The importance of clothing in 1960s protest movements

By Nicole Ziege, F/G Scholar

Throughout American history, clothing has been an underrated tool utilized in social and political protest movements, and its use became most prevalent in the twentieth century with each decade using clothing and accessories to protest society in unique ways.

My research on the importance of clothing in protest movements in the twentieth century isolated itself to the 1960s because while the various protest movements of the 1960s defied the traditional standards of American life, it ideologically divided the younger and older generations and created one of the most tumultuous decades in American history.

Highlighted in this essay, I will analyze some of the counterculture clothing worn in the anti-war movement, the uniforms of the Black Panther Party in the civil rights movement and the clothing used in the 1968 Miss America protest for the women’s rights movement.

In these movements, clothing and accessories were used to create community among the protesters of these movements, defy the expectations of the previous generation and make a statement about the protesters’ views on society, while protesting the government and the society in which they lived.

1960s Counterculture

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Former Haight-Asbury community leader Tsvi Strauch and then-wife Hyla Deer-Strauch enjoying the vibe in 1967 San Francisco (The Jewish News of Southern California).

The anti-war protest movement took off in the 1960s because of the United States’ increased involvement in the Vietnam War.

Between August 1964 and February 1973, more than 1.8 million men served in the conflict, according to the Selective Service System. While two-thirds were volunteers, the rest were drafted young men between the ages of 18 and 25. Men who had physical or mental problems, were married, with children, attending college or needed at home to support their families might have been granted deferments, but many of those deferred from the draft came from wealthy and educated families, according to information on the Vietnam War.

Opposition against the war developed into the 1960s “counterculture,” and many young adults and college students joined because they disagreed with the draft and with the war on moral and economic grounds.

In an article from The New York Times titled “Nation’s Youth feel Major U.S. Impact of War in Vietnam,” the significance of the Vietnam War on the younger generation was brought to readers’ attention, and readers were able to see how young people were being affected in their daily lives and in their societal and political views with the escalation of the Vietnam War.

One excerpt from the article read, “…the Vietnam conflict has nevertheless generated an intellectual, moral and ideological upheaval passionately centered among American young people[1].”

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Singer-songwriter David Crosby stands with his father, Floyd. Beneath hair and clothing, deeper political and social views divide many fathers and sons in the 1960s. (Photo taken at Kent State University).

As stated in the article, many of the younger generation in the 1960s joined the counterculture movement because they ideologically opposed the political and social views of the previous generation and opposed the war.

Members of the counterculture became identifiable through several staple pieces of clothing, including long hair and bell-bottoms. Upon first glance, this apparel might have seemed trivial to people outside of the counterculture movement, but for the counterculture’s supporters and for many young people in the 1960s, they helped to spread the protest messages of the anti-war movement.

Long hair was a significant addition to the wardrobe of the counterculture because it defied the gender expectations of men during the 1960s and became a source of rebellion for those who chose to grow their hair out.

For young men, particularly, growing their hair out below their ears and near their shoulders represented their defiance of the draft and the military because men were required to cut and shave their hair off when they joined or were drafted into the military.

In addition to wearing their long hair, young people in the 1960s counterculture movement also tried to look unkempt, unshaven and ragged in order to directly oppose the clean, shaven and structured appearance of the military.

It can be inferred that this counterculture look led to the term “dirty hippies,” to which many counterculture anti-war advocates were referred during the 1960s and 1970s. By appearing dirty and unkempt, the “hippies” of the counterculture movement displayed their rejection of the war and the military.

The symbolism of long hair in the anti-war movement became the focus of the musical Hair, which became one of the most controversial Broadway shows after releasing on Apr. 29, 1968. The show, which was written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, focused on the character Claude, who is about to be drafted and joins a group of hippies as he contemplates his place in society.

Hair became controversial because of its sexual politics, nudity, use of drugs and its treatment of the American flag, according to the New York Times. The show sparked several protests during its tour, including in Evansville, Indiana, Gladewater, Texas, St. Paul, Minnesota, and in Tennessee.

However, the show built a worldwide audience of 30 million people within four years of its production, making its mark on the social, cultural and political dialogue in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Denver Post.

