You’re on the Tube: what catches your eye? A man with an oversized backpack? A woman in a hijab? ‘If you see anyone acting suspiciously…’ The warnings assail our eyes and ears. But what are the visual codes that condition our reactions? And how far do we really understand them?
As a historian of French street politics, I’ve been fascinated by recent debates on dress and extremism in the public sphere, encapsulated by the controversial — and now illegal — burkini ban imposed by the mayors of several coastal towns. A resolute reclaiming of the public space for the secular French Republic? An irrational expression of racist or misogynistic prejudice? One thing is clear: this is a debate about the symbolic status of the burkini, not its practical potential.
The burkini ban is a timely reminder of the importance of dress when politics becomes performance. In the newsreel footage of the Battle of Cable Street on Sunday 4 October 1936, protestors wear both workers’ caps and middle-class hats: a visible reminder of their social eclecticism. The presenter, with the clipped precision of a Noel Coward, identifies Sir Philip Game ‘in the trilby hat’ as the police commissioner who urged Mosley to ban his proposed march. Mosley’s ‘army’ wore black shirts; his proposed march led to a government ban on political uniform in the streets.
In street politics, dress is a vital social and political signifier, identifying participants to each other and to the authorities. It can unify and provoke, pursue or depart from existing symbolism and traditions. It can correspond or clash with the character of its surroundings.
To crack the visual codes of street politics we need a sharp sense of history and symbolism. Take these two photographs from 1930s France.
In decorous summer dresses, two women sell badges for the anti-fascist Popular Front in July 1935. But their sunhats are Phrygian bonnets, worn by emancipated slaves in Ancient Rome as emblems of their freedom, and adopted by the French revolutionaries of 1789 as a symbol of liberty, and a sign of radical change.
Decorum to some is extremism to others. Right-wing contemporaries, pictured here on Paris’s affluent Rue de Rivoli on Joan of Arc Day in May 1934, wear traditional costume and conical hats far removed in both colour and symbolism from the Phrygian bonnet. Their attachment to Catholic France placed them in often violent opposition to the secular Republic, whose secularizing laws brought thousands of militant Catholics into the streets, especially in Brittany.
In the play and the display of performative politics, dress can both reveal and conceal. Take Paris’s own Battle of Cable Street on that same sultry afternoon of 4 October 1936. The government banned a ‘provocative’ march by the extreme-right Parti Social Français, while authorising a Communist counter-demonstration in the Parc des Princes. Anxious to prevent bloodshed, policemen received orders to protect the counter-demonstrators by admitting only the ‘visibly left-wing’ to the stadium. 1
But the clash of right and left revealed a battle in which social and symbolic boundaries could be crossed as well as reinforced. The left raised their fists; the right raised their arms. Both sides, however, flaunted their Frenchness by singing the Marseillaise. Right-wingers cross-dressed as Communists, removing their ties and donning caps and working clothes so as to infiltrate the ranks of their enemies. 2
Deciphering the visual significance of 1930s politics demonstrates how dress can be both costume and disguise. In France, the extreme left and right sometimes borrowed each other’s clothes. But this was just one example of how they also fought over tactics, symbols, supporters, and political stamping grounds. Just one example of how they defined and refined their identities in response to conviction, opportunism, and the urgency of circumstances.
We live by codes, but we also play with them. In a recent youtube hit that received considerable press coverage, British actors pretended to impose a burkini ban on the beach at Southend in a ‘social experiment’ to gauge public reactions. The relief when bystanders realised this was theatre was almost palpable. Seemingly extreme dress can be worn in deadly seriousness; but it can also be a parody, a disguise, or a challenge. Looking at 1930s street politics reminds us that if dress codes matter, then their defiance matters too.
Dr Jessica Wardhaugh is an Associate Professor in French History at the University of Warwick, and has published on street politics, ideas of Europe, and popular theatre. Her most recent book is an edited volume on Politics and the Individual in France, 1930–50 (Oxford: Legenda, 2015).
Image 1: Popular Front demonstrators, 14 July 1935 (L’Illustration, 20 July 1935 — author’s collection).
Image 2 and header: Joan of Arc parade, 13 May 1934 (Postcard — author’s collection).