‘What I want, what I am, what you force me to be, is what you are.’ How Protests, Subcultures and Creative Criticism of the Mainstream Disrupt Fashion

If you’re a casual observer of the world of fashion, you may have the idea that what is fashionable and what isn’t is decided in the glittering halls and expensive marbled desks of iconoclasts like Anna Wintour and Tom Ford — editors of powerful magazines and designers who head elite houses of fashion. They set the tone, and their ideas slowly trickle down through the public consciousness and land in a highly bastardised and affordable version in your local fast fashion outlet. 

The ‘Rebel’ Status of the Beret

But fashion evolves in a myriad of sneaky, irresistible ways. The title of this piece ‘What I want, what I am, what you force me to be, is what you are,’ a quote from a Life magazine piece featuring the work of Black photographer Gordon Parks, reflects this messy mixture of influences and desires. Consider, for example, legendary African-American designer Stephen Burrows, who visualised the psychedelia of the 70s disco scene through his unforgettable vivid jumpsuits and signature lettuce hem dresses in cut-out primary colours, which are still wildly influential. And think about how you emulated your heroes when you were younger: the starred black beret favoured by Che Guevara; the asymmetric, liberating Mondrian T-shirts. Throughout the world, from as far back as the French Revolution, the way ordinary people choose to dress can carry great power. It can shatter conventions and lodge a provocative protest, like the suffragettes did in the 1850s when they refused to wear the heavy, stifling dresses of old and opted for a freer dress reform via the bloomer, named after leading activist Amelia Bloomer. Hundreds of years later, those very heavy, stifling dresses can be reimagined to subvert notions of female sexuality, as in the work of designer Aimee Belle Johnson, whose corsets-reimagined-as-outerwear present an alternative way to depict female liberation. Black berets are a common symbol of resistance, used as uniform for the IRA in Northern Ireland and the Black Panther Party in America. Huey Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panthers, took inspiration from a documentary about French Resistance fighters who also wore berets, cementing the ‘rebel’ status of the beret.

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Post udostępniony przez stephen burrows (@stephenburrowsworld)

T-shirts with a Slogan

Leaving aside revolutionaries for a moment, perhaps the most accessible, approachable and rather tired way of signalling one’s ideology is the slogan tee. An example of the insidiousness of capitalism, which monetises even the most radical philosophical ideas in the form of banal, mass-produced chunks, making it possible for anyone to easily buy T-shirts with their slogan of choice, from a snazzy red-and-black Barbara Kruger print to show your feminist credentials, to a colour-blocked picture of steely-eyed Guevara himself. 

Even so, you occasionally see a striking example of the slogan tee being used well, such as when Justice4Grenfell activists descended on the British Fashion Council’s spaces, enraged at the lack of action on behalf of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, wearing stark black-and-white T-shirts with a simple message emblazoned on them: ‘72 Dead And Still No Arrests? How Come?’ This prompted a wave which subverted the profit-driven underpinnings of the slogan tee industry — at least 50 artists and designers banded together with Everpress and Justice4Grenfell to produce limited edition T-shirts to raise funds for protest campaigns and to help victims of the Grenfell fire. More recently, when a picture of Senator Bernie Sanders looking grumpy went viral after the 2021 inauguration of the American President, Mr Sanders took the opportunity to slap the image on hoodies and T-shirts and sell them as official merchandise — with all proceeds going to charity.

Fashion Revealing Oppression and Injustice

In any case, though the machinery of the fashion industry is overwhelmingly capitalist and occasionally exploitative, the contributions and introductions of outsiders goes some way towards grounding it. A case in point is the work of designer Alexander McQueen, who found beauty in what others might find grotesque, otherworldly and disturbing. His show ‘Highland Rape’ brought to life the exploitation of Scotland through his examination of the violence inflicted upon Scottish lands and Scottish bodies during the Clearances and the Jacobite rebellions. McQueen unrolled a vast tapestry, Shakespearean in its dramatic flair and its violent, visceral intensity; elaborately conceived tableaus with torn dresses, colours bleeding into each other in a silent mime of pain. In this collection you can easily visualise broken twigs caught in greenish, sickly torn lace, skin with the dull marks of scrabbling fingers covered in earth, and the bright, sharp tartan prints which cut the air, almost in bitterness. McQueen, of course, was the embodiment of a certain kind of upstart punk aesthetic which revelled in bringing together the grotesque and the sublime. His work is perhaps the clearest example in the mainstream of the opposing, many-faceted and often highly personal influences that can shape the course of fashion for decades to come.

New Wave of Fashion Talents

Risqué nightclub culture, streetwear, subcultures, underground movements, protests and social campaigns all give rise to new cultures and mores of fashion which stand separate from mainstream fashion. Previously obscure subcultures, like those originating from New York nightclub GHE20 GOTH1K, as well as Afrofuturism and hood futurism, ebb and flow. They are produced in relative isolation before being picked up by pop stars and trendsetters and introduced into the mainstream, only to be revamped again by outsiders and rebels. 

