We’ve all heard the cynics. The ones that say fashion is superficial, nothing but fluff and bluster.
But the truth is, dressing with a message has been around for centuries. Back then, it allowed people to connect with others who shared their background or perspectives. Today, fashion is an accessible and overt means of sometimes vital self-expression, enabling people to fight for a cause, share an important message of hope, or reclaim their freedom.
But where did the tradition of fashion with a message begin? And what have our clothes been saying about us over the years? Let’s explore.



Fashion and Message Origins

As far back as the 17th Century, the Ashanti or Asante people in Ghana were weaving and wearing geometric patterns that represented the wearer’s history, origin, status or beliefs. Every weaver spoke this unique code of patterns, each of which had its own name. Colours held their own significance, with gold meaning wealth, green renewal, and blue peace. Dressed up in kente cloth, those who understood the code of patterns and colours could ‘read’ you and interact accordingly.
Asante Paramount Chief Nana Akyanfuo Akowuah Dateh II. Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives



Fashion and Feminism

Throughout fashion history, colour symbolism has remained a powerful means of sharing the wearer’s message.
In the 20th century, the suffragettes fought to earn women the right to vote. The protests were long, sometimes violent and full of risk for the women involved as they often starved themselves or spent time in prison.
It was Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the co-founder and editor of the women’s suffrage newspaper Votes for Women who chose the movement’s symbolic colours. She picked out the colour purple for loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope and encouraged her fellow suffragettes to wear the colours as a ‘privilege and a duty’.
Even today, white remains symbolic of women’s fight for equality, with both Hilary Clinton and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez wearing the colour at key moments in their political careers.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opts for a white suit as she becomes the youngest member of Congress in history. Getty Images



Fashion and Positivity

In Fall 2017, Donatella Versace turned heads with a runway show steeped in an uplifting message. The tone was set when the first model strutted the runway in a slip embroidered with ‘equality’ as the word also boomed out on the show’s techno soundtrack.
What followed were streetwear-inspired hats, scarves and t-shirts all emblazoned with the words ‘UNITY, COURAGE, LOYALTY, and LOVE’. Amid rumours she was about to be replaced by Riccardo Tisci, Donatella sent out a message of hope and positivity that lasted long after the final model left the catwalk.
Versace Fall Ready-To-Wear collection: Look 15/58; Model: Anna Ewers Photo: Kim Weston Arnold /



Fashion and Politics

Fashion has always played with politics, allowing activists to express their support for movements or ideas or their disillusionment with the status quo.
Black Lives Matter is the international human rights movement that campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people. Perhaps one of the most iconic identifiers of a supporter is the t-shirt printed with the now world-famous organization name.
Credit: DW/C Bleikar



Fashion and Activism

As well as signalling support, fashion can also raise awareness of the most pressing social issues of the day.
Artist Keith Haring was prolific throughout the 80s at the peak of the HIV/AIDs crisis. His work promoted AIDs awareness and prevention at a time when sufferers of the disease and those most at risk were cruelly ostracised from mainstream society.
Haring purposely chose clothing and public spaces to share his art exactly because he wanted to reach as many people as possible with his important message of inclusion.
Keith Haring, 1986, wearing a t-shirt for the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament.



Fashion and Humanitarianism

Luxury brands have also been known to lend their weight to the most important causes of the day. The AIDs charity RED has worked with Apple, GAP, and Emporio Armani to fund the fight against the disease.
In 2018, Balenciaga hit headlines when they designed a $395 t-shirt featuring the World Food Programme logo. The UN agency responsible for delivering food to disaster zones received 10 percent of the proceeds. But as celebrities and influencers snapped up the garments, the range raised a huge amount of awareness for this vital cause.
Kanye West during a visit to the Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) Children's Village in Masulita, outside Kampala, in Uganda on Oct. 16, 2018. Stephen Wandera/AP/REX/Shutterstock


Other examples of fashion and aid are less overt. Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney are two designers on a mission to protect the planet and its people from the harm of the traditional fashion system. They’re committed to eliminating animal cruelty, use eco-friendly fabrics, eradicate labour abuse and discourage overconsumption. For these designers and those that wear their clothes, fashion is a way of sharing your values and ethics with others.
As Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only; fashion is something in the air. It’s the wind that blows in the new fashion: you smell it. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”. Fashion and message are inextricably linked, there is no fashion without message and many messages would lose their potency without the support of fashion. Especially in the age of camera phones and social media, a message shared through your clothes lasts much longer than any you share with your voice.


July 7, 2020

To donate to the organisations mentioned in this article please visit their websites at the links below.

Black Lives Matter

UN World Food Programme

(RED) AIDs Programme