TAKING A (HAT) STAND
Let your headgear do the talking
YOU could lay down your life for a political cause. Or you could simply Instagram yourself wearing your political hat “just so” in a selfie with your bestie.
From pink pussy hats to red berets, hats in political protest are having their 15 minutes of fame thanks to drone photography, social media and cause-hopping.
According to South African fashion designer Gavin Rajah, the mainstreaming of political hats and clothing through social media has strengthened the “human as a billboard” phenomenon.
“In the past, sloganism in fashion was relegated to environmental issues or commenting on military occupation,” he says. “But [Donald] Trump has exposed so much latent racism in so many people that others, in equal numbers, are searching for platforms to express their feelings against it. Clothing and hats are part of those platforms.”
With social media spreading those images far and wide, “people en masse are no longer just clothes hangers — they’re now hangers for political statements”.
While it isn’t a new thing to see hats playing this role, social media and technology have speeded up the replication of them as symbols.
When hundreds of people in the same hat are filmed or photographed from above, the sheer spectacle of it becomes an even stronger signifier.
That’s exactly what inspired Jayna Zweiman, co-founder of the Pussyhat Project in which women from all over the US and other countries knitted pink hats in response to then US presidential candidate Trump’s notorious comment about women and male celebrities.
She said that “the pussy hat strips a hat down to its essential diagram” and “is playful, yet has the audacity to call out the sexism of those in power while focusing attention on the power of the gender”.
She described the project as being “rooted in feminist practices of women knitting together to support political action that has spanned centuries”.
Women in the American colonies of the 18th century knitted Liberty Caps during the revolution and hosted knitting circles as opportunities for political discourse.
Professor Hlonipha Mokoena, at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research, described the fact that the pussy hats were handknitted as an example of the “Etsyfication” of political protest, a reference to the online craft shopping site.
She said home industries as sites of politics were being hailed as “the new way to work”, but asked: “How many people can afford the time when we’re out working for up to 10 hours a day?”
She said there was irony in the fact that industries used to farm their needlework out to women in homesteads.
Today, participating in a group formation to show you’re antiTrump has its merits, but this Etsyfication of political protest was for “very well-off people”, she said.
It was also only when ideas were at their least powerful that they got taken up by fashion as “radical chic”.
By then, she said, the ideas sewn into the hats and garments were not a threat to anyone.
Earlier this year, Christian Dior kitted out ramp models in T-shirts that read, “We should all be feminists”.
This came hot on the heels of its Dio(r)evolution concept — a fashion empire built on capitalism feeding on the zeitgeist of resistance without the slightest trace of irony.
Said Mokoena: “If Dior can identify itself with these issues and ‘sell’ feminism, perhaps feminism is no longer important at all.”
She also suspects that “Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are turning in their graves” as the red of communism appears in the form of EFF berets, when communism as a political ideology has “zero to little chance of being South Africa’s next economic system”.
In other words, if it’s safe to wear the symbol, the idea’s not that radical or much of a statement anymore.
EFF spokesman Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, however, said that the symbolic red had gravitas and helped to con- nect the dots from one socialist movement to the next.
He described the red beret as a “very specific symbol associated with revolutionaries from all over the world, from Venezuela to Cuba to Burkina Faso”.
He said it “plugs directly into the performance of left-wing political action, and I do not think it has been commercialised in South Africa despite its growing popularity. It remains a statement associated with socialism.”
It has “not only boosted the profile and membership of the organisation, it has also brought in some income” (although he doesn’t know exactly how much over the four years of its existence).
EFF supporter Patricia Bahlakwana said the beret “makes the collective stand out in the media”.
“You see us on TV and there’s a wave of red. But then in the crowd, you don’t stand out — so it works both ways.
“Now we’re part of the group and the hats are speaking out for us. We
can spot each other very easily at any gathering, and it is a way of saying, yes, this is the party I belong to. You won’t see me jumping from this one to that one and back again.”
However, like any shorthand, the political hat in all its small-package dynamite has its own terms and conditions.
Said Dawnn Karen, founder of the Fashion Psychology Institute in the US: “There are limitations of aligning oneself politically with the semiotics of a hat.
“If you ever want to change your political stance, once you’ve worn that hat and an ‘audience’ has viewed images of you in that hat, it stays in the person’s subconscious mind.
“So, although you may wear another hat carrying another message, you won’t get rid of what that first hat signified.”
The pussy hat is playful, yet has the audacity to call out the sexism of those in power The red beret means we can spot each other . . . It’s a way to say, yes, this is the party I belong to
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