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Post udostępniony przez DriP Gawd (@mowalola)

Mowalola Ogunlesi, Mowalola, London

Born in the bustling super-city of Lagos, Mowalola Ogunlesi attended boarding school in Surrey and went on from there to Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London, where she earned her BA. Ogunlesi is grateful to her parents — both of whose work is attached to the design industries — for letting her develop perspective and allowing her to pursue fashion seriously as an intellectual and creative vocation. Her experience at CSM then positioned her to examine her roots, and from there imagine a new world of her own making; imagine what she wanted the world around her to be in terms of representation and flexible standards of gender and beauty. The steel grey smoke of Lagos, skyscrapers and shanties, iridescent pools of oil dotting metalled streets, and the acrid smell of garages and petrol pumps permeates through her collections in the form of shiny, tight leather trousers, bold alternative influences from the 80s, and elusive splashes of bright neon colours. Ogunlesi plays with traditional notions of Nigerian masculinity with humour and panache by dressing ultra-macho men in thongs, a hint of lacy lingerie slyly emerging over their waistlines. There is a splash of Afrofuturism there, too, with chunky metallic accessories and reflective visors over cropped tops.

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Post udostępniony przez Lisa Folawiyo (@lisafolawiyo)

Lisa Folawiyo, Lisa Folawiyo, Nigeria

Ankara, a waxed, highly-durable fabric decorated with colourful prints, is nearly omnipresent in West African countries. Once you know what to look for — and with its bold, intricate prints, that’s not hard — you’ll see it everywhere. Reinventing such an intrinsic part of one’s culture isn’t easy, but designer Lisa Folawiyo seems to have done just that. Her label produces flowing, grand dresses, slim tailored pantsuits, and even pyjamas using locally sourced fabrics and the skills of local craftspeople. Folawiyo’s pieces are covered in delicate and precise beadwork which add detail to the vibrant patterns on the fabric, and each piece takes on average about 240 hours to decorate with tiny beads and crystals. In her clothes, you can see a whole map of cultural history and how it interacts with our present.

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Post udostępniony przez Kerby Jean-Raymond (@kerbito)

Kerby Jean-Raymond, Pyer Moss, New York

Kerby Jean-Raymond could with all accuracy be called the sociologist of fashion. His self-described approach to his label, Pyer Moss, is that of a ‘timely social experiment.’ And it’s true, his projects are a masterclass in orchestrating interaction between disparate notions of race, of giving emotive and powerful platforms and settings to those who are so often left out of the ‘American experience.’ In his ‘Collection 1’ campaign, Jean-Raymond shows us a world that exists in defiance of institutional racism. He shows us women of colour working as cowgirls, standing in denim jackets, arms crossed and their eyes amused as they stand next to a shiny-eyed horse. There are videos — haunting documentaries where people tell their stories and articles of clothing act as beacons of memory and experience — and photographs showcasing the details and experience of Black families. A project grappling with issues of female autonomy over her own body features a tee with red lettering asking women to ‘ignore all advice that starts with “ladies…”.’ It’s an effective use of the slogan tee conventions, a pithy and witty one-liner on a plain white expanse, but perhaps a bit too simple and gimmicky for the singular talents of Jean-Raymond. They come to the fore with great power in one moment on the runway, though, when a Black model walks down, dressed in silvery white, with a band running across their waist simply saying, ‘See Us Now?’

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Post udostępniony przez Nensi Dojaka (@nensidojaka)

Nensi Dojaka, Nensi Dojaka, London 

The Albanian designer Nensi Dojaka has managed to forge a singular vision of femininity via her eponymous label. Her designs are fragile things, with oddly placed seams and meticulous, asymmetrical lines, which deconstruct our assumptions of the feminine. Swooping and romantic, with strong echoes of McQueen, her work manages to be both heart-breaking and empowering. Dojaka draws references from the see-through mesh craze of the 90s to produce work which aims to reveal the societal creation of the female myth. Dojaka brings the inside to the outside, recontextualising delicate lingerie to make lopsided dresses which cast asymmetric shadows on models’ skin. Her work can often be painful to look at, deliberately misplaced seams seem to suggest a special kind of female trauma, and the transparent fabrics — which are layered onto to each other to provide a distinctive texture — seldom seem overtly sexual. They only show a rather chipped, hard vulnerability.

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Post udostępniony przez @maxwellosborne

Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, Public School NYC, New York

‘What I want, what I am, what you force me to be, is what you are.’

This quote, which serves as the title of this piece, is from iconic photographer Gordon Parks, the subject of a new Public School NYC campaign. Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow founded the label Public School NYC in 2008. Since then, the label has gone on to become quietly influential, infusing their signature blend of social conscience and sharply tailored clothes into the mainstream. There is a reason for this, and it is the obvious desire of Osborne and Chow to deal with difficult issues, to not look away from complicated and frequently unhappy instances of oppression. Their ‘We Need Leaders’ collection is simple at first glance, a collection of limited-edition T-shirts with photographs and slogans on them, but they highlight the work of celebrated photographer Gordon Parks, who photographed the lives of Black people in America in a uniquely unflinching, intimate way. Gazing from these T-shirts you will find men with jaded looks, exhausted by the relentless pull-pull-pull of small acts of racism, which forever add up every day. The shirts are made in collaboration with Version Tomorrow, a pioneering programme bringing sustainable practices and regular, recycled and organic cotton-made tees to the masses.

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About The Author


Trained as a sociologist at the University of Bristol and Columbia University. Works as a researcher embedded in multimedia projects in India. Writes and directs films, dabbles in audio storytelling, and has published fiction in literary magazines.

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