Dressing for (Dis)Occupation: On Subject Positioning and the 'Occupy' Movement

Curator's Note

 What you wear is political. Whether consciously or unconsciously, through choice or not, dress – clothing, tattoos, jewelry, bodies and their extensions – provides visual clues that position (or erase) a person relative to others.

Within the evolving OWS discourse, refracted through mainstream media, social networking sites, and the blogosphere, a number of competing narratives and representations of events have emerged. Central to which are various subject positions: ‘occupier/protestor’, ‘banker’, ‘State’, ‘police/cops’, ‘journalist’ and ‘American worker’. Dress often determines and delimits these categories, but can also blur them.

In this collection of images, I draw your attention to the visual representation of the competing discourses of OWS and suggest that dressed bodies are used to produce, support and amplify these positions: from ‘street’ wear, police uniforms, business suits, ‘Anonymous’ and gas masks, military fatigues, to the (un)clothed bodies of the ‘hot chicks of OWS’. On the one hand, we have an account of protestors as unsafe, homeless, lazy, violent, anti-democratic, anarchists, a minority pitted against hard-working Americans, including ‘bankers’, and the professional, ordered ‘police’ and ‘State’ who protect them. On the other hand, protestors are represented as non-violent, peaceful, ‘beautiful souls’ (women’s gendered bodies feature prominently), they are democratic, the 99%, victims and martyrs. ‘Cops’ and the ‘State’ are anonymous, violent automatons (‘robo’ and militarized riot cops – think ‘casual-pepper-spray-cop’) protecting greedy and amoral ‘bankers’ in suits.

Dress renders these positions both highly visible (sometimes international) and enables the embodiment of these subject positions, so that any business suit becomes a visual metaphor for Wall Street or any mask becomes an anarchist. Dress enables a mapping to take place between bodies and subjects, reducing individuals to ‘bad cops’, ‘dirty hippies’, or ‘fat cats’. Dress functions both symbolically, and as a shifting signifier. It enables, like photographs, a shorthand form of politics; a framing device that may both enable and restrain certain forms of political engagement. It produces logics or common sense of the different competing narratives of the protest, including who instigates violence and the legitimacy of their competing positions whilst eliding other aspects (such as diversity within groups).


The police and nearby office workers wear work clothes that do not allow for individual expression; their uniforms exist in large part to make visible their place in an established hierarchy. Presumably they take these clothes off as soon as they get home.

It seems to me something dissimilar is going on with occupiers--even as they have to wear their "uniform" all the time they have a myriad of fashion choices (related in large part to personal resources) that allows them to sculpt a visual identity. They also have access to accessories--cardboard signs w/words, guy fawkes masks, bandannas, smart phones--that gives them a choice about the degree to which they conform to the occupier "look."


 Quite possibly, and I think that the range of choices amongst occupiers is a very interesting point, particular taking into consideration the carnivalseque side of OWS. But I was wondering what happened to the shortlived movement to clothe occupiers in business suits? What happens when occupiers chose deliberately to wear these kinds of uniforms, or dress in military-themed apparel or wear police uniforms? Or, on the other 'side', what was the hipster cop all about? That's not about conforming, or is it? I think these a speech-acts too that do interesting things to the discourse. I don't see it so much about conforming as another way to communicate within the limitations of a given discourse and create communities, but which also has the consequence of enabling others to appropriate these elements. 


I was disappointed that the call to occupiers to dress in suits (or at least khakis and button-down shirts) was largely ignored. I think it would have been a very clever way to visually signal the effort for unity between protestors and workers, to show "this is not US vs. THEM. We are in this together." While I appreciate the spirit of non-conformity, I think many protestors do themselves a disservice by dressing in ways that have come to be expected (grungy, punky) which is not an effective approach to breaking stereotype and gaining solidarity with people outside of the protest scene.


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