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Woke Denim: Denim as a form of activism

By Rachel Douglass


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Image: Woke Denim by Tiwirayi Ndoro

Materials can be the subject of political movements, sustainability debates and personal statements, but not many have such a rich history as denim does.

Rounding out a whole month of talks, workshops and events, the British Textile Biennial has come to a close. Focusing on the UK’s relationship with creativity, innovation and expression in textiles, varying subjects matters presented at the event revolved around textile history, future production methods and societal impacts of material.

A number of panel discussions and exhibitions in this year’s edition put a particular emphasis on denim as a form of activism, highlighting its position in protests and movements as a frontier for politically charged statements.

In one panel discussion, entitled ‘Denim and Civil Rights’, the subject centred around Tiwirayi Ndoro’s work, ‘Woke Denim’. Created last year during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, the photo series produced by the photographer, stylist and activist explored the use of denim in protests during the modern-day, in consideration of its expansive history.

Ndoro was joined by the director of Big People Music Tunde Adekoya and artists Jamie Holman and Calum Bayne for the discussion, each offering their own perspectives on how denim has been used as a signifier for self-expression and protest.

Denim as a signifier for youth and a platform for diverse communities

In reference to her Zimbabwean heritage and her experiences as a Black British woman, Ndoro focused on denim’s impact on Black history. Alongside Adekoya, the two expressed their relationship with the material once finding out its connotations in their respective community. Noting the unlikely and often unknown relation between denim and Black people during the time of slavery, both Adekoya and Ndoro mentioned they were unaware of the impact of the material in the Civil Rights movement, during the ’50s and ’60s, and both agreed their relationship with denim had changed significantly since.

Image: Woke Denim by Tiwirayi Ndoro

In response, Jamie Holman said: “The link to the Civil Rights movement is key in the establishment of youth culture in the ’60s. Denim became a signifier for youth and that definitely travels from that background. It becomes the uniform of lots of different youth culture movements.”

A focal point of the discussion was an image of activist Joyce Lander, taken at the march on Washington in 1963. Lander, an icon of the Civil Rights movement, sported denim overalls, a look that wasn’t a typical part of everyday American fashion.

“It is a specific message with her use of denim as if she is forcing people to look at the denim overalls and consider how people are looked at and perceived in communities across America and globally,” said Calum. “It is a specific version of protest that says she will not be co-opted by White middle-class American fashion, a resistance of simulation to achieve equality.”

He continued: “It is spoken as an equaliser in this sense, the use of denim coming across classes. The protesters would unify in their use of denim.”

Bayne then began to explore the influence of denim in the gay community, referencing the ascent of the ’70’s Castro clone. Originating from a group in San Francisco, the general look involved tight fit denim garments and a white tank top, inspired by the general working-class attire of the time. Bayne remarked that, although this once brought a community together, there were also negative connotations linked to the increasingly popular fashion.

“Style and uses of denim can be unifying for some but rejecting of others,” he stated. “At that time the white, muscular, hypersexualised body was sort of idealised in that community. Anything outside the white idealised perspective was rejected.”

He added: “Can you rely on garments to relay your political integrity? Because everyone that wears one jacket can have a different political identity. It is whether or not they are coopting denim as a political fashion statement or if the brand is making a long term statement to become more accountable in itself.”

Image: Woke Denim by Tiwirayi Ndoro

Ultimately, the panel agreed that denim was flexible in how it can be viewed, depending on the media an individual consumes and the community they consider themselves a part of. The rise in popularity of attending protests, with an added desire of looking fashionable, has made it more difficult to determine the cause for the use of denim in this context. Varying dialogues outplace others, making the material’s history often foggy and uncertain, but Ndoro is looking to change this perception.

“So many young people are not conscious of the history of denim, especially its links to BLM…”

Her ‘Woke Denim’ project centred around last year’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, triggered by the death of George Floyd, was part of an international outcry focused on the treatment of Black people by law enforcement.

“Young people really drove the BLM movement forward in a way that was so pivotal and so vital,” said Ndoro, in the talk. “It was an amazing experience for me. There wasn’t any air of anger, it was more people coming together for one cause.”

She added: “Most of my work is geared towards the experience Black people have breaking down barriers and fighting against oppression in any area.”

Images from the photo series portrayed Black British youths, sporting predominantly denim outfits, each holding powerful stances that signify what the movement was and is all about.

In conversation with FashionUnited, following the talk, Ndoro said on her decision to use denim: “When I was initially asked to do the project, I had no idea that denim was so significant to the Civil Rights movement and that Black workers were made to wear it while working on the fields.

“So the research was very revealing for me and that is why I chose to have a lot of denim present in my imagery. I wanted it to emulate, not just the anger of protests, but Black joy and working together in strength.”

Stating that she believes the research on denim has changed her relationship with the material for the better, Ndoro noted that this mindset would be beneficial for a wider majority.

Image: Woke Denim by Tiwirayi Ndoro

She commented: “So many young people are not conscious of the history of denim, especially its links to BLM, which is why I wanted to centre around it. They attend these events wearing denim, not knowing its meaning, which is often an unconscious thing.

“Major denim brands like Levi’s have done a good job in concealing the history and centralising it around a whitewashed view of denim. We can also look at the Black point of view. This project was to raise awareness for that.”

Also a director of the KYSO Project CIC, Ndoro looks to implement fashion and activism into other areas of her work. The Manchester-based nonprofit looks to help disadvantaged young people gain opportunities and skills imperative for their future development.

“Young people thrive in environments that are producing inclusive learning,” she said. “I see a lot of young people that think they can’t go to certain events that, if they attended, could get them involved in more opportunities. I think it’s important to create spaces and engaging content that appeal to young people from all walks of life.”

A recent initiative saw the organisation work with Patagonia on an experience that got participants into the outdoors, with activities like hiking designed as a genuine escape for them.

“We are making strides in fashion. It is really at the groundwork stage, helping these young people and creating a space for them to learn about these things and cultivate their understanding of the world.

“Brands getting involved in these initiatives will create an opportunity for young people to become more invested in them. I feel like it’s the only way to connect with them, through an experience they can believe in.”