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What’s in a T-shirt?

Robert Geller "Immigrant"

What goes through your head when picking out an outfit in the morning? For some of us, it might be as simple as pulling on whatever is clean and work-appropriate, but for others, every garment is an opportunity to take a political stand. In fact, fashion has been a powerful political tool for centuries, according to Anna Hickey, a founding member of The Stitchery Collective.

“In every great change in history, whether it’s the French Revolution or things that have happened with Donald Trump, fashion signals a real change for people and can be used as a real icon to unite them,” she said.

The Stitchery Collective is a group of Brisbane-based academics who host workshops, installations and events exploring fashion beyond making and selling garments. Thanks to the rise of social media and global shipping, Ms Hickey says consumers were becoming “more explicitly aware of the power of fashion“.

“As globalisation increases, we can wear exactly what we want and people get that they can wear their politics in their clothes.”

The election of Donald Trump triggered a violent reaction in fashion circles, from the sea of pink “pussy hats” at Women’s Marches to slogan t-shirts and badges on New York Fashion Week runways. Closer to home, the public debate playing out in Australia over same-sex marriage has seen many designers take a stand in support of the LGBTI community.

“There’s been a really interesting short-term reaction with loads of designers putting out products that are ‘Say yes’, or rainbows, and often they’re doing it with the profits going to the LGBTI charities,” Ms Hickey said.

She said race was another common thread in Australian fashion. For example, designer and curator Grace Lillian Lee draws inspiration from her Indigenous heritage in her work and often collaborates with Indigenous communities and art centres. Of her own intricate designs, made using traditional Torres Strait Islander weaving techniques, she told the ABC earlier this year: “I feel really proud to be able to wear and share with the wider community.”

Kristy Dickinson, an Indigenous woman who makes jewellery under the brand Haus of Dizzy, also takes her design cues from political issues. Ms Hickey said consumers were increasingly using the politics and ethics of different brands to inform their purchasing choices.

“Whether it’s that you only want to buy ethically sourced underwear or you just want to buy from women designers or queer designers or people of colour designers—that idea of using your money as a political token is really prevalent today,” she said.

As for the effectiveness of protest fashion, Ms Hickey insisted it could make a difference.

Increased visibility could help normalise seemingly radical ideas, she said, while “making something beautiful” could help a message cut through.

But chain stores have also reacted to the consumer demand for so-called political fashion, producing their own lines of slogan t-shirts.

“These ‘I’m A Feminist’ shirts come from on-the-ground activists, this real unifying force where they probably screen-printed it themselves,” Ms Hickey said. “[But] a fast-fashion label is producing them for a dollar a piece, having unethical working conditions in a country where the majority of the workforce are women. Then they’re selling it back to privileged white people in Western countries.”

And it is not just chain stories—high fashion has also tapped into protest as a marketing tool.

“Chanel did a runway where they’re all doing a protest, but every protest placard says something different, so they’re not actually fighting for anything,” Ms Hickey said. “In that sense fashion has re-consumed the idea of protest to be a marketing ploy.”

First published in ABC Radio Brisbane by Eliza Buzacott-Speer