As WKU’s theater department performed its production of Hair in early November this year, WKU senior Nick Struck, the show’s dramaturg, emphasized the importance of hair in the show.

“Long hair was a form of liberation and freedom, while short hair sort of represented conformity,” Struck said. “Growing their hair out was a form of protest.”

In an interview with Jada Morris, the costume designer for WKU Theater’s production of Hair, she said the group of hippies that Claude joined in the show was a safe space of people who also protested the Vietnam War. Morris said the title song in the show highlighted the significance of the apparel in the show.

“Hair was a protesting source, growing it long and sort of saying, ‘You’re not going to get me. You’re not going to cut it off,’” Morris said, regarding the role of hair in the show.

In the anti-war counterculture movement, bell-bottoms were also worn as a form of protest against society in the 1960s.

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Young women wearing bell-bottoms during the 1960s.

“Bell-bottoms” consisted of pants with legs that were wider below the knee, and they became a bold fashion statement for members of the counterculture movement in the 1960s. For young men, in particular, pant legs had always been styled close to the leg down to the shoes, and bell-bottoms defied that traditional design. They were more inexpensive and casual than traditional men’s pants, and they were often sewn from denim, bright cotton and satin polyester, according to the Encyclopedia of Fashion.

The affordability of bell-bottoms also provided symbolic rebellion for the younger generation because in the 1960s, young people rejected expensive clothing stories and shopped at secondhand stores and military surplus stores.

As they came into style for the anti-war counterculture movement, young people started customizing their bell-bottoms to personalize them for the movement. One way they did this was sewing pieces of old military uniforms onto their bell-bottoms in order to add a specific rebellious look to their counterculture clothing, according to the Encyclopedia of Fashion.

Bell-bottoms became fashionable as an added touch of rebellion in the counterculture movement because they represented the defiance of the younger generation to conform to the strict, conservative clothing of the 1950s, as well as defying the expectations of the previous generation, according to the Encyclopedia of Fashion.

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Photo of Alan Canfora, then 21, waving a black flag during the Kent State University anti-war demonstration on May 4, 1970.

Alan Canfora, 69, was a member of the counterculture anti-war movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Canfora was one of the nine college students wounded by the Ohio National Guard during a peaceful anti-war demonstration on May 4, 1970.

During our class’ interview with Canfora at Kent State University, he emphasized how bell-bottoms and the clothing worn by the counterculture also helped to create community among them, in addition to protesting the war.

“It was a statement of your individuality and your stance on society,” Canfora said. “The people who wore bell bottoms and had the long hair, you knew they were part of the anti-war people. You felt a form of kinship with them.”

By wearing long hair and bell-bottoms, members of the 1960s-counterculture anti-war movement helped showcase their disapproval for the Vietnam War and the draft, as well as create community among their movement. Their protest clothing helped them promote their cause and connect with other anti-war protesters around them, which spoke to the significance of clothing in protest movements.

Black Panther Party

-4-panthers-on-parade-at-free-huey-rally-in-defermery-park-oakland-july-28-1968.-photo-courtesy-of-stephen-shames.
Black Panthers members line up at a rally in Oakland’s Defermery Park in 1969.

The Civil Rights Movement began in the early 1900s, but it started gaining speed and traction in the 1950s and 1960s.

African-Americans across the South protested for desegregation in public facilities and in education, as well as fighting for the right to be seen as equals to their white counterparts. The protesters were met with hostility, racially-motivated violence and police brutality.

Although there were landmark victories for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in public places and prohibited employment discrimination; the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected minority voting rights; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which provided equal housing opportunities regardless of race—many African-Americans still felt disenfranchised in society within the context of their daily lives.

In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, California, as a way to reclaim black power in the predominantly-African-American communities in the city. The group’s ideology was based on the teachings of socialist revolutionary leaders, like Mao Zedong, leader of communist China, and Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, according to Black Past, an independent non-profit organization focused on African-American historic preservation.

The Black Panthers saw the black community in America as being exploited by white businessmen, the government and the police, and they soon became one of the most famous “black power” organizations in American history, with over 30 national chapters in major American cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and Seattle, according to Black Past.

