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The Civil Rights Movement and Style

What Martin Luther King Jr. Knew

By Megan Collins | Last Updated: Oct 14 2016

Over the weekend, the Huffington Post ran a piece on “Civil Rights Style” to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While I found the whole thing to be a little — can I say “glib” without it automatically conjuring up Tom Cruise yet? I can’t, can I? – with the pat nature of the article (they dressed well so they achieved their goals!), I found myself nodding in agreement at much of it.

Writing about the style of MLK and other leaders of the civil rights movement, the author pointed out the importance of dressing in a way that commanded respect for these cultural influencers. Rosa Parks in her skirt suit being fingerprinted after refusing to move to the back of the bus. MLK in a fedora and well-tailored separates marching in Washington DC. Malcolm X and his bow tie. While their messages may have stirred controversy, their clothes certainly didn’t.

The lesson of dressing the part for political change has resonance still today. If you want your message, your voice, your movement to be taken seriously, you have to present yourself in such a way that those in charge will stop and take notice. Look at the Occupy Wall Street protestors. How many scourges against OWS gleefully decry the participants’ dirty hippie style? And really, is it any surprise that a protestor dressed in a baja hoodie and dreadlocks has trouble finding common ground with a banker in a three-piece suit?

Your appearance is the first impression other people have of you. It doesn’t matter if that person cares about “fashion” (or if you do either, for that matter); you’re telegraphing a message with every untucked shirt or every untied shoelace. Conversely, clothes that fit, shoes that are polished, hair that’s under control (even if it’s long) say,  “I respect myself – and you – enough to make an effort to dress appropriately for the occasion. Please take me seriously.” Everyone from a college grad interviewing for his first job, to a guy meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time knows this is true. And if they don’t, they should.

It’s things like this that remind me that style isn’t silly, and it’s not inconsequential. Rather, it’s worth paying attention to your appearance because how you look matters to other people, and that should matter to you.

(image, NY Times)