Since America’s earliest days, individuals have used clothing and fashion to project their social status and political ideals. Even the first colonists used clothing to demonstrate their wealth or political status. Purchasing power meant social prominence and cultural importance. Some communities, like the Puritans and Amish communities, used their clothing as a different type of political statement—using garments to demonstrate their philosophical rejections of what they often saw as the frivolity or unnecessary focus on things that might take away from their primary focus on religion and faithfulness.
American women changed the face of fashion and culture during the World War II era, when millions entered the workforce. By the end of the war, over 35% of women held jobs, many of them non-traditional and generally associated with men. These women often dressed in practical garments in order to operate machinery or work in the defense industry. The act of wearing pants became something akin to a patriotic act, with Rosie the Riveter serving as a symbol of pride. Women also participated in the armed services, as members of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Until these positions were created, women had generally not been issued regulation uniforms.
In the early 1940s, fashion and race collided in what became known as the “Zoot Suit Riots”. Zoot Suits were oversized, long-tailed coats worn over high-waisted pants and were inspired by Jazz culture. The fashion was adopted by Mexican-American and Latino youths in the Los Angeles area. White American soldiers took offense to those who wore this style of clothing, as they were often made of wool, a fabric rationed during wartime. Zoot Suit wearers became—often unfairly—seen as thugs or draft dodgers. Tensions boiled over into actual riots and brawls between the two groups, where soldiers attacked those wearing the garments—even stripping them of their suits. The riots grew into a larger, race-based conflict focusing on Latinos in general. Los Angeles banned Zoot Suits almost immediately thereafter.
During the 1940s and 50s, nonconformist youth adopted fashions meant to antagonize what they saw as oppressive and unnecessary social norms. Beatniks who idolized Jack Kerouac and Che Guevera emulated their dress with leather jackets, berets, and black jeans. Of course, popular culture adopted these fashions and they became emblematic of rebellious youth, as represented by Marlon Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. What had once been a sign of defiance became stylish and cool, and therefore the opposite of rebellious. The same patterns emerged in later years when major designers created designs inspired by the punk movement and so-called grunge culture. Over and over again, outside culture was co-opted by the mainstream which stripped the fashion of its original intent.
The 1960s introduced the iconic counterculture and flower child movements, which rejected conventional dress, viewing it as a symbol of the mainstream political and social attitudes that were seen as oppressive. Women’s clothing became a direct and overt protest of the ultra-feminine fashions that became prevalent after WWII, exaggerating women’s curves—with comfort being undeniably secondary to sexuality and objectification. Their fashions were intentionally anti-establishment and often had DIY elements of embroideries and handmade embellishments. “Hippie” fashion adopted counterculture symbols like peace signs and flowers. As a political statement, some women opted to go braless as a rejection of what they viewed as subjugated and limited roles of women in society and as a way to adopt a more natural, back-to-the-earth point of view. In general, the counterculture movement sought to flaunt convention through fashion. Men grew long hair and beards and women also favored long hair and natural looks, sometimes opting to keep armpits and legs unshaven as a physical objection to societal norms they saw as oppressive.
The American flag became popular in both mainstream and popular fashion. Hippies, who often wore Army jackets as a protest against the Vietnam War, also integrated the flag into their garments as a way to draw attention to their dissent. Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (the Yippies) was arrested in 1968 for wearing a shirt that resembled the design of the American flag and indicted and convicted of the act of desecration. However, the American flag became an integral part of youth fashion in 1976, the year of the US Bicentennial. Flag patterns were emblazoned on everything from bell bottoms to shoes to belt buckles.
The Civil Rights movements in the 1960s-inspired fashion that focused on African American identity. This included everything from clothing made of Kente cloth, dashikis, African jewelry, and natural hairstyles. The Black Panther Party adopted a uniform for members that included a powder blue shirt, black pants and shoes, a black leather jacket, a black beret, and black gloves. This was meant to reflect their militant attitude and act as a celebration of their blackness. The Black Muslim community expressed their ethics and political perspective through formal dress, particularly dark suits and bow ties.
In the later years of the 20th century, fashion designers began to express their own political points of view through their collections. Imagery became more overt, focusing on issues like gay rights, AIDS, the environment, and politics in general. Vivienne Tam’s 1995 Mao collection caused a great deal of controversy by using propagandist imagery (specifically the face of Mao Zedong). Jean Paul Gaultier produced runway shows featuring men wearing skirts. Celebrities wore red ribbons to major events to encourage AIDS awareness. And PETA created a stir with their “We’d rather go naked than wear fur,” advertisement that featured a group of recognizable supermodels. Katharine Hammet pioneered the political slogan t-shirt, primarily using bold words on white shirts. One of her most famous designs was the “Choose Life” shirt made famous by George Michael, but she has continued her work—focusing on subjects like environmental sustainability and AIDS activism.
Most recently, designers and fashion houses like Prabal Gurung, Christian Siriano, Missoni, and Dior have been inspired to include their strong patriotic sentiments as part of their runway collections. No matter what your political affiliation, displaying your own form of patriotism through fashion is an American tradition. Fashion has always been used as a form of expressing identity and either separating oneself from a group or demonstrating your allegiance to a tribe or movement. We view all of this expression as a form of patriotism and the true American spirit.