a disease. When fighting a disease, specific communities are exposed to a vaccine campaign. Similarly, when fighting social issues target populations are exposed to a campaign with pre-designed messages. This unidirectional persuasive communication intends to promote attitudes and behaviours considered socially desirable or good and condemn those considered socially unacceptable or bad. This approach has one main limit. Although the largest possible population is exposed to specific messages related to specific issues, this is usually confined to the duration of these actions, producing time-bound benefits.

Fashion activism could be considered an example of an alternative tactic. However, the 3 main limits mentioned above remain a source of weakness for the campaign. Moreover, the protest message should univocal and put forward a unaninous demand for change, and it shoud be the outcome of a strategic approach. Wearing a fashionable scarve with the word Peace! printed on (picture on the right source Slow Factory website) it is not a form of activism, not a inspiration to mobilise activists, and definitively not an easy way to change the world.

Alternative tactics should take the form of what the guru of nonviolent actions, Gene Sharp, calls ‘political defiance’. This is a personal and everyday activism by everybody aiming at an ongoing public awareness campaign and based on an active, deliberate, provocative and non-violent mass mobilisation of individuals in their ordinary life. The communication approach of this alternative tactic is based on what Clementia Rodriguez calls a ‘social fabric approach’. Sketchily, this means that social issues are seen as a consequence of the erosion of the social fabric. Therefore, the intent of this multidirectional communication it to re-knit the social fabric around a specific issue creating an environment conducive to the expected changes in the society.

Unconventional activism actions carried out within people’s ordinary everyday life might be seen as having a weaker impact than traditional tactics. But this tactic shows 4 important benefits:

1) It allows a more proactive participation of activists who can feel empowered.

2) It spreads the message beyond the community directly involved in the struggle against the specific issue.

3) It exposes ordinary people to specific messages on a more regular basis and in their everyday life and beyond specific and punctual occasions of public actions. Being unexpected in such circumstances, these messages can provoke surprise that in turn can inspire reflection on the specific issue, and/or push people to question their and other people’s inaction or silence about a specific issue.

4) It reinforces the visibility of the issue producing a cumulative effect.

Ordinary and everyday people, not top-model well paid by famous brands, should protest of behalf of those facing the reality of social issues. Moreover, they should not ACT only now and then. After all, “you must be active to be an activist” (Ferrone) and possibly be proactive at your local level and in your everyday life. Acting as human billboards / walking advertisement, these activists can extend the visibility of the message and raise awareness about the issue, contributing to ‘re-knit the social fabric’ and creating an environment conducive to transformative social changes.

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