At the Kids’ Choice Awards, Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown wore custom Calvin Klein to support the gun control movement March For Our Lives.
She is still in the first few years of her acting career, but Millie Bobby Brown has already revolutionised the way young, famous girls look, both on screen and off. As Eleven in Netflix’s 80s sci-fi throwback mega-hit Stranger Things, the real MBB made a Molly Goddard-worthy reinvention of the little pink prom dress -- making it fun, and kind of feral, with her shaved head, bleeding nose and busted trainers. In real life, Millie is changing up the red carpet game, with her very stylish, very cool (and also ‘she’s-literally-still-a-child’- appropriate) outfits. At the Kids’ Choice Awards at the weekend, however, Millie pushed the bar a little further, using her position as a face of Raf Simons’ Calvin Klein By Appointment to create a custom look in support of an important cause: March For Our Lives.
Fashion and activism may share a long history (especially in London, where celebrated designers emerged from the punk scene), but they do not always make easy bedfellows. Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks (and indeed years) about fashion’s renewed, shall we say, embrace of activism. From the somewhat vague messaging of Karl Lagerfeld’s spring/summer 15 runway demonstration (models held placards reading, “Ladies first!” “FREE Freedom”, “Be your own stylist” and “Votez pour vous!”), to Maria Grazia Chiuri’s spring/summer 17 nod to Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie’s famous phrase “We Should All Be Feminists” -- printing it on T-shirts that retail for £490 (a portion of which is now donated to Rihanna’s girl-focussed charity, following an outcry).
“The high-fashion protest T-shirts you see today tend to be a bit namby-pamby. They sit on the fence with watered-down messages" -- Katharine Hamnett
From the Paris catwalks (and Rihanna’s Instagram), the punchy slogan tee eventually found its way onto the rails of high street stores and fast fashion websites. They are now, as you have probably noticed, everywhere. But despite their ubiquity, it is difficult to say what exactly most of them are protesting, and what difference they could make. As Sophie Slater wrote for i-D on International Women’s Day, “We’re all being drawn to ideas that encourage, at face level, genuine progress. It’s only when we consider who’s still at the top of the chain -- and the exploitation at the bottom -- that we can understand the painful irony.” When it’s badly paid women garment workers in dangerous conditions at the bottom, and rich old men at the top, it’s hard to see what that ‘feminist’ T-shirt does to dismantle patriarchy.
As legendary slogan T-shirt designer Katharine Hamnett told the Guardian’s fashion supplement earlier this month, “The high-fashion protest T-shirts you see today tend to be a bit namby-pamby. They sit on the fence with watered-down messages.” Wearing them is a performance of the fashionable virtue of being engaged with social and political issues, without any promise of engaging with those issues in a way that actually challenges the status quo and puts pressure on those with power to make positive change. See also: a number of the men wearing ‘Time’s Up’ pins to the Golden Globes, despite accusations of being exactly the kind of men the pins were protesting.
While slogans printed on fashion products that aim to be commercially successful are unlikely to be particularly radical, that doesn’t mean fashion choices cannot make a political statement. From Katharine Hamnett’s iconic, “58% