Clothing is a social skin, located at the boundary between the internal and the external world, and assembled out of commodities. Fashion, like skin, is a densely textured, highly responsive, psychologically, politically, and culturally meaningful surface. It provides the grounds where identities are formulated and negotiated, and pitched ideological battles are fought.
If dress always points two ways—towards the inner world and the outer world—the power of fashion also leads in two directions. Fashion is a tool for binding people to powerful interests and institutions. A practice of forging identities out of commodities cannot avoid complicity with structures of power. But, at the same time, fashion is uniquely positioned to be a tool of resistance. It is relatively accessible and highly visible. Its system of signification is mobile and not fixed, and hence open to reappropriation. And its location at the border of self and world means that it is saturated with importance.
A person, or group of people, can have an idea about a potential future or desire—even a difficult-to-achieve or unlikely one—that can be embodied in an outfit and tried out (tried on).
Certainly to put on different clothing is to make a change in the symbolic realm. A legitimate question, then, is whether changes in symbolic realm can transform into work towards changes in the social and material realms. Or are fashion’s wishes terminal?
Without a doubt, that’s been an oft-sounded fear. As Carla Freeman writes: "Some scholars … present [concern with]…dress and appearance among female workers as superficial compensatory practices that mute women's inclination to resist (in an organized manner) the harsh labor conditions they face in their jobs.” 11 But there may be a lot lurking behind this fear. Part of it may have to do with what we want other people to want. We tend to forget, for instance, that the striking shirtwaist workers’ grievances included a need for dressing rooms, but sometimes did not include demands for greater workplace safety. 12 Retrospectively, we may want the shirtwaist workers to have wanted something better for themselves than cloakrooms, in large part because we wish they had not died.
The problem comes in seeing fashion as necessarily in opposition to workers’ “inclination to resist in an organized manner.” We can look back and wish from the deepest part of ourselves that the Brown Building had been equipped with proper fire exits, that the greed of the factory owners had not made it their routine practice to lock the factory doors, that the fire department had owned fire ladders that could have reached the 7th and 8th floors, that the desire for fancy blouses on the part of one social class did not depend on the exploitation of another. But these wishes shouldn’t bar us from seeing that more than one woman’s political awakening took place in part through her feelings, experiences, and experiments with fashion. Lot 10855 shows us resistance and fashion went hand in glove.
Triangle workers not only fabricated fashions for others, they also used fashion to fabricate political and psychological selves. We can find countless other examples of how fashion has functioned not only as a tool of oppression but as part of a practice of resistance, often in the most unlikely places: from the declaration by French Revolutionaries on October 29, 1793, that freedom of dress was a basic human right, “Everyone is free to wear whatever clothing and accessories he finds pleasing”; to the centrality of khadi to Gandhi’s conceptualization and leadership of the Indian independence movement; to the “Zoot Suit Wars” in 1940s Los Angeles. 13