In the current tumultuous political climate, particularly surrounding the 2020 election cycle, the politically engaged are enraged, and they are unapologetically incorporating their politics into their wardrobe.
This type of political activism is not a new phenomenon. For decades, passionate members of politically charged movements have quite literally worn their politics on their sleeves, donning t-shirts, hoodies, and other fashion accessories calling for an end to some type of human injustice.
Four years ago, in 2016, one of the founders of the Palestinian streetwear brand HYPEPEACE said, “there’s a new generation of politically-engaged people, who are unapologetically expressing their solidarity with the oppressed.”
In 2020, as well as the past few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of this sentiment. We’ve seen political wear representing both sides of the U.S. presidential election, as well as streetwear taking a stance when it comes to stand-alone issues such as police brutality, women’s rights, sexual harassment, and climate change, among many others.
What Does Political Streetwear Look Like?
We have seen politically-charged statements like “I can’t breathe”, “my body my choice”, “me too” and “climate change is real”, as well as calls to action such as “defund the police” and “climate action now”.
These slogans resonate in the minds of the public as standing for a particular cause, and we can all associate these phrases with the movements they represent. Increasing the public consciousness of these movements and the injustices they battle is exactly what societal political streetwear is intended to do.
Leading up to the election in November, we saw an unprecedented amount of people wearing apparel with the simple plea “vote”. It was plastered on hats, shirts, socks, boots, and anything else you can think of. People were wearing these in the streets and posting photos in their streetwear on social media, bringing attention to the democratic duty to cast a ballot.
The voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election was incredibly high, setting a historical record. This proves that the grassroots, streetwear generation can make an impact in the political world through this age-old tactic.
How Did Political Streetwear Become Popular?
We can trace political streetwear back to the 1960s, where we see examples of political slogans being screen printed on t-shirts for the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s liberation movement, and the protesting of the Vietnam War.
There have been research studies conducted on the importance of streetwear in 1960s political movements. Wearing protest clothing during rallies and protests was seen as a symbolic form of expression and rebellion against the status quo.
In addition to the outward effects of political streetwear on the public perception of the issue, wearing this clothing created a sense of comradery within the movement. Each visual slogan served as a symbol of being part of the movement and letting other members know that you are in the good fight with them.
This type of grassroots was powerful, but perhaps not powerful enough to make meaningful change. This is where we begin to see brands and causes pushing to market these protest inspired shirts for a pretty profitable price.
Young people who were politically active may not be inclined to donate $50 or $100 directly to the cause, but they would be willing to purchase a shirt to outwardly show their dedication to a cause, and those shirts could be sold at such a price that supporters would buy them and essentially support in two ways: financially, and by wearing the shirt.
This gave birth to the idea of a new way to raise funds and awareness: streetwear drops.
What is a Streetwear Drop?
The drop model is a simple but effective way to raise money for a cause, harnessing the power of targeted marketing. The model is that brands release limited edition apparel in highly limited quantities for only a short period of time.
This is an incredibly effective model. By offering different products at different times, brands are able to capitalize on the same market multiple times.
Since the demand is high and the supply is low, brands can price items so that they produce a high-profit margin, raising thousands of dollars for the cause they are supporting and getting highly coveted streetwear into the hands of folks who will wear it proudly in the streets.
This model has been popularized among social justice focused brands and has made its way into even mainstream brands that donate some of their profits to the causes they want to support.
Political Streetwear Today
Streetwear is more than a fashion choice. Purchasing apparel with political slogans and rallying cries is a way to support that cause financially, as well as make a statement to the world about your stances on political issues.
The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, has harnessed the power of streetwear protest by offering numerous clothing items. This grassroots approach has now made it so their hashtag and slogan is nearly a household name, sneaking its way into our collective consciousness in such a way that the movement cannot be ignored. That is the sign of a powerful movement, and it all goes back to the streetwear.
People continue buying these pieces of clothing and it all ultimately goes back to support the cause. Two birds, one stone.
Making a Statement
A political t-shirt or other political streetwear is more than just any old t-shirt. It is a starting point for an intentional conversation about issues that matter, and the impact they have on people around the world.
Wearing your political agenda is a bold statement. It is looking the elephant in the room right in the face, unflinching, and telling it to speak up. Allowing people to see our passion and intention to support causes we know are important gives them the opportunity to ask questions and jump into the protest parade.
Political streetwear really can make an impact. It has for decades and it will continue to in the politically engaged people who are ready to swap out their plain white tee for something that makes an impact.