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I thought a black dress protest was too easy - but then I saw it and changed my mind | Eva Wisema

Fashion statement: the 75th annual Golden Globe awards with Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley all wearing black.
Fashion statement: the 75th annual Golden Globe awards with Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley all wearing black. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/NBCU/Getty Images

The first thing I thought when I saw the blackout at the Golden Globes was that these women looked like an army. The second was a memory. A memory of a news story from late last year, about people trying on clothes from Zara and finding little notes sewn inside. “I made this item you’re going to buy,” Turkish factory workers had written, after the company they’d worked for went bust, “but I didn’t get paid for it.” It was an SOS, a flare in the night, and one impossible to ignore because it caught everybody unexpectedly, in a place where it couldn’t be written off. A sneaky protest.

And, despite the furiously high profiles of the actors involved in the Time’s Up movement to raise awareness of sexual harassment, one element of which were last week’s black dresses, this too felt sneaky. When the plan for an all-black red carpet was announced, responses were mixed. Rose McGowan tweeted: “I despise your hypocrisy. Maybe you should all wear [Weinstein’s wife’s label] Marchesa,” and The Washington Post’s fashion critic Robin Givhan argued: “Putting on a black dress is too easy. It doesn’t begin to communicate the treachery and loss. And it obscures any belief in a way forward.” I agreed – it felt then like an empty gesture by people with little to lose. The black felt mournful, rather than exciting; the dress code felt like it was about fashion, rather than activism. Why participate at all? Why not stay in bed with dirty hair and upload your boycott to Instagram? And then it happened and I saw it and changed my mind.

The black dresses were not the subject of the night, they were a backdrop to a hundred small promises of change. It wasn’t about fashion, in the end, it was about fighting. Eight actors turned up with an activist for gender and racial justice as their plus one, rather than their husbands. Oprah, accepting a lifetime achievement award, ended her speech with a call to arms. “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.” She finished by imagining a world where nobody would have to say “ me too” again, to a standing ovation. Introducing the best director award, Natalie Portman said: “And here are the all-male nominees.” The black-gowned audience gasped.

There’s something happening. In November, contestants in the Miss Peru beauty pageant approached the microphone and gave their vital statistics. “My name is Camila Canicoba and I represent the department of Lima. My measurements are: 2,202 cases of femicide reported in the last nine years in my country,” said one. “My name is Karen Cueto and I represent Lima, and my measurements are: 82 femicides and 156 attempted femicides so far this year,” said the second. There were 23 contestants. “Greetings from Almendra Marroquín. I represent Cañete, and my measurements are: more than 25% of girls and teenagers are abused in their schools.” It’s as if they’d rewired a Hoover to make it a gun – by repurposing an old tool of female objectification, they forced viewers to confront violence. Sure, men can look at their tits, but not without considering the bodies of thousands of other women killed in their homes, a fair exchange, no?

The year 2017 was one of protest, played out often in clothing, in slogan T-shirts, in pussy hats, in the sneaky Trojan horsing of politics into glamour. The kinds of people who would never have considered going on a women’s march were confronted with messages of solidarity and feminism in the most unlikely places. It continues now – 2018 will be a year where the broadest mainstream events, from awards ceremonies to a royal wedding, will be sites for discussion of race and privilege, and where women will elegantly sneak protest into the softest spaces.

At first I thought protesting through fashion was weak. But I quickly realised the truth of those black gowns, and how pulling at a single thread can cause the whole facade to fall away.

Email Eva at or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman

This article titled "I thought a black dress protest was too easy - but then I saw it and changed my mind" was written by Eva Wiseman, for The Observer on Sunday 14 January 2018 02.14pm

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