One of the ways the Black Panthers sought to regain control of their urban communities was organizing armed patrols with their members in order to follow the police as they patrolled around black communities. During these patrols, members of the Black Panther Party dressed in specific uniforms, consisting of a black leather jacket, black beret and an assault rifle each member carried with them.

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Two members of the Black Panther party, wearing black berets, black leather jackets and carrying assault rifles.

While assault rifles might not be considered an “accessory” by some, the definition of accessory is “a thing added to another in order to make it more useful or attractive.” In this case, the Black Panthers added their assault rifles to their group’s uniforms in order to make their appearance more useful to their protests. Therefore, the assault rifles were critical pieces of the uniforms of the Black Panthers and will be considered an accessory to their clothing.

The look of many young black people, particularly black men, wearing black leather jackets and carrying assault rifles created the idea of the Black Panthers as “an armed invasion[2],” as described in an article from The New York Times called “The Call of the Black Panthers.”

By appearing as an armed invasion, the Black Panthers signified their military discipline using their uniforms. However, the Black Panther Party was not an armed invasion; it was a group of African-Americans who wanted to protest the society in which they lived.

In The New York Times article, about 20 members of the party entered the State Legislature of Sacramento, California, in order to be present during the voting of a pending bill which would impose severe restrictions on the carrying of loaded weapons in public. When the Black Panthers arrived, they walked right past guards into the Assembly, which startled the public, according to the article.

The 18 members of the group were eventually arrested and released on bail for disrupting the State Legislature and conspiring to disrupt the State Legislature. However, the article stated that the Black Panthers only attended the session to make a statement to the general public and to their city legislators:

“As lobbyists, the Black Panthers are not very effective; but then, the Panthers did not really care much whether the gun bill passed or not. Their purpose was to call attention to their claim that black people in the ghetto must rely on armed self-defense and not the white man’s courts to protect themselves[3].”

As stated in The New York Times article, the Black Panthers felt that they needed to dress in their uniforms in order to protest their society and to call attention to the grievances that black people were experiencing in American society in the 1960s, despite the legal civil rights victories in that decade.

The uniforms of the Black Panthers were also designed to reclaim their authority in their communities and to promote “black power” against the police brutality they experienced. Many black people, particularly young black men, felt like they had no other option than to stand up for themselves and join the Black Panthers as a way to protest their society and send a message to the white people who they felt were exploiting them.

This was proven by a quote from Bobby Seale in an article from The New York Times, where he said:

“The ghetto black isn’t afraid to stand up to the cops because he already lives with violence. He expects to die any day[4].”

Through the use of their militaristic uniforms, the Black Panther Party helped to protest the brutality and exploitation of African-Americans in the United States.

1968 Miss America Protests

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Two women’s rights protesters at the 1968 Miss America protest in Atlantic City on Sept. 7, 1968.

Feminism entered its second “wave” in the 1960s, with the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963. Friedan’s novel cited “the problem that has no name” as systemic sexism that taught women, particularly middle-class suburban housewives, to remain at home and not reach their full intellectual and creative faculties.

The novel’s nearly 3 million readers began discussing their desires for social equality, and women across the United States started protesting in the 1960s for the end of wage, employment and education inequality, according to Vox.

While there were legal victories for the women’s rights movement in the 1960s for ending sexual discrimination—including the passage of Title VII in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on sex, as well as race, religion and national origin—women in the movement were still upset about the objectification of women in American society.

This existing frustration with American society led about 100 women’s rights protesters to the headquarters of the Miss America pageant[5] in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Sept. 7, 1968, where they protested the continuation of the swimsuit portion of the pageant.

The protesters included women in their 20s and 30s who traveled to Atlantic City from states across the nation, including Washington, Florida, New York and Iowa. The women held protest signs that said, “Up against the wall, Miss America” and “If you want meat, go to the butcher.”

The most significant part of this protest was the women’s use of clothing and beauty items in order to symbolize their discontent with society. As they protested on the boardwalk, the women ripped off their bras, girdles and high heels and threw them in the “Freedom Trash Can,” along with their “girlie” magazines, makeup and anything else they deemed “instruments of female torture,” according to The Washington Post.

