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Kanye West’s “White Lives Matter” shirts are not the first fashion items with a political statement behind them. We take a look at other moments in history when the two have gone hand in hand.

Kanye West’s ‘White Lives Matter’ shirts show fashion and politics often go hand in hand – and they have done for most of history

  • Fashion has often been used to make political statements throughout history, dating all the way back to Ancient Roman laws that dictated who could wear what
  • We take a look at several stand-out moments where sartorial choices were made with politics in mind, from a ‘hug a hoodie campaign’ to the wearing of the hijab

Fashion and politics have been intertwined since ancient times, when Roman Sumptuary Laws dictated which citizens were allowed to wear what. There have been countless examples of similar statutes in the years since, such as during the French Revolution (1789-1799) when the extravagance of the aristocracy was outlawed.

In more recent examples, the US Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) had a dress code asking protesters to wear their “Sunday Best”, while the political organisation the Black Panther Party (1966-1982) adopted black berets and leather jackets.

Never, however, has fashion been more political than now. Sometimes, this is deliberate – see Kanye West’s “White Lives Matter” shirt at Paris Fashion Week – while other incidents are more unexpected.

Here are six moments throughout recent history that have indelibly linked fashion and politics together.

1. Brazil’s football shirt

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro pray during a protest against lockdown measures in 2020 in Brasília, the capital of Brazil.
Brazil’s yellow football shirts became divisive after far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters started wearing them during his 2018 election campaign.

A recent study by Brazilian university Ibmec revealed that one in five Brazilians will no longer wear the shirt for political reasons, while Nike – the manufacturer of the national football team’s current strip – has banned buyers from putting Bolsonaro’s or his election rival Lula’s names on the back of one.

Bolsonaro presents a Brazilian football shirt to Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in 2019. Photo: Reuters

While some want to reclaim the jersey for football, others have called for Brazil to drop the famous canarinho – or “little canary” – design altogether for the country’s previous colours of blue and white. These colours were reprised by Nike for the 2019 Copa America international football tournament.

Brazil are set to wear the famous yellow in Qatar next month for the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

2. Slogan T-shirts

Then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher greets fashion designer Katharine Hamnett, who is wearing a T-shirt with an anti-nuclear missile message, at 10 Downing Street. Photo: Getty Images

British designer Katharine Hamnett is credited with creating the slogan T-shirt – she even wore one, with an anti-missile message, to meet then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

Kanye West’s “White Lives Matter” shirt, which he wore at his Yeezy runway show in Paris this year, is controversial even for him.

West at his Paris Fashion Week show in October 2022.
The term is a white supremacist phrase coined in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2013 but gained global focus – and slogan shirts – in 2020.
Other shirts have made headlines too, from US basketball players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts after the 2014 death of African-American man Eric Garner at the hands of a white policeman, to the Calvin Klein-riffing shirt that Liverpool footballer Robbie Fowler wore to support the city’s striking dock workers in the 1990s.

3. The hoodie

A boy stands with his mother during a “One Thousand Hoodies March” in Minneapolis for Martin in 2012. Photo: AP

Silicon Valley’s unofficial uniform top has gained political impact in recent years.

In 2006, when then-UK Conservative Party leader David Cameron announced his “hug a hoodie” campaign in Britain, it was a reaction to the number of bans on young people wearing hooded sweatshirts in public spaces – itself a reaction to the association of the clothing item to crime and antisocial behaviour.

In the US, in 2012, a “Million Hoodie March” took place in New York after African-American teenager Trayvon Martin was killed while he was wearing a hoodie.

In 2016, The New York Times ran headlines on “The Politics of the Hoodie”. That year’s US football play-offs saw Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton called a “thug” for wearing a hoodie during interviews.

4. The Fred Perry polo

Fred Perry called the appropriation of its Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt “incredibly frustrating”.
The UK sportswear manufacturer stopped shipping one of its polo designs to the US and Canada after it was linked to the right-wing Proud Boys group. It was the first time the brand felt moved to limit its sales.

“Fred Perry does not support and is in no way affiliated with the Proud Boys,” the brand wrote in a statement on its US website. “It is incredibly frustrating that this group has appropriated our Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt and subverted our Laurel Wreath to their own ends.”

Other brands, such as sports shoe and apparel company New Balance, have also found themselves linked to far right groups in recent years.

5. All black and all white

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (centre, bottom) watches then-US President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in 2019 in Washington. Photo: AFP
Ocasio-Cortez (in white) during the opening session of the 116th Congress in the US Capitol in Washington, in January 2019. Photo: EPA

“I wore all-white today to honour the women who paved the path before me, and for all the women yet to come,” tweeted US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when she was sworn in as a congresswoman in January 2019. “From suffragettes to Shirley Chisholm, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the mothers of the movement.”

Chisholm, the country’s first black congresswoman, wore all-white when she was elected in 1968. Ocasio-Cortez also wore a literal political statement to the 2021 Met Gala – a white gown with the slogan “Tax the Rich”.
Protesters at a shopping centre in Yuen Long, Hong Kong. Photo: EPA

The monochromatic uniform of the Black Panthers provided the inspiration for Beyoncé’s halftime show during the 2016 Super Bowl, which determines the champion of the National Football League in the US.

Black shirts have been linked with various causes, ranging from European fascism to the Hong Kong anti-government protests of 2019.

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Hong Kong badminton star Angus Ng Ka-long made headlines for playing his opening game in a black shirt without the city’s bauhinia flower emblem – a mix-up for which the Hong Kong Badminton Association later took the blame.

6. Headscarves

A placard with a picture of Mahsa Amini. Photo: AP

Iran is currently gripped by countrywide protests after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in a hospital under suspicious circumstances in September.

Amini had been detained by Iran’s “morality police” for allegedly violating hijab laws. All women are legally obliged to wear hijab in public in the Muslim country. Some countries have outright banned them.
An activist holds a poster of Amini during a protest outside the Lebanese National Museum in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: EPA

Religious headgear has proved controversial in sport, with Fifa and basketball body Fiba only allowing their use during play in recent years.

Some brands, such as Nike, have moved into the hijab space and have launched athletic versions for Muslim athletes.

Even that has not been without controversy – Muslim-American writer and activist Hoda Katebi has called for a boycott of Nike amid ethical concerns on her fashion blog, Joojoo Azad.