The women in black: how the Time’s Up protest drew on a history of dissent through clothes

From black blocs and Black Lives Matter to Victorian mourning, the Golden Globes protest played on a rich sartorial history 

Laura Marano arrives for the 75th Golden Globe Awards in black. Photo: PA

Listening to the news on Monday morning, I wondered if we had slipped overnight into Naomi Alderman’s feminist sci-fi novel, The Power. There was a rare thematic unity to the items on the 8 o’clock news: the resignation of the BBC’s own China editor over gender pay disparities; the news that women are at risk of undiagnosed heart attacks; and, top of the agenda, the Golden Globes. It’s usually treated as the “fun” item. This time the male newsreader sounded like he was announcing a natural disaster.

There was a hurricane-like force to Oprah Winfrey using the occasion to call time on “brutally powerful men.” Leading the way with four awards was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about violence against women. Stars turned up clothed uniformly in black. Black was the palate and black was the mood, as the film industry’s award season played out in the long shadow of Harvey Weinstein.

Of course, there have been plenty of hashtaggable cause celebres in Hollywood (#OscarsSoWhite, #AskHerMore) but it’s hard to remember such a widely co-ordinated campaign as #whywewearblack—one that put any issue before froth, fantasia and designer name-dropping.

Some have questioned whether it reflects the richness and scope of women’s experiences. Doesn’t wearing black make a woman even more invisible? “[It’s]a feeble form of protest,” complained the Washington Post’s fashion editor, Robin Givhan this week. “Why choose a kind of full-body uniform that drains women of their individuality and paints the issue at hand with a single, nuance-free stroke?”

But the optics were simple and effective. Black is serious and strong, and on the red carpet, it matched with the men’s tuxedos, flattening out differences at an event where women have always been made into fetish objects.

When worn by large numbers of people, black is also intimidating, with connotations of hard-left anarchist groups in “black blocs,” whose uniformity makes them harder to pick them out on CCTV. No one at the Globes got out of their limos in bandanas or ski masks, but the “blackout” did signal grief, power and dissent.

The Black Panthers chose black berets during the 1960s as a foil to the military’s army green ones. Today, members of the Black Lives Matter movement carry out many of their protests clothed in black.

More significantly, black chimes with other important women-led protests of recent years. In October 2016, thousands of Polish women and some men boycotted their jobs and classes for ‘Black Monday’ protests against the proposed ban on abortion in Poland. They marched through the streets of Warsaw in black garments, waving black flags and raising black umbrellas as a sign of mourning for their reproductive rights.

Polish women strike wearing black. Photo: Flickr/Fokus Pokus Foto

Later that month, women across Argentina took to the streets wearing black to protest against sexual violence following the vicious rape and killing of 16-year old Lucia Perez. Dubbed ‘Black Wednesday’, it saw many carrying signs that read “If you touch one of us, we all react.”

There were similar protests in Ireland last year over restrictive abortion laws. Women wore black sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogan “Repeal” in reference to Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which gives an unborn embryo equivalent human rights to the woman who is carrying it. The organisation Women In Black traces the association back to a group of Israeli and Palestinian women in 1988, who organised weekly protests in Jerusalem, as a response to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Still, black attire hasn’t always been seen as a totem of freedom for women. The suffragettes were famous for wearing white for purity, purple for dignity and green for hope. Black has been worn by both sexes for mourning as far back as the 17th century, but by the 19th century, it became more strictly codified—especially for women, who were expected to wear mourning dress for a lot longer than men.

The fashion historian Dr Kate Strasdin points out that if their wife died, a widower donned black for six months, whereas etiquette dictated that a widow was tied to wearing it for 18 months to two years.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that women appropriated the colour for style purposes for the first time. “By the 1920s, there was a move to see black as fashionable rather than associated with grief so early rebellious flappers started to wear black dresses,” says Strasdin.

“They reclaimed it as an aesthetic from being about an expression of grief to a statement of style. It could be argued that because women started to wear it fashionably that it then became associated with female power.”

A Victorian advertisement shows designs for mourning clothes.

There’s something poetic, something absolute about black: Pierre-Auguste Renoir called it “the queen of all colours” and Johnny Cash, when asked why he wore it head to toe, replied: “It’s still my symbol of rebellion— against a stagnant status quo, against our hypocritical houses of God, against people whose minds are closed to others’ ideas.”

It’s also deliberately downbeat, defiantly uncelebratory. “Why are you wearing black?” the weedy schoolteacher Medvedenko asks Masha in Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull. “I’m in mourning for my life,” comes the unimprovable response.

No one is pretending that the red carpet “blackout” is the action that will bring about gender equality overnight. But it’s certainly a signal. Time’s Up is a non-hierarchical campaign with a specific and practical agenda; top of its list of priorities is a legal defence fund to help women protect themselves from sexual misconduct at work. The protest at the Globes was about solidarity, about forming a block of power that transcends individual experience.

One of the most eloquent arguments came, somewhat bittersweetly, from Meryl Streep, who has been criticised (albeit most loudly by Donald Trump Jr) for her complicity in Harvey Weinstein’s multiple abuses of power. “We feel emboldened in this moment to stand together in a thick black line dividing then from now.” Eva Longoria, one of the leading voices of Time’s Up, said “There’s a misconception that this is a silent protest… Instead of asking us who we’re wearing, they’ll ask us why we’re wearing black. We’re using that platform and using our voices to say we can change this ideology, and shatter the sexism that teaches men that women are less.”

Which is why perhaps the best protest outfits of the Globes were worn by women who dressed quite plainly, such as The Crown’s Claire Foy in her tuxedo trouser suit. This is not because women shouldn’t dress however we like—but because red carpet events aren’t really about women’s self-expression. They are dog-and-pony shows to satisfy film studio demands for publicity, an excuse for the media to objectify women rather than listen to them. And this year, more than any other year, women weren’t in the mood to twirl for the cameras.