The “Freedom Trash Can” was a large bucket brought with the protesters, and it symbolized that the removal of their feminine garments would allow them to live more freely in society.

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Women gleefully threw objects symbolizing oppression into the Freedom Trash Can, but they didn’t burn bras. (Bev Grant, Smithsonian Magazine).

Through the use of their protest signs and their acts of throwing their clothing away in the “Freedom Trash Can,” the protesters deplored “the degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol” and insisted that “the only ‘free’ woman is ‘the woman who is no longer enslaved by ludicrous beauty standards,[6]’” according to an article in The New York Times, which reported on the protest in 1968.

Although the Miss America pageant did not stop its swimsuit portion following the protests, the pageant merely symbolized how the women’s rights movement wanted to protest the overall objectification of women in American society. Without the use of clothing in the 1968 Miss America protest, the protesters would not have made the significance sent a message of protesting the objectification of women in society.

Conclusion

Clothing has been an underrated tool utilized in social and political protest movements, and its use became most prevalent in the 1960s, which was one of the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century in the United States.

Through analyzing the clothing used in protest movements in the 1960s, including the anti-war counterculture movement, the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement, it can be proven that clothing was used to create community among the protesters in the movements, defy the expectations of the previous generation and make a statement about the protesters’ views on society, while protesting the government and the society in which they lived.

Works Cited

“Bell-bottoms.” The Encyclopedia of Fashion. Accessed Dec 3, 2018. Web.

“Civil Rights Movement.” Anti-Defamation League. Accessed Dec 3, 2018. Web.

Collisson, Craig. “Black Panther Party.” BlackPast.org: Remembered & Reclaimed. Accessed Dec 3, 2018. Web.

Curtis, Charlotte. “Miss America Pageant is Picketed by 100 Women.” The New York Times (1923-Current file), 81. Sept 8, 1968. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. Accessed Dec 1, 2018.

Eisenberg, Bonnie, and Ruthsdotter, Mary. “History of the Women’s Rights Movement: Living the Legacy: The Women’s Rights Movement (1848-1998).” National Women’s History Alliance, 1998. Accessed Dec 3, 2018. Web.

Heller, Karen. “The bra-burning feminist trope started at Miss America. Except, that’s not what really happened.” The Washington Post. Sept 7, 2018. Accessed Nov 27, 2018. Web.

“Induction Statistics.” Selective Service System. Accessed Dec 1, 2018. Web.

Libbey, Peter. “When ‘Hair’ Opened on Broadway, It Courted Controversy from the Start.” The New York Times, 29 April 2018. Web.

Loftus, Joseph A. “Nation’s Youth feel Major U.S. Impact of War in Vietnam.” The New York Times (1923-Current file): 1. Aug 10, 1966. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. Accessed Dec 1, 2018. Web.

Moore, John. “The dangerous history of ‘Hair.’” The Denver Post, Sept 29, 2011. Accessed Dec 1, 2018. Web.

Stern, Sol. “The Call of the Black Panthers.” The New York Times (1923-Current file): 186. Aug 6, 1967. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. Accessed Dec 1, 2018. Web.

Valentine, Tom. “Vietnam War Draft.” The Vietnam War. July 25, 2013. Web.

[1] Loftus, Joseph A., “Nation’s Youth feel Major U.S. Impact of War in Vietnam,” The New York Times (1923-Current file): 1. Aug 10, 1966. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. Accessed Dec. 1, 2018.

[2] Stern, Sol, “The Call of the Black Panthers,” The New York Times (1923-Current file): 186. Aug 6, 1967. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

[3] Stern, Sol, “The Call of the Black Panthers,” The New York Times (1923-Current file): 186. Aug 6, 1967. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

[4] Stern, Sol, “The Call of the Black Panthers,” The New York Times (1923-Current file): 186. Aug 6, 1967. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

[5] The Miss America pageant was founded in 1921.

[6] Curtis, Charlotte, “Miss America Pageant is Picketed by 100 Women,” The New York Times (1923-Current file): 81, Sept 8, 1968. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times.

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Nicole Ziege

Nicole Ziege is a honors student at WKU. She is majoring in journalism and minoring in history.

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