It’s no secret that fashion and style have been a part of protesting for years, especially recently as the internet and media help spread messages faster and further than ever before. In France, yellow safety vests have become so synonymous with an ongoing movement that the protests have been named after the previously unremarkable accessory. In the US, knitted pink “pussy hats” have featured in protests against President Trump repeatedly. Demonstrators in Nicaragua wore red lipstick as a symbol of their protests against President Daniel Ortega. In Thailand, yellow and red (and later, blue) shirts became symbols of opposing factions in protests for and against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In Hong Kong, the yellow umbrella became the symbol of the 2014 Occupy Central protests against the local and mainland Chinese government.
If you’ve been following the news in the past few months, you’ve likely seen the fact that the city of Hong Kong is, once again, undergoing some serious political turmoil. Following the introduction of a controversial (to say the least) extradition amendment bill by the government, this summer has been characterized by ongoing political and physical clashes between protestors and government forces. Following 2014’s “Umbrella Revolution/Occupy Central” movement, the city has been embroiled in political turmoil not seen since the pro-Communist riots of the late 1960s. I’m not going to go into the multitude of issues and causes surrounding what’s going on, nor do I particularly want to take a standpoint here. Suffice it to say, the city has undergone a transition from the peaceful and largely apathetic community it was for the last few decades and is engaging in activity that is largely unprecedented in its history. If you want to explore what’s happened so far, you can check out the (massively extensive) Wikipedia page on the protests or read up on individual pieces of the ongoing conflict through the extensive reporting of the Hong Kong Free Press.
For people from certain parts of the world, what’s been going on is old hat, protesting is hardly new and the systems under which protests happen are pretty firmly entrenched and understood. In Hong Kong, though, protesting has become a new normal for a certain group of residents. The protestors are by and large young people who would otherwise be engaged in first jobs, university courses, or even high school. As such, many have never had to worry about their own safety or comfort in a city that’s historically been one of the safest in the world*. One of the more interesting things about these protests, outside of the politics and the violence that has characterized them, is the development of an internal ‘fashion’ within the protestor and, to some extent, the anti-protestor camps.
When the protests began, in early June, organizers asked participants to wear white as a symbol of unity. Early images of the protest movement show an unceasing sea of people wearing mostly white shirts moving through some of the city’s busiest districts. Following the death of a protestor on June 15th, however, organizers asked protestors to switch to black as a gesture of mourning for the young man.
Above: Protestors march into Admiralty on June 9 (Credit 1)
Below: A sea of protestors, dressed in black, parts for an ambulance (Credit 2)
Over time, and as the protests became more violent, the protestors have adopted a uniform of black clothing combined with yellow or white hard hats, goggles, facial masks, and umbrellas. Each piece is functional in its own way, but they come together to create a uniform look that has come to define the protests. In contrast to the anti-government protestors, there’s been a movement of pro-government supporters that have been clad in white shirts. These white-shirted heavies have been notorious for attacking protestors and bystanders in an attempt to quell the protests themselves.
Above: Protestors construct makeshift barricades with umbrellas and metal barriers (Credit 3)
Below: Screengrab of a mob of white-shirted men attacking commuters in Yuen Long MTR Station (Credit 4)
I imagine there’s a part of you that’s wondering about the point of this whole dialogue. The reason I bring all of this up isn’t to just educate you on the subject of what’s going on in Hong Kong but to use it to frame to you that what you wear and how you present yourself to the world is important in helping people understand who you are. It’s easy to distinguish a firefighter from a police officer from a solider, because all three of these professions come with definable uniforms. Trying to understand people in their day to day lives can be more difficult.
Sometimes we choose clothing with distinctive messages to tell people who we are. If you’ve spent any kind of time on the internet, you’ve seen targeted ads that seek to sell you something that tells the world something about yourself. From t-shirts that proclaim your astrological sign to dress shoes in the colors of your favorite sports team, there are thousands upon thousands of products that seek to address our identities through our fashion. One of the easiest examples is the baseball cap, you can usually guess where in the US or Canada a man is from based on the team he wears on his head.
But what about the subtler aspects of clothing? I took part in a course several years ago that covered a variety of topics, from personal development and growth to investing and business acumen. A small interaction in this week-long program has stuck with me since it happened. In a session led by Khoi Tu, a leadership and strategy consultant who has worked with everyone from leading entrepreneurs to Jamie Oliver and certain F1 champions, we ended up talking about the messages our watches send to people. Throughout the room, we had men wearing everything from Rolexes to Timex Weekenders (me), and we explored what those watches suggested about ourselves. I won’t go into the details here, but it’s something to think about when you strap on your next timepiece.
From your choice to wear a suit versus shorts and a t-shirt down to a selection between two different dress or casual shoes, our outfit choices tell people about ourselves. There was a time when wearing a certain tie told people what regiment you served with or which school you were from, but now these messages are much more complicated. We’re at a point in the course of the world where there are millions of options available to us, from the level of formality in how we dress to the individual items that we choose to make up our individual styles. As you seek to craft an identity internally, you’ve also got to make an effort on the outside as well.
We all know that guy that dresses like he’s still in middle school. His t-shirts have cartoon characters or stupid phrases on them, his idea of a dress shirt could be used to save Tom Hanks from a deserted island, and his shoes are square enough to be used as a ruler. He might not care about how he looks, but the fact of the matter is that he’s telling the world a lot more than that. An outfit like that suggests things like immaturity, laziness, and general ineptitude. Just like we judge the weird stranger on the side of the road for the way he dresses (try hitchhiking in a suit or old work clothes), we do that with everyone in our lives too. The downside to that is that everyone else does it to you as well.
So, what do you do about it? The simple answer is to give up, build a cabin in the woods, and wear whatever you want. The problem with that is Wi-Fi sucks in the woods and getting fast food out there is even worse, so that’s off the table. The more complicated answer is to start thinking about the message your clothes send. Do they tell the world that you’re awesome or that you’ve given up? Do they show that you care or do they warn people that you don’t? I know I’m constantly thinking about the message I’m sending to the world, especially as I get older and things start getting more important. I could get away with the pithy black t-shirts as a kid, but now, I’m just hanging onto them for the next protest.
*The Economist 2017 Safe Cities Index put Hong Kong at number 10 globally. Source.
By Hf9631 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79580228
By Studio Incendo - https://www.flickr.com/photos/studiokanu/48073667962/in/album-72157709109973522/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79743004
By Studio Incendo - https://www.flickr.com/photos/studiokanu/48282192251/in/album-72157709637557437/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80402400
Apple Daily via Hong Kong Free Press