The question of what to wear at a protest—and more specifically how to appear serious without looking slightly deranged—came up in a recent fashion advice column over at the Guardian. The mostly snarky response raises some interesting points:
…no facial jewellery, no dreadlocks, no glow in the eye of self-righteous indignation fed with the oxygen of half-formed arguments, which is only just about acceptable in stoned undergraduates and is certainly not in anyone over the age of 21… Plain and practical are the obvious styles to aim for, but nothing in army green because that risks you being mistaken for a rent-a-protester, army green generally being their chosen colour. Similarly, no T-shirts or other paraphernalia that indicate you have frequented other protests: you think it proves your passion, others think you’re just a protest slut in it for the exercise and the day off work.
I tend to agree that plain and practical attire is best. It’s important to look like the people you are trying to influence. This was obviously a key strategy in the Civil Rights Movement. When millions of Americans watched well-dressed, well-mannered, black people get beaten by white Southerners on their television sets, it no doubt inspired a strong sense of empathy.
Some organizers have started to call for a return to the formal attire of the civil rights era perhaps as a way to avoid the “radical anarchist” or “crazy hippy” labels that the media have pinned on anti-globalization activists. People attending the Capitol Climate Action in DC last March were told to wear “their Sunday best.” I think this was probably a good decision since, as the first mass act of civil disobedience for the climate movement in this country, it would be defining the image and tone.
There are, however, times when I think emulating the attire of the civil rights movement would have the effect of over-dressing. Activists with crazy facial hair in a suit don’t look convincing. They look like they are mocking something. Futhermore, suit-wearing was more common in 60s. What passes for nice attire today is obviously much less formal and I think activists should at least be striving for that much.
What do you think? I’d love to hear people’s thoughs on this question.
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Wear what you’d wear to a job interview. Dress like you respect the people you’re trying to convert.
It depends on the protest. If you know things are going to get ugly, the last thing you want to be wearing are nice clothes. But, if you are going to insist on dressing nicely, carry a bag with a change of clothes if needed. At the first signs of ugliness, e.g. cops putting on gas masks, change clothes. I recommend black BDU pants (available at any army surplus store). I use these because they have many large pockets if you need to ditch your backpack. Wear comfortable shoes you can run in. Steel toed Docs are nice in a bar fight, but they’re not the greatest for running. Wear a black windbreaker over your shirt. Put on a ski mask without a mouth hole. Wear shatterproof goggles and a gas mask/respirator if you can. Use duct tape to seal off the cuffs on your jacket and pants. You want no exposed skin and no gas sneaking its way up your pantlegs. A pair of welding gloves come in handy for throwing back canisters or picking them up to drop in a bucket of water or down a sewer drain. Speaking of water, bring several bottles to wash out your own or others eyes in case of gas being used.
If they get ugly you have two choices – run away or get even uglier back. What I’ve mentioned here is only the tip of the iceberg for proper preparedness. Make sure you are ready for anything, because the longer and larger the protests get, the uglier the police will begin behaving.