A question asked in an Instagram post by global environmental activism group Extinction Rebellion feels particularly pertinent today more than ever in a world grappling with the existential threats of climate change and environmental degradation, the intersection of fashion and activism has continuously popped up in conversation as a potent arena for social change.

The Instagram page in question and it’s perennial hashtag #boycottfashion is run by the group who, in their self-proclaimed handbook This Is Not A Drill, describe themselves as “a global activist movement of ordinary people, demanding action from governments." Through means of non-violent protest, Extinction Rebellion is sending out “a call to the industry” in the words of Sara Arnold, a representative of their Fashion Act Now team. “[The industry] must use their creativity to galvanise fashion’s full potential.”

But just how appropriate is #boycottfashion, let alone the entire group’s stance and opposition to the fashion industry as a whole? Perhaps they owe a lot to their protesting predecessors, who fought from within the fashion industry itself.

The role of fashion in political resistance, social reform, and activism has an extensive history which expands way beyond the fashion activist groups of today, and can be found throughout cultural history. The mid-to-late 19th century witnessed a confluence of social and cultural movements, including the dress reform protests, which sought to challenge the entrenched norms of Victorian society. The dress reform protests of the Victorian era are a notable example. It was a movement which fought for women’s emancipation from the, quite literally, tight-laced constraints of female fashion; consisting of large crinolines, long draping skirts, corsets and heavy undergarments. The clothes women wore were a reflection of the strict doctrines imposed on women by Victorian society. Female fashion was constricting.

Fashion, in and of itself, was a gateway to the sociopolitical sphere for many women of the time: as men’s fashion became much more functional and utilitarian, women remained shackled in many several layers of clothing. And just like the constituents of Extinction Rebellion - members of Victorian society sought a change.

Take for instance the short, yet impactful, lifespan of the ‘bloomers'—a pair of loose-fitting, gathered trousers which were made to allow for more movement, worn under a short skirt. Designed by New England activist Libby Miller in 1851 and popularised by her colleague Amelia Bloomer, who wrote about the revolutionary garment in her temperance newspaper The Lily, the trousers were designed to be more comfortable, convenient, and safer than the majority of sartorial options available to women at the time; inadvertently challenging Victorian ideals of femininity. Despite being renounced by the vast majority of society, the garment was to later become a catalyst for the subversion and refusal of certain fashions in order to bring about societal reform in what came to be known as the dress reform movement.

The parallels between 19th-century dress reform movements and contemporary fashion activism, exemplified by groups like Extinction Rebellion, are striking. Both movements emerge from a recognition of the inherent power dynamics within the fashion industry and a desire to challenge oppressive systems. While the motivations may differ – sustainability and climate change versus women's liberation and pre-industrial values – the underlying ethos of resistance remains consistent.

Perhaps activists like Extinction Rebellion, as a more modern manifestation of social activism, are too quick to dismiss the potential of fashion. Fashion can be declarative: even today, we can see how fashion also acts as a grounds for political and social reform. From the pussyhat marches for women in America, to the wearing of all black in solidarity of the Time’s Up movement at the 2018 Oscar's—even the resurgence of the colour white in modern day politics as an homage to the suffragettes. Fashion is the body’s placard.

In 2018, Extinction Rebellion members Matthew Taylor and Damien Gayle stated the civil rights movements of the mid-20th century as one of the group’s major political inspirations. Lynsey, a representative from Extinction Rebellion Manchester, expands, explaining: “ The civil rights movement is very important. At present, those in the Global South are those who are at most on the receiving end of climate change. Take a look at Cyclone Idai in Mozambique in 2019. Also, the Syrian refugee crisis from its origins is a consequence of climate change.”

Similarly, many women from the US, were active in the anti-slavery movements - alongside others like the temperance movement of the time.

In its own way, the dress reform movement had begun to revolutionize the production and consumption of clothing. As the dress reform movement developed, dress parlours were established where women could buy more comfortably constructed clothing or buy the sewing patterns to make their own. Clothing was being made to emphasise functionality to further allow women to engage more actively in society: in sports, politics, and public speaking.

From the dress reform movement also came the Rational Dress Society, established in London, 1881 and chaired by Viscountess Lady Frances Haberton, the society ran a gazette for six issues from 1888 to 1889, where they aptly predicted succeeding generations [will] look back with contempt and wonder at the ignorance and obstinacy of their ancestors’.

To fully appreciate the significance of these parallels, it's essential to delve deeper into the socio-political contexts of both eras. The 19th century witnessed profound shifts in gender roles, industrialization, and colonial expansion, all of which shaped the dynamics of fashion and activism. Similarly, the contemporary landscape is marked by globalization, neoliberal capitalism, and environmental crises, all of which inform the objectives and strategies of modern fashion activism.

And an analysis of the power structures within the fashion industry reveals intersecting issues of race, class, and gender. While 19th-century dress reformers primarily focused on women's liberation, contemporary movements like the Extinction Rebellion emphasize the interconnectedness of environmental justice and social equity. By examining these intersections, we gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexities inherent in fashion activism.

Truthfully, not all parts of the movement saw much success at the time, aside from highlighting health issues within fashion from the prolonged use of a corset, which was the contemporary norm. Fashion curator, historian, and Central Saint Martins lecturer Isabella Coraca Da Gama Vajano explains how women were “victims of fashion"—the movement sought to abolish the ideal of “frivolity over practicality”. Despite not being taken too seriously at the time, Coraca Da Gama Vajano explains how the true success of the movement lay in it being part of something much larger: “it was one of several movements that helped bring about change; protesting took on a whole new form, particularly at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries—taking to the streets—that's very much a 19th century invention, you know, going and speaking out and marching together.”

As it is, the industry is still under increasing pressure from both governments and customers to make a change. Statistics cited by a Forbes article last month state that “87% of material used for clothing production is landfilled or incinerated after its final use, representing a loss of $100 billion annually.”

It’s no wonder why, with such figures, the fashion industry is often vilified in the fight for climate change. Fashion is often portrayed as too consumptive, or sometimes dismissed as too frivolous, for the political sphere. Lynsey from Extinction Rebellion Manchester admits: “I am in no doubt that fashion can be a source of good. It can convey salient information about a person's identity. I use it to assist my activism.”