Trading Protest T-shirts for the Guy Fawkes Mask

In the 1980s and '90s, political slogans on T-shirts were 'the bomb,’ but for today’s trendy social activists nothing can match the Guy Fawkes mask.

The year 1984 was an important one for Katharine Hamnett. At the age of 37, she was chosen as designer of the year by the British Fashion Council, earning her a festive invitation to the official residence of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Hamnett's appearance at 10 Downing St. turned heads, not only because she was guest of honor, but also due to the designer's unconventional choice of outfit, which for a moment even caused the prime minister, despite her reputation as the Iron Lady, to lose her composure.

Hamnett wore a long T-shirt emblazoned with the words "58% don’t want Pershing," a reference to the percentage of Britons who, according to polls, were against allowing U.S. Pershing nuclear missiles to be stationed in the United Kingdom. When Thatcher leaned in to read the shirt she “made a noise like a chicken,” Hamnett was quoted by the Times of London as saying. When Thatcher regained her composure, she reportedly told the designer: "Oh, we haven't got Pershing. But we've got cruise [missiles], my dear, so maybe you're at the wrong party."

Hamnett, who was not among Margaret Thatcher's supporters, planned her appearance carefully, hiding the T-shirt under a jacket which she shed just before approaching the premier. In a famous photo of the encounter, Hamnett can be seen smiling politely, but facing the photographer to make sure the camera lens caught the text. Thatcher, in a long, black dress, tries to maintain her ceremonious manners and friendly expression.

But the ploy couldn’t have been a complete surprise. The recognition given to Hamnett that day was in no small part due to her line of daring T-shirts, launched a year before, featuring protest slogans such as "Worldwide Nuclear Ban Now" and "Bring Back God."

In the fashion annals and among those who like to attribute spiritual significance to clothes, the encounter at 10 Downing is etched as a defining moment that shaped a new concept, demonstrating how clothing could be a vehicle for delivering an explicitly political message. At that moment, Hamnett's designs marked a milestone in the realm of political apparel, although many people who wore her shirts saw it as a substitute for genuine action.

Hamnett told one interviewer she wanted the T-shirts “ripped off.” A number of people viewed the shirts as an effective marketing gimmick (and Hamnett herself didn't stop producing them even after she realized their limited political influence). In the mid-1980s, Hamnett's fashion line was embraced by pop idols such as George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, otherwise known as Wham! (The duo famously wore Hamnett’s T-shirts with the slogans "Choose Life" and “Go Go” for the video of their hit "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.")

It set off a surge of T-shirts with a whole range of slogans; and toward the end of the 20th century, the T-shirt really became a means of communication among young people on the streets of cities like London and New York. But like every surge, it ended. With the new millennium, the shirts lost their bite and now the widespread reaction to that form of protest is cynical skepticism. Major changes in the media scene, the supremacy of the image in the digital age and, over the past three years, the Arab Spring and waves of global protest, have rendered impassioned slogans on a T-shirt un-trendy.

A survey today among a representative sample of young people would likely find that the notion of a T-shirt carrying a social message is just annoying, no matter how trenchant the slogan. If the poll were conducted in writing, doubtless many of the responses would feature more emoticons than actual words.

While shirts and signs with impassioned messages still feature at demonstrations, they are less common now than likenesses of political figures. Recently the practice has become so widespread that if you look at photographs of some demonstrations, you could easily think you saw the politicians themselves in the crowd - until you realize that some of the protesters are wearing masks

The logic is obvious. The organizers know that much of the impact of demonstration is a result of media coverage. In this context, a picture is worth much more than 1,000 words. They need one image that catches the eye, and for that there’s nothing better than a mask of someone famous.

In a reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Peace Now dubbed a pre-Purim demonstration in Tel Aviv in 2010 "Bibi and Barak's Masquerade Carnival." It was the first time in Israel that masks of politicians featured so widely at such an event. Peace Now director general Yariv Oppenheimer characterized the protest as satire. In an interview with the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv before the demonstration, Oppenheimer said participants would wear masks of Netanyahu and Barak to show that the pair were part of then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's "masquerade."

The use of masks has taken off since then. At a demonstration outside the home of energy mogul Yitzhak Tshuva in Netanya about two months ago to protest the export of Israel's offshore natural-gas reserves, there were many signs but what really caught the eye were masks with Tshuva's likeness worn by several participants. There were also people in masks of Netanyahu, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

At nationwide demonstrations held in mid-July to mark the two-year anniversary of the start of Israel’s social protests, the Lapid mask was the most popular. In Cairo, demonstrators wore masks of deposed President Mohammed Morsi—but in that case it was in support of their ousted leader. The lesson is that masks, unlike slogans on T-shirts, are open to interpretation.

The very act of wearing a mask raises questions. Why would anyone wear a mask of someone they despise? On the other hand, why would someone wear a mask of someone they support, when masks are associated with dread and death? Hiding behind the likeness of a political figure may be a relatively new phenomenon, but the use of masks by protesters has a long history.

The most common protest mask - white, with a frozen smile, raised eyebrows and a moustache - is of the English revolutionary Guy Fawkes, who was associated with the Gunpowder Plot, the plan to assassinate King James I and the members of the House of Lords by blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1605.

Fawkes was caught before he managed to carry out the plot, and was tortured and executed. The anniversary of the date on which he was caught is still marked in many Commonwealth countries as Guy Fawkes Night.

The traditional Guy Fawkes mask has a Venetian-carnival-mask aspect, but thanks to “V for Vendetta” (the comic-book series and the movie) and the Anonymous “hacktivist” group, it has become a popular symbol of revolt in the past decade.

The mask has been seen recently, for example, at Occupy Wall Street, at demonstrations against government corruption in Thailand, Poland, Brazil and Egypt, and at a protest by Turkish Airlines employees over working conditions. Bahrain banned the mask in February, a few months after a similar ban went into effect in the United Arab Emirates. The prohibition was explained as a public safety measure, but it was clearly an attempt to suppress civil protest. It had the opposite effect, rendering it the mask of revolution, increasing its popularity.

Ironically, the Guy Fawkes mask, that symbol of rebellion against global corporate and government corruption, is now the best-selling mask on the Internet. Amazon.com website reportedly sells hundreds of thousands of them a year. The main beneficiary of all this popularity is media giant Time Warner, which owns the rights to the mask design and earns a royalty from every sale.

Bloomberg
Reuters