On Clothes, Politics and Protest
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
I live in New Zealand now but I'm originally from the UK, however even that turn of phrase - being 'from' a place - has never sat right with me. A mish-mash of English, Scottish and Dutch heritage combined with fairly frequent house moves has meant that I never really considered myself 'from' anywhere. Maybe that's why my personal politics has always eschewed nationalism. The very concept that someone is better than someone else because of their postcode, or county, or country of birth, has always seemed completely bonkers to me. In fact, I find one of the UK's greatest joys and saving graces is its multiculturalism: when we lived in Leicester, I got to experience the beauty of Diwali in brightly lit streets, eating spicy samosas; when we lived near London, the colour and sound and costume of the Notting Hill festival, a gorgeous assault on the senses; when I lived in Glasgow, the pride of being able to get the best curry west of Kolkata, of having Robert Burns' Address to a Haggis read by a man in a kilt and a turban. I have been so lucky to see so much of my country of birth, and of the world, and I have had my horizons broadened by it immeasurably. In the words of Maya Angelou:
"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends."
'So what does this have to do with fashion, Georgia?' I'm sure you are rightfully thinking. Well, there is a a huge amount of writing and research that has been done on clothing and politics. One strand is clothing and nationalism: uniforms, badges, colours, flags, all of these can be used to further a sense of national identity through our clothing. We need only look at the prevalence of the Union Jack in fashion to see how easily nationalistic symbols can be co-opted into the mainstream. When Gerri Halliwell wore her infamous dress as a member of the Spice Girls, it became an instantly iconic item of clothing, representing British girl power to the whole world.
But could it mean something else? If you were to ask my partner, he would call the Union Jack 'the Butcher's Apron'. He's from Northern Ireland, and he grew up during the tail end of the conflict known as The Troubles. You'll be pleased to hear that I'm not going to dive into the history of The Troubles here - there's plenty of other places you can look for that, and I recommend that you do (an easy start is by watching Derry Girls on Netflix). But it's important to understand that to him, and to many others, the Union Jack represents oppression, colonialism, military violence, and the long and painful history of the relationship between the UK and Ireland. I wouldn't know half of the things that I do now about The Troubles of it wasn't for him, because we aren't really taught it in schools. It is, in my opinion, a concerted effort on the part of the government to try and keep Britain's colonial past in the past - to try and convince us that whilst Britain might have done bad things, it was all normal at the time, and we've learned from our mistakes, and we're better now. But that's not really true, is it?
Thankfully, there are small moments of dissent everywhere, and one of those moments in my life is inexorably tied to the clothes I was wearing at the time. During my AS levels (my pre-uni exams) I had a brilliant politics teacher, who I'll call Mr O. We were studying the period of history 1960-2007 in our exams, and there was about 2 pages on The Troubles in our textbook. Mr O took it upon himself to teach us more than those 2 pages, and to try to impress upon us how important it was that we understood the events that led up to The Troubles and the way in which it still manifested in British politics at the time. This was in 2010, just after the UK general election which saw the Cameron-Clegg (Coservative-Lib Dem) coalition take power - a government which would change my life, and the lives of millions of others in the UK, forever. And it was in this context, in the Winter of 2010/2011, that I attended my first ever protest.
Nick Clegg was the leader of the Lib Dems, and before the election he had positioned himself and his party as the champion of youth. He has promised that if he gained power, he would completely get rid of university fees and ensure that a new generation of people had the right to access higher education regardless of their socio-economic position. There was truly a feeling of belief, of the hope that maybe the world might start changing, and that we would value the contribution of people beyond the 1%. So when Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems formed a coalition government with the Convervatives, I remember hoping that he might temper some of the more right-wing policy making that was beginning to surface in British politics. Unfortunately, that hope was misplaced: what ended up happening under that coalition government was that the fees cap for British universities (sitting at the the time at around £3000 a year) was scrapped, meaning that universities could essentially charge students whatever they wanted. Now, as a result of the actions of that government, the average cost for attending a UK university is around £9000 a year, 3 times the amount that I paid.
