The Uniform of the Black Panther Party
Since the construction of fashion standards and ideals during the Renaissance, how we choose to dress has become significantly more complex than simply a matter of what will best keep us warm. Clothing is no longer merely a practical measure but a language of expression, a visual signifier of power, economics and individuality.
Throughout history, counter-culture movements have harnessed, manipulated and experimented with the established fashion conventions of a particular society in order to communicate resistance, collectivity and an idealistic identity. The meaning created in such visual rhetoric has the potential to be both transformative and timeless, as exemplified by the suffragette’s adoption of the iconic white, green and purple colour scheme during the fight for women's voting rights in the early 20th century. A subcultural pattern of code which has since become a universal symbol for feminism and move towards a more egalitarian society.
It has become a reoccurring theme, particularly in the last century, for various activist and revolutionary groups to challenge oppression in creative, original and eccentric forms of dress as a means of attracting attention and raising awareness around their given cause. It is a process that infuses the specific style with meaning, empowerment and cultural significance, which has consequently seen a number of leading names in the fashion industry take inspiration from some of history’s most pivotal moments – a controversial affair that has raised debates surrounding influence, authenticity and appropriation.
Pussy Riot, an extremist, punk-inspired feminist group have arguably conducted some of the most renowned protest movements of the last decade. Distinguished by their pink cat-shaped beanies and handmade balaclavas, the anti-establishment group have conducted an array of affrontive guerrilla acts, from their sacrilegious attack on Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, to invading the most televised World Cup Final back in 2018. These demonstrations were carried out in support of feminism and LGBT rights, endowing visual appearance with a sense of resilience, community and self-governance. The distinctive pink hats made their industry debut at Angela Missoni’s Fall 2017 Milan show, who sought to bring the relevance of the Pussy Riot’s cause to the forefront of the fashion world, proclaiming that women’s rights are human rights in the show’s finale.
The contemporary pertinence of Missoni’s exhibition is what made the event so credible and praiseworthy given the awareness it bought to the public understanding of Pussy Riot’s purpose. However, the same cannot be said for artistic directors who seemingly appropriate the self-made power, built from years of struggle and oppression, that certain styles and accessories possess. Take Maria Grazia Chiuri’s Dior SS17 collection for example, where throughout the course of the show every single model wore a black leather beret, an iconic fashion piece popularised by the revolutionary political organisation Black Panther Party. To take the connotations of liberation, justice and autonomy associated with the militant beret, with over forty years passed since the death of the party, and resituate them in the context of high-end fashion is a matter of contention. This leads us to ask, what are the implications of using parts of history for commercial and artistic means?
Black Panther Berets
With more and more designers recognising the space the catwalk provides for political commentary it seems that ‘power dressing’ shows no signs of slowing down. Demna Gvasalia’s SS20 European Parliament inspired Balenciaga collection seems to be the most self-conscious take on this trend. His casting of ordinary people (students, artists engineers, waiters, architects, etc.) to model the collection and ‘New Fashion Uniform’ aesthetic drew on the French rail network strikes and raised questions of where power really lies - with the politicians or the masses?
It is clear that the runway provides a fruitful space for active political engagement and when designers make the choice to go political they must recognise the associated subjective, cultural and historical meaning this adds to their exhibition. Despite many designers respecting the significance of these factors, the very fact that some fail to do so highlights a certain level of ignorance rooted in the high-end fashion industry, where commercial and aesthetic values are prioritised over basic moral principles.