Almost a year ago, a day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, hundreds and thousands of women gathered in Washington D.C. to protest the president’s policies towards women, LGBTQ, Muslims, immigrants and other minorities. The world looked on with awe at the sea of pink that formed on the Great Lawn; in cities across the nation and around the globe, where similar marches were held, the image was the same. Providing a powerful visual statement, the pink pussyhat became the unifying symbol of women determined to express their anger and make their voice heard, calling for gender equality and social justice. What began as a grassroots initiative of two women from California to encourage women to participate in the Women’s March, turned almost instantaneously into a fashionable icon of feminist resistance.
Although it was never intended to serve as an item of fashion, the fashion world, which is not famous for embracing politics, also adopted the pussyhat. Soon after the march, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London — one of the most renowned fashion museums in the world — announced the acquisition of the hat to its collection. The hat also took over the runways during the Milan Fashion Week, solidifying its status not only as a symbol of defiance but also as a fashionable accessory. This past November, the pussyhat was nominated for the London-based Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year competition. Bridging the seemingly separate fields of fashion and activism, the pussyhat not only made feminism popular, but more importantly, it made feminism fashionable. During the 2017 fall New York Fashion Week, many designers opted to parade feminism on the runway, some by using activists as models and others by presenting T-shirts with slogans such as “Steinem AF,” “Pussy Grabs Back,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights.” Feminism was also a popular trope in other fashion campaigns such as the one for Bianco stilettos.
This success should not be taken lightly. From the early stages of the struggle for women’s rights in the mid-nineteenth century, feminists have had a complex, and often fraught relationship with fashion. Despite addressing issues of clothing and appearance seriously, and understanding the political importance of self-presentation, more often than not, feminists have failed to harness fashion to promote their causes, or to rally support to their campaigns. Indeed, feminists have a long history of fashion disasters.
During the 1850s, the “Bloomer Costume” — a short skirt above harem-style trousers — that was adopted by prominent woman’s rights advocates like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton turned out to be a complete fiasco. Although Stanton and Anthony recognized the great benefits of the bloomer, arguing that “the object of those who donned the new attire was primarily health and freedom… an inherent element in the demand of political equality,” the harsh reactions they received to wearing pants in public not only made them abandon the bloomer, but also tarnished feminism’s reputation for generations to come, creating the myth of the unfashionable, masculine, ugly feminist.
While in the early twentieth century, suffragists managed to form a positive connection between their political agenda and their appearance by emphasizing their feminine traits and respectability, the woman’s movement was unable to create a recognizable fashion brand that would unify the ranks. Divisions between different suffragists, as well as the complex racial politics of many of the early activists prevented the movement from creating an inclusive, long lasting icon around which women could rally. Although many women showed their support for suffrage by donning the campaign colors — white, purple, and gold — there was no one fashion icon that symbolized the movement.
The late twentieth-century women’s liberation movement did not fare much better than its predecessors. Although Gloria Steinem, with her flowing blonde hair and excellent sense of style, managed to assert herself as a fashion icon, the women’s movement of the seventies did not manage to create a compelling and enduring fashion statement. Whereas black feminists found their fashionable inspiration in the Afro and “soul style,” creating powerful political statements through appearance, feminism as a movement seemed unable to break away from the long-enduring myths of the nineteenth century. In fact, the most prominent fashionable statement that feminists became associated with in the seventies — bra burners who don’t shave their legs — was a fiction imposed on them by the media and anti-feminists, again creating a negative myth that would haunt the movement for decades to come. As they focused their (justified) critique on the oppressive nature of the fashion and beauty industries, calling on women to resist cultural practices that turned women into sexual objects, women’s liberationists distanced themselves from these issues, and thus were unable to create an inclusive, grassroots, and fashionable feminist image that will appeal to the masses.
Moving into the new millennium, feminists became more fashion-savvy, or at least more willing to embrace practices of beauty and adornment as part of their identity. The fashion industry as well began to see feminism not as an enemy, but as a useful mantle to carry in order to promote sales. In 2014, Carl Lagerfeld staged the Chanel spring collection show as a political demonstration, with models carrying signs for women’s freedom and equality. Yet, despite the positive reactions to the show from the press, feminism’s anti-capitalistic critique and the elite nature of haute couture hindered high fashion from becoming a viable feminist fashion adopted by the masses. Feminism remained an abstract ideology with conflicted images that caused many to be uncomfortable associating themselves with its causes.
The pussyhat, unlike previous attempts to harness fashion to promote women’s rights, entailed a bigger promise to galvanize women and popularize feminism. This hand-knitted, cat-eared pink hat, and its meteoric success as a fashionable accessory was able to bridge the seemingly disparate gaps between feminism and fashion by incorporating multiple messages into an easily recognizable image that speaks to many diverse audiences at once. As every good copywriter knows, the power of an image lies in its ability to convey a complicated message in simple visual cues. The pussyhat, intentionally or not, did just that.
Indeed, the power of the pussyhat is in being on the one hand a gender-neutral item, as everybody can wear a hat, and on the other hand being associated specifically with women. It employs the identification of the color pink with femininity as well as the gendered association of knitting with traditional feminine work, celebrating the creative aspects of women’s labor. More obvious is of course the association of the hat with female genitalia and its reference to Trump’s misogynic statement in the “Access Hollywood” tape. Creatively reclaiming women’s bodies and sexuality as a source of empowerment and defiance, the hat provides a potent symbol which turned the meaning of “pussy” on its head.
The strong association of the hat with femininity drew much criticism regarding the project’s bias against transgender people and people of color, arguing that it excluded those who do not possess women’s vaginas, or whose “pussies” are not pink. In response, the project’s founders have emphasized the inclusive nature of the hat, arguing that it can be made and worn by everyone who supports women, no matter what their anatomy looks like or their gender identity. For them, the hat symbolizes the category of “women,” who “whether transgender or cisgender, are mistreated in this society.” The pussyhat challenges this mistreatment, regardless of the wearer, their website claims. The founders also made an effort to encourage the individual creativity of pussyhat makers and wearers, calling participants to adapt the hat’s pattern, material, and color to their own personal and political preferences.
Staying true to their commitment to create not only a fashion statement, but also a platform for people to connect with each other and organize to promote gender equality, the Pussyhat Project provides a space and a community for feminists to unite around a visual image that also reconciles fashion with women’s rights. According to the project’s founders, “Wearing pink together is a powerful statement that we are unapologetically feminine and we unapologetically stand for women’s rights!” Their insistence that feminists could do both marks a new path for feminism to take, one that takes fashion seriously as a source of pleasure and power, not just an awkward subject to avoid.
As women and activists across the country are organizing again, a year into Trump’s presidency, to march for gender equality, it is yet to be seen whether the pussyhat will keep its symbolic power or whether it will be relegated to a one-time fashionable gimmick. Certainly, some activists already acknowledged its potential to divide rather than unite people. However, given the attention to the political power of fashion statements, as was evidenced in the recent Golden Globes, there is reason to believe that the pussyhat will retain its place as a feminist icon, and its power as a political fashion. If the last year has showed us anything, it is that you can say a lot through fashion, whether it is a pantsuit, a hat, an American-flag hijab, a Handmaid’s Tale costume, or a black dress. While fashion statements, no matter how good they are, can never replace the power and impact of a well-organized action, the pussyhat’s success as a feminist fashion icon reminds us that what you say matters but so does how you say it. Although in many ways, the pussyhat was a spontaneous reaction to a heated election, its fashionable success can be used to attract new crowds to feminist causes.
Einav is a Visiting Assistant Professor in History at Case Western Reserve University. She writes about fashion, feminism, and the media and you can check her academic work and more on her website.