Runway Rebels: Fashion Meets Protests

Fashion is one of the most influential industries in the world. It can affect societal, political, and economic landscapes—it is a form of disruption and a catalyst for change.


In the world’s current society, it’s no surprise to see more protests taking to the runways and red carpets. One example of a red-carpet
protest was Natalie Portman’s cape, embroidered with the names of the female directors who were snubbed at the 2020 Oscars.

Not a New Concept

For decades, the multi-billion-dollar global industry saw authoritative figures in fashion using their platform to champion their causes. Actions like this are speckled throughout history. One example of this would be the American suffragettes, who wore tricolour-striped ribbons and badges—purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity, and green for hope—while smashing the patriarchy in the 1910s.

Shortly after 1913, the image of the modern feminine woman was evoked with Chanel’s first suit for women. Although Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was inspired by menswear, the trailblazing French designer repackaged the designs to mirror the status of post-war emancipation and empowerment.

“Chanel successfully developed a suit that accommodated the rapidly changing lifestyle of modern women. The fact that she began designing during the First World War is key; the war changed lives and ways of dressing across incomes, gender, and social classes,” as said in Iconic Designs:50 Stories About 50 Things (Grace Lees-Maffei, 2014).

Later came the slim-fitted suit, representative of the business woman who was just as serious about her career as her male counterparts. It was introduced in the 1970s and was aptly called ‘the power suit.’ A decade later, Italian designer Gorgio Armani helped women rediscover the idea of masculine zoot-suit style for more mobility when his oversized blazers came back into play.

United States Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was inspired by the suffragettes and Shirley Chisholm when she sported bold red lipstick, hoops, and a white suit at her inauguration. That day, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “I wore all-white today to honour the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come.” In 1968, Chisholm wore all-white while being sworn in as the first African-American woman in US Congress.

Chanel made a political comeback in 2015 when the late Karl Lagerfeld used his Spring/ Summer runway show to support women’s rights and the #MeToo movement. Models donned Chanel while holding picket signs say- ing “Ladies First” and “History is Her Story.”

Sporting a Protest Look

Other brands—such as Nike—have used their platform to show their solidarity with certain causes or supporting sports moguls in openly showing their activism through clothes. Following football player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the US national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality, Nike placed him as the face of their 2018 “Believe in Something” campaign.

“Believe in Something” also featured Serena Williams, who was told she was not allowed to wear her black ‘catsuit’ at the French Open that same year—because it was breaking dress code. The all-star tennis player wore her compression sleeves and tights to prevent blood clots following the birth of her daughter.

When it came time to compete in the US Open later that year, Williams stepped out on the first day in a one-sleeved leotard with a black tulle tutu and tights. While it seemed frivolous, Williams’ begged the questions, Why do women have to wear certain outfits? Why does it matter anyway? The now-iconic ensemble was a collaboration between designer Virgil Abloh and Nike.

In 2019, Nike released a swimming hijab, tunic, and leggings, built for performance while maintaining full coverage. While it’s hard to miss exceptionally bold protests, at times, society doesn’t realize what has been missing from the market until it’s introduced or demanded.

Setting the Tone for Makeup

Robyn Rihanna Fenty released her Fenty Beauty collection in 2017. Makeup is an extension of the fashion industry, and Rihanna’s wave of 50 concealer shades—13 of which are for deep, dark tones—caused a tsunami. According to Fenty Beauty’s website, “makeup became [Rihanna’s] weapon of choice for self-expression,” and she was inspired to launch her brand after “seeing a void in the industry for products that performed across all skin types and tones.” She focused on a “wide range of traditionally hard-to-match skin tones, creating formulas that work for all skin types, and pinpointing universal shades.”

Representation is Prevalent

Ontario-based Michele Taras debuted her label, Michele Taras, on the West Coast in the Vancouver Fashion Week (VFW) Spring/Summer 2020 show in October. The collection was in collaboration with jewellery designer Monica Frangulea of Musesa, and featured various First Nations languages saying ‘hello’.

Her clothes were modelled by a diverse group of people. These included a senior who was a part of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, a senior woman, a petite woman, a plus-size woman, an Indigenous person, a person in a wheelchair, a person who used a cane, and various people of colour. Taras gave Anahita Khalilian six looks for the show, and she was an amazing model and role model for others in a wheelchair.

“My message was just as much about who modeled for me as it was about the clothing,” says Taras. At the end of VFW, Taras came out with signs that said “Coast-to-Coast United”, showing her logo (of an eye in the middle of a maple leaf) as symbolizing that we are all Canadians looking out for one another.

“We have so many amazing Canadian designers, we should be as excited to wear their clothing as we are by the big designer names from overseas,” says Taras.

Authentic Indigneous art and design is showcased at Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week (VIFW), which was created by former model Joleen Mitton, of Plains Cree descent. The four-day long event showing “the power and beauty” of Indigenous designers and creatives features fashion, reconciliation, and entertainment. Forty designers, artists and performers from across Canada took part in this years event.

Barbara Latkowski of the Prince George Citizen attended the first show in August 2017. The “Indigenous Fashion Week was inspired by history, politics, the environment and the economy, reclaiming stories of strength from a past rekindled through energy and vibrant colour,” she wrote.

First Nations models graced the runway held at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Atrium, celebrating the beautiful works, and walking with pride.

VIFW also paid tribute to the missing and murdered First Nations women, inviting guests to wear a red piece of clothing. The tradition began in 2011, when Metis artist Jaimie Black honoured his missing sisters, by hanging red dresses hang from trees at the University of Manitoba to bring attention to the pressing issue.

Fashion Starts Conversations

Many were angered by US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Trump had showcased behaviour that mistreats women, most notably in a viral Hollywood Access video—saying when you’re as famous as him, you can grab women “by the pussy,” and they will let you do it.

The widespread fury sparked a women’s march in Washington DC, that took place in January 2017. Co-creators of the PUSSYHAT Project, Jayna Zweiman and Krista Suh, wore their hand-made knitted pink cat-ear hats in solidarity for women’s rights. Their stance was realized in a massive wash of pink caps at the march.

But can fashion change the system? In 2019, when the US Senate held confirmation hearings for President Trump’s nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, New York Fashion Week didn’t hold back.

A-list stylist and designer Jeremy Scott made a statement on day one, by wearing a shirt saying “Tell Your Senator ‘NO’ On Kavanaugh,” at the end of his show.

“We’re in an industry that’s meant to be about change,” says Creative Director of Conde Nast and Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue, Dame Anna Wintour, in a recent Vogue video interview, touching on the changes she saw in the Fall/Winter 2020 fashion weeks.

Runway shows are not the only ones to be a cause for change in the fashion industry, as seen in British Vogue’s September 2019 issue. The glossy print highlighted the women changing the agenda, and was guest edited by HRH the Duchess of Sussex, Megan Markle. The cover included New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, 81-year-old activist and actor Jane Fonda, and LGBTQIA2S+ advocate, actor and producer Laverne Cox, titled Forces for Change.

Another act from the British royal family came from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II herself, when Donald Trump visited Buckingham Palace in June, 2019. The royal family is (meant to be) politically impartial, but HRH donned a brooch previously gifted by Michelle Obama.

It was a small act, but an impactful one.

In the past and present, fashion can be the first impression a person makes and can be the opportunity to make a statement. Whether it’s locally or in the most influential fashion capitals of the world, the industry is an outlet for championing a cause—and shows no signs of slowing down.