History Repeating

Aesthetic Lineage in Civil Unrest circa 2020
Justine Ludwig

March 3rd, 1913, thousands of women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House. It was the day prior to the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. These suffragettes—marching to demand that women receive the right to vote, their message amplified with floats, banners, and bands—made the gathering impossible to ignore. The processional included lawyer Inez Milholland Boisseavain, attired fully in white and riding regally atop a matching white horse—an image ripped straight out of epic poetry.

These visual cues were echoed at the March for the Equal Rights Amendment on July 9, 1978. At the time it marked the largest American gathering of women’s rights supporters ever, who took to the streets of Washington D.C. dressed in suffragette white, reinforcing fashion within the symbology of resistance.

Nearly forty years later, on January 22, 2017,a similar scene unfolds yet again. This time, in D.C. and across the nation, women and allies rallied around the ongoing issue of gender equality. It was the day following the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States, whose campaign had been marred, but not ruined, by dozens of accusations of sexual assault and demeaning comments towards women. Again, many protestors opted for a sartorial ode to the suffragettes. Fuchsia was the color of choice, mostly in the form of the zeitgeist-y pussyhat, but the message was the same.

Pageantry holds a strong place in protest as a mode for amplifying messages and solidifying images that withstand the test of time. The white attire of the suffragettes (known as “suffragette white”) remains an iconic uniform with a direct political message. For the State of the Union Address given by President Donald Trump, many Congresswomen donned all white in 2019and 2020, conjuring this history and standing as an act of defiance. The 116thCongress is the most female in the body’s history; their attire a nod to the women who paved the way.

Actions such as this echo historical precedent in the fight for the issues of today. Seen recently at the 2017Women’s March and 2020 convenings like Brooklyn Liberation: An Action for Black Trans Lives and the Wide Awakes, these actions center the vision and voices of artists in conveying searing messages. Art and protest go hand in hand, mirroring/upturning state propaganda, to amplify the language of counterculture.

Lara Schnitger’s Suffragette City has been performed within the arts contexts of Frieze NY, Palais de Tokyo, Kunsthaus Dresden, Art Basel, and the Hammer Museum, but had its real world debut at the 2017 Women’s March in D.C. The project is comprised of quilted banners, costumes, and totems titled Slut-sticks. The volunteer-based piece invites the public to bring the art works out into the street and incorporate them into peaceful protest. Uniformly attired in jumpsuits and dresses, participants take turns walking in silence and chanting slogans found on the banners: “A dress is not a yes, do not let the boys win. ”Also in attendance at the Women’s March in D.C. was Mexico City-based fashion designer Carla Fernandez and her group of compatriots. For the occasion, Fernandez designed long off-white ponchos bearing bold typeface in black and red—referencing both the suffragette movement and the stark, bold lettering of protest signage. The robes’ imagery spoke wryly to not only women’s rights, but to Trump’s hard fear-mongering stance on Mexico. One robe read, “When men are oppressed, it's a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it's tradition,” and another, “Fact: more U.S. citizens have moved to Mexico in recent years than vice versa.”

On July 14, 2020, over 15,000people rallied outside the Brooklyn Museum to march to Fort Greene Park in support of Black Trans Lives. Brooklyn Liberation: An Action for Black Trans Lives, organized by West Dakota, a Brooklyn-based drag queen, saw a wide cross-section of people come together in response to the killing of two trans women, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells and Riah Milton, the week before. Attired in white, the crowd marched silently—a long-overdue spotlight on the disproportionate violence towards trans people of color. The aesthetic and tone for Brooklyn Liberation was inspired by the Silent Parade in 1917, when the NAACP assembled nearly 10,000 people, all wearing white and silently marching down Fifth Avenue, to demand an end to violence against Black people. Black Liberation’s poster announcing the vigil was designed by illustrator Mohammed Fayaz.

In 2020, the Wide Awakes were resurrected, inspired by the youth-oriented movement that was instrumental in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. Born out of another contentious and politically divided moment, the Wide Wakes still aim to drive the vote, but with a radically updated aesthetic. Once known for their oilcloth capes used to protect the wearer from the oil lamps they carried, the new iteration is decked out in kaleidoscopic capes and cloaks designed by BIPOC artists including Anya Ayoung-Chee, Kambui Olujimi, Wildcat Ebony Brown, and Dionne Fraser-Carter. These re-envisioned Wide Awake capes aim to inspire unity through diversity, independence, and dissonance in contrast to the consistently muted tones of the1860 collective.    

The premise for the new Wide Awakes is political action and engagement through joy—putting the party in political party. This collective has mobilized creatives across the country to engage in pop-up events during the course of 2020, culminating on October 3rd, the 160thanniversary of largest Wide Awake rally. The event saw artists and activists coming together to celebrate civic engagement and hope for the future.

Aesthetics, and the artists that drive them, have long be the forefront of protest formation: from the posters that inspire us to gather and the protest signs amplifying the message, to the communal attire that collectivizes the impact, creating iconography. These investments reinforce the adage a picture is worth a thousand words. For the Women’s March, Brooklyn Liberation: An Action for Black Trans Lives, the Wide Wakes, and many more, it is precisely understood that images endure and sear their impact in the annals of history. Building upon the visual language and experience of the past allows for amplification and invigoration of civil action. Perhaps in 100 years, under a different call to action, we will see new variations on the vibrant pink of the 2017 Women’s March or the vivid prints of the 2020 Wide Awakes capes, for better or worse.