Fashionably Political: A Sartorial March on Washington

In Sartorial Politics by Courtenay Brown

Next week officially marks 50 years since the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where thousands and thousands of civil-rights-hopefuls gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., paving the way for groundbreaking legislation. And they did it all in style, or in their “Sunday best,” as the saying goes.

When people say fashion isn’t political, I’m always quick to jump to the defense. The recurring question— ‘what should I wear?’ —that crosses our mind each and every day  is subconsciously charged with more politics than we could ever realize. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (often shortened to The March on Washington) in 1963 is a great example of the fusion of politics and fashion. The women didn’t dare to show up in anything less than their best pearls, dresses, gloves and their finest heels. Not a hair was out of place. And the men? Let’s just say they did the “suit and tie” thing way before JT ever could. It’s easy to write off their fashion choices as the only thing that was acceptable for the “time.” While this could be partly true, I think there is more to it. Much more.

For me, it was about credibility and respectability. Their politics were sophisticated and their style needed to follow suit (pun very much intended). What they wore demonstrated that the March on Washington wasn’t just any protest, it was THE protest. And it was a catalyst for change, the beginning of a movement.

The gentleman-like appearance of the men stood out to me of course. But it was the women whose outfits were the most remarkable in all the archival photos I have seen. Names like Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph dominate the sphere of Civil Rights. So much so that we are quick to forget what a huge role women had in the battle for civil rights and the rampant sexism they withstood just to belong to the movement. They may have put the fight for the rights of their race before the rights of their sex, but if their presence was not going to be heard at the march, it was definitely going to be seen. The lavish ensembles on that stifling, hot August afternoon make sense now, don’t they?

As activists plunged deeper into the ’60s—and thus further into the Civil Rights era—we see that their fashion choices exemplify a different type of movement. They begin to diverge from their European-influenced notions of beauty and fashion. The politics become a bit more radical with the rise of the Black Power movement and there is a sudden popularity of clothing that emphasize ideas of Black pride—cue the afro and dashiki. Coincidence? I think not.

I’ll be at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend as people from all over the country are expected to unite in DC for the anniversary of the March on Washington, fittingly deemed “The March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.” Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, said it best“If this year has shown us anything, it’s that the work of the 1963 march is not yet finished.” Fifty years later, we are still asking for the same things: less economic racial disparities, more respect for our rights in the courts. But will we do it in the same style as they did in 1963? It’s up in the air. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing many people dressed to the nines like Harry Belafonte or James Baldwin. But I do think that the types of style that are soon to adorn the National Mall will be representative of today’s politics. After all, fashion and politics are in sync: as one changes, so will the other.