I remember the feeling of betrayal like it was yesterday. I was, of course, young and naive, and I had genuinely believed that Nick Clegg would keep his promise. It was a hard lesson, but one that everyone who engages with politics learns eventually: people will say anything to get into power. The need to hold him accountable bubbled up inside me but I wasn't sure how to make it happen, and then I heard the rumblings that there would be a protest about the fees rise across the country. All over the UK, pupils would walk out of class and show their dissent, their anger, their hurt. On the day, there was a clear message from our school: any pupils caught striking will be marked as absent without leave and punished appropriately. As it turned out, the hour we were due to strike was in our politics class. Mr O came in the room, looked at us all, and said:
"Girls, the school have made their position on the student strike clear, and I am a representative of the school. Our politics lesson today is going to be self-led by you all. I'm leaving the room now, and when I return in 55 minutes, I expect you all to be in your seats and looking at your textbooks. I will assume that you have been there all lesson."
He left the room, smiling. I remember us streaming out the door and up the road, holding placards with slogans. We marched around our town and past our local constituency office, cars beeping in support as we walked and chanted. Even there, in the midst of the Home Counties, in the Conservative heartland, there was dissent. I was buoyed and happy and felt like I was changing the world, but do you know the thing that I remember most about that day? My coat. I was wearing this coat, this camel coloured, A-line shaped, button up coat, that I completely adored. It was lined with satin and had big deep pockets. It was a freezing cold day - I think it might even have snowed - and I remember sliding my coat on, buttoning it up, grabbing my placard, and marching up the road. I felt safe and powerful. Cocooned in that coat, and in the glow of collective action, I fell in love with protest, and cemented in myself a belief in the power of young people that lasts to this day.
The law didn't change. In fact, I can see the roots of the horror of current British politics - of Brexit, of Boris, of everything - stretching back to that coalition government, and even further. I can see the tendrils of the suffering and fear of The Troubles wrapping themselves around Northern Ireland again in the face of an uncertain border, and an uncertain future. I can see the buckling of the NHS as a result of a decade of underfunding by the Conservatives. And in my partner's exhaustion, I can see both of these things colliding: he's a doctor, currently working in Derry, right on the border. It's a hard job, made harder by funding cuts, and by Brexit. Talented and wonderful NHS staff (who happen to have not been born in the UK) have left because they feel unwanted and unwelcome. Some have gone to their country of birth, and some have gone elsewhere in search of a better system. Places like New Zealand. Just like I did, and my partner soon will.
It took me so long to gather the courage to give away that coat. In fact, I still it had when I left for Wellington in 2017. I had taken it up to Glasgow when I moved there in 2011 but it had been languishing in mum's house for years since then because it was far too small for me to wear. Even if I had fit into it, it was ragged: the stitching undone in the pockets, the collar stained, and the buttons mismatched from being replaced so frequently. But I loved that coat. It reminded me of youth and of hope and of power. The emotion wrapped in it was palpable to me, and letting it go felt like mourning the loss of a dear, old friend.
When I moved to New Zealand, I wasn't expecting to be attending many protests. In search of a place more hopeful than where I had come from, I arrived with rose tinted glasses, and to some extent I'm still wearing them. I love New Zealand unreservedly, wholeheartedly, with the fervour of the newly converted. It is a beautiful place full of extraordinary people who show extraordinary kindness in the face of tragedy - you only need to look at the collective response to the Christchurch terror attack to know that. But there is dissent here too, and one of the issues that is pressing on New Zealand is climate change. Obviously, climate change is pressing on everyone, but the Pacific nations are particularly in danger of the immediate effects. And so it came to be that I was picking up my placard again: not young enough to be a school striker, but old enough to support them in striking from my own job to walk on parliament and demand better from the government. I was once again part of a movement, not just national but global this time, demanding our leaders recognise the urgency with which they need to act. It was an (ironically) unseasonably warm day and there were moving speeches, poems, songs, dances, and other performances from the youth of Aotearoa and the Pacific Islands. I was wearing Doc Martens, tiger print combat trousers, and a white vest top. And once again I felt powerful, hopeful, and ready to take on the government beside the tamariki of Aotearoa, and the rest of the world. This time around, protest seems to have worked. A few weeks ago Jacinda Ardern (Aotearoa New Zealand's Prime Minister, and the head of the Labour party) announced that the newly amended Zero Carbon Bill had been unanimously passed with historically unprecedented cross-party support. The bill commits New Zealand to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees and to making to nation's carbon emissions 0 by 2050.
Now I look at those combat trousers in my drawer and think of the school strike. And sometimes, it feels like I don't have the right to wear them on a normal day. They belong to protest now, just like my coat from all those years ago.