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The Color of Protest - The New York Times


Imagine a world where you couldn’t wear black.

Where would that leave the beatniks and the goths? The Audrey Hepburn-wannabes? Where would it leave the fashion folk, and all the social and cultural groups that have seized on the color as an identifier thanks to its long-term associations with … well, take your pick … darkness, existential angst, artistic endeavor, intimidation, obscurity, rigor, efficiency, mystery, depression and sophistication?

Where would it leave the protesters?

This is perhaps a more apropos question. After all, it is the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong who have become known most recently for wearing black as they take a stand against the attempts of the Chinese government to make their region less semiautonomous. And it is those protesters who have become the target for a possible ban — at least, that’s the word on the street — on the import of black clothing from mainland China to Hong Kong. This follows an earlier ban, issued by the Hong Kong chief executive, on the wearing of face masks.

According to the South China Morning Post, the no-black-imports edict was first issued in July but recently became more all encompassing.

By banning the import of new garments — including black T-shirts, headbands and goggles — the government (or its minions; it’s hard to tell if the ban is in anticipation of the government’s wishes or reflects its actual wishes) is effectively trying to cut off protesters’ access to their uniform. And those enacting the ban don’t appear to discriminate between the kind of black clothes one might wear to the gym, say, and the kind one might wear on the latest front line.

Which reflects both the intelligence of adopting an easily accessible, everyday color as an idiom of opposition and how hard it will be to combat.

Though that hasn’t stopped couriers from doing their best to obey. A Hong Kong shipping company called 4PX, for example, told customers last month that it was illegal to ship black T-shirts (also gas masks, laser lights, ski goggles, towels, bandages, loudspeakers and headbands, among other items). When asked where this order originated, a 4PX employee said the list came from China Post, the postal carrier controlled by the Chinese government. China Post did not respond to requests for comment.

Another shipping company that serves Hong Kong, called Phxbuy, posted a similar notice on Sept. 27. A person who answered the phone there blamed customs officials for the decision, without specifying which ones.

Brian Au, the Hong Kong-born, Canada-raised founder of CHSN1 (“chosen one”), a street wear-meets-gym wear line that is manufactured at factories in Guangzhou and offers predominantly black clothing, said his most recent drop had been stuck in customs since September.

“Basically all courier services have refused to pick up anything black or remotely black,” he said. “I couldn’t even get my samples in. Not a single T-shirt or jacket.”

“I’m empathetic to the situation, but it’s out of our control,” said Mr. Au, who noted that he was not particularly political. “There’s nothing to do at this point except ride it out and be patient.”

To date, the ban does not seem to have had any visible effect on the protesters, who have more than enough black in their closet already, or even on the availability of black clothing, which is still being sold in shops.

But even if black garments did ultimately become a scarce resource, the Chinese government, in focusing on the color, is missing the point.

Yes, black clothing “remains a hugely significant form of oppositional dress,” as Dr. Erin Vearncombe, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto whose research focuses on dress and the body, wrote in an email. It “signals everything from independent thought to outright defiance and revolution.”

Yes, it has a long and storied history as the color of refusal. Queen Victoria used it to signify her separateness as a widow; the Black Panthers wore black leather jackets, black pants and black shades; the Time’s Up protesters wore black red-carpet gowns at the Golden Globes; and for “black bloc” and antifa protests against the far right, it’s become a signature. (It is also seen as signal of menace. As Dr. Vearncombe noted: “Across historical and geographical contexts, people have considered black clothing as ‘looking’ malevolent, guilty, dishonest, violent.”)

Yes, “clothing’s uniquely affective, declarative and performative capacity has meant it has long operated as a central communicative site for political activism and demands for social reform,” as two researchers at the University of Brighton put it. “The use of dress as a form of ‘nonverbal resistance’ seems more prevalent than ever in recent times,” they added.

And yes, black has long been worn as a signal of opposition in Hong Kong, including in the protests against attempts by the Chinese government to introduce a new “moral and national education” plan in 2012 and by the pro-democracy marchers of 2017.

But the fact is, it’s not the color (black or otherwise) that defines protest clothing. It is the fact that a group of people, united in common cause, are united in a common shade. It’s the joint identity that stands out: the visual expression of a voluminous force.

Consider the yellow vests in France. The pink pussy hats at the Women’s March in Washington. The “Handmaid’s Tale” red robes in protests for reproductive rights. The women in white at the State of the Union. And the original women in white, the suffragists. All used a color to render their position and numbers unmistakable, to telegraph a point in a visually impactful way, to render their individual selves a monolith.

So while a black ban, if it takes hold, could ultimately change the makeup of many daily wardrobes, it will simply result in transference when it comes to the uniforms of the opposition.

There are, after all, more than 3,000 shades in the Pantone library. To say the dissidents have options is to understate the matter. Purple for protest!

Can’t you just see it?

Cao Li in Hong Kong contributed reporting.


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