This May marks half a century since the student protests in Paris, and while those taking to the streets in 1968 might have been more concerned with overthrowing the system, their look is enjoying a moment on the 2018 catwalk.
For her autumn/winter show this February, Maria Grazia Chiuri, the creative director of Christian Dior, sent out a collection that was inspired by images of the 1968 protests. It included kilts, slouchy sweaters, patchwork jackets, flat boots and baker-boy hats. Models walked down a catwalk papered with words and phrases including “protest” and “women’s rights are human rights”. Thus the student look made an appearance in the rarified environs of the Musée Rodin.
Chiuri is not alone in referencing 1968. Gucci’s advertising campaign Gucci dans les rues – Gucci on the street – released last month, reimagined the protests at the Sorbonne. One image showed well-dressed models scaling the building with banners, another recreated a sit-in. An accompanying video staged a march, complete with signs and chanting, and one model wrote the words “liberté” and “egalité” on the walls of a public bathroom.
Of course, these designers are not just referencing the 1968 protesters because their uniform of polo-necks, miniskirts, knee-high boots and cross-body bags play out well in the retro-tinged world of Instagram – political statements are just one way to reach a younger consumer. Those marching in the 60s have counterparts these days in a generation who are increasingly interested in politics and know how to use images to make their point.
In Vogue’s February issue, fashion critic Sarah Mower wrote: “In little over a year since Trump’s election, the subversive possibilities of visual communication in clothing have unleashed an astonishing, uplifting, do-it-yourselves level of creativity. The like hasn’t been seen since the marches and protests of the youth uprisings of 1968.”
The mismatch between a global luxury brand and the ragtag uniform of students has, of course, also been noticed. “There is no little irony in a company like Dior embracing the accoutrements of the counterculture and the uniform of protest,” said one review of the Dior show, while Adweek concluded that “Gucci’s 60s-inspired student protest ad misses the point about why we’re all mad”. In 2015 Chanel’s catwalk feminist protest was criticised by Natasha Walter, who said Karl Lagerfeld was using the energy of feminism to “flog expensive clothes”.
But there is no denying that marches and protests are a part of the cultural conversation again. Celebrities including Rihanna, Amy Schumer and model Adwoa Aboah attended the women’s marches in 2017 and 2018 – and posted about it on Instagram – while Stormzy used the Brits in February to rap about the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Slogan T-shirts for sale at Topshop and Forever 21, which were once in-jokes, are now more likely to display the wearer’s political allegiances.
Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the T-shirt: Cult-Culture-Subversion exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum, looked closely at the history of protest in fashion. He thinks designers are “more interested in making statements, about taking a point of view than they [have been] in years past”, perhaps as a way to appeal to a politically engaged generation. “The current situation in the world has galvanised a whole group,” he says. “The T-shirt remains a great vehicle for making a point. Though, as Katharine Hamnett says, you can wear the T-shirt but you need to take action as well.”
But are politically-associated images reworked for fashion just a cynical cash-in? Women’s rights is the issue that has had the most traction in fashion, and it’s an established part of the industry. For spring/summer 2018, Miuccia Prada said the collection was about “suggesting militant women in a very practical way, through clothes”. One of the most notorious protest T-shirts of recent times reads, “We should all be feminists” – a quote from the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was first seen in Chiuri’s collection in 2016.
It is also down to Chiuri that the beret – an item associated with radicals ranging from Che Guevara to Angela Davis – is fashionable again. She put it on her catwalk in 2017.
Krista Suh is arguably an activist in the lineage of those on the Paris streets in 1968 – though, as a digital native raised in the age of social media, she also knows about the power of fashion as a visual statement. Suh created the Pussyhat Project in late 2016, providing a knitting pattern for the pink knitted hats with cat-like ears on her website. The hats became the accessory of the women’s march in January 2017, worn by millions.
“The pussyhat is an example of using our bodies as a form of protest,” she says. Hats like this were then worn by models on the Missoni catwalk the following February, and Suh is positive about the look of protests moving on to the catwalk. “Big fashion houses get criticised for using symbols created by youth movements, but I think these symbols are meant to be used,” she says. “If they choose to use their platform [for] women’s rights, I support that.”
Suh’s latest project is “evil-eye gloves”, knitted with eyes on the front or back and designed to be worn on a march organised by the students of the Florida school shooting.
“I’m calling on you to help make the sea of eyes a reality,” writes Suh on her website. “To make a statement that enough is enough and gun violence has to stop.” Seeing these tropes on the catwalk rather than high fashion could only help the cause, she says.
“High fashion tends to be exclusive but movements need to be inclusive … I don’t think evil-eye gloves or pussyhats on the runway exclude people from [knitting them] themselves,” she says.
“If anything, it helps spread the word.”
Politics on the catwalk
Yves Saint Laurent showed camo fabric at the height of the Vietnam war. In the same year he underlined his controversial reputation with his 40s collection, harking back to the second world war.
Katharine Hamnett, attending an event at Downing Street, met Margaret Thatcher and opened her coat. Her T-shirt read “58% Don’t Want Pershing”. The PM reportedly squawked like a chicken.
Five naked models, including Naomi Campbell, pledged allegiance to the animal rights organisation Peta with the advert “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”. Anti-fur campaigns are back on today’s agenda. .
The New York brand, Imitation of Christ, 2005, began a show with images of the Iraq war and models wearing military garb. A George W Bush impersonator sat on the front row.
Ashish Gupta, the Delhi-born designer, wore a T-shirt with the word “immigrant” for his bow on the catwalk at London Fashion Week.