The Fabric of Resistance

How students use fashion to make a political statement

by Chloe Ehlers / Garnet & Black

Black berets, tie-dyed shirts and neon pink cat-ear beanies. Such are a few examples of fashion accessories that have become hallmarks of various social reform movements throughout history. Fashion as a vehicle of social protest can be used to identify an individual as a part of a larger movement. Additionally, it serves as a symbol to establish a sense of community and group identity, all while pushing the movement’s ideals, beliefs and cause.

According to The Collector, fashion has been used as a form of political protest as early as 18th century France, in which the lower classes used their clothes to distinguish themselves from their rich adversaries, intentionally subverting the fashion trends of the aristocracy. Here in America, the uniform of the Black Panthers was equally as significant of their anti-discriminatory agenda. The Smithsonian describes the Black Panther's incorporation of the beret, which was traditionally worn by militaries globally, into their uniform as a symbol of defiance and militance. During the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the '60s, the Hippie movement displayed its promotion of anti-war sentiments through the use of peace symbols on jewelry, as well as bright and whimsical designs on loose-fitting clothes to reflect love and peace. Even now, the “Pussyhat,” or cat beanie, which was popularized by the #MeToo movement in promotion of reproductive rights and protections, still remains a symbol of social reform. 

The keffiyeh has become a particularly significant symbol with the resurgence of the Pro-Palestine movement in the wake of Israel’s recent atrocities committed in the Gaza Strip. This movement has been prevalent since the late '50s, but tensions came to a head around October 2023, with protests and demonstrations taking place globally in support of freeing the Palestinian state from Israel’s violence. Just recently on Jan. 13, 2024, the streets of the nation’s capital were filled with protestors waving the red, green, white and black colors as the movement took to D.C. 

Along with the flag, many individuals wore the Palestinian keffiyeh. The keffiyeh is a traditional white scarf typically worn by older men to shield themselves from the harsh rays of the Palestinian sun. It is easily recognizable with its three iconic symbols: firstly, the bold lines that represent trade. Much of Palestine’s history involves the trade routes that spanned the area, creating livelihoods for the people living there. The keffiyeh includes leaves and vines that symbolize olive trees, an especially important hallmark. The olive tree is resilient and can withstand the harsh climate of Palestine, which is a hot, dry, desert-like temperate in which most other plants struggle to flourish. Olives are Palestine’s major agricultural product, primarily grown for olive oil production. Finally, the garment includes a fishnet design to represent Palestine’s strong reliance on the sea and on fishing. The Mediterranean Sea provides a means of food, travel and subsistence. These three symbols of the keffiyeh represent core elements of the Palestinian culture and identity, and their reliance on their land.

To many, and to Sadeen Sarhan, the olive tree especially mirrors the resilience and will of the Palestinian people to survive and flourish despite the adversity they face. Sarhan, a sophomore at USC and co-president of the Students for Justice in Palestine organization and member of the Arab Student Organization, spoke about her experiences with activism, fashion and her identity as a Palestinian student. She remarked on her incentive for joining SJP and how it encouraged her to be an activist.

“I mean, everybody thinks that, 'Oh, I can't be an activist. I'm just a student,' or something like that,” Sarhan said. “You make a difference. And joining an organization such as SJP, it really allows you to actually have a voice.”

The student organization aims to raise awareness about the injustices in Palestine and is working to inspire action and change on the grounds of human rights. Sarhan discussed the importance of a sense of community when it comes to social movements. In the context of fashion, distinct clothing markers can help strengthen and bolster that sense in a group. It allows an individual to identify fellow supporters of their movement, while at the same time reiterating the movement’s intent. Sarhan emphasized that social activism is not an individual effort; it requires magnitude. According to The Commons Social Change Library, the reason larger protest movements are more successful is because they are more likely to result in policy change. Political leaders are more likely to pay attention and side with protestors if there is significant momentum. Sarhan, discussing her experiences in protesting, went on to say the sense of community is equally as important as the numbers.

“It just really taught me that you find a community within this, and it's something that you have to do as a group, because you cannot just be one person trying to make a difference," Sarhan said. "As a group, you make so much more of a difference, and you're so much more impactful.”

For Sarhan, and many students just like her, fashion meant something more than just identity. It was a way for her to connect to her culture, which is so important in the face of genocide with the possibility of complete erasure. She mentioned the "tatreez," a traditional Palestinian form of embroidery or cross-stitch that she taught herself as a hobby, but also as a form of resistance. Sarhan proudly creates tatreez handiworks for herself, family members and close friends, often stitching the Palestinian map, keffiyeh designs and other symbols of Palestine. In doing so, she is able to preserve a tradition of her culture, but also express herself creatively. She remarked that she would receive compliments for her tatreez at protests, which established a sense of community, connection and empowerment to the cause.

Along with tatreez, Sarhan discussed the generational importance of the "thobe," a Palestinian dress worn by women. Thobes are passed down through the women of the family, and Sarhan eagerly exclaimed how she wished to pass down her thobes down to her daughters someday. She said, in reflection of both the tatreez and thobe, “It’s something from our culture that keeps going, because I think that people underestimate how important fashion is in the movement because it directly ties you to your ancestry.”

In asking about her experience with tatreez, Sarhan recounted how important it was especially for younger Palestinians to learn the trades, skills and arts so embedded into the culture. Through fashion, such as tatreez for instance, the Palestinian identity can thrive and flourish, even amongst the global diaspora. 

Sarhan is one of the few in her family to know how to cross-stitch. Many of her family members do not know this traditional practice, but not out of the luxury of choice, as they were fleeing bombings, massacres and attacks.

“You have to think about the fact that sometimes they don't know how to do it simply because they were trying to stay alive," Sarhan said. "They didn't have time to sit down and buy thread and learn.“

During her interview, Sarhan was wearing jewelry in the shape of the Palestinian state. For many Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, gold plays an instrumental role in fashion and currency. Often, wealth and inheritance are passed on through daughters in the form of gold earrings or necklaces. Sarhan agreed that jewelry was also an important facet of fashion activism. Gold, especially, was even more significant due to its cultural significance in Palestine.

“Gold is huge," Sarhan said. "So being able to have jewelry that lets us express ourselves and express our movement through that, that's great for us as well.”

Through gold, Sarhan is able to uphold a fashion tradition of her culture. This medium of jewelry reflects the large reservoirs of gold that exist in Palestine and is another instance of fashion being used to represent Palestinian identity. 

Fashion can be much more than a form of self-expression. It has the power to bring people together in favor of a cause, to strengthen ties to ancestry and culture and to transform the world. It allows us to express our shared origins and can be the vehicle of change for the future through activism and political reform. Next time you open your closet, remember that what you wear can be more impactful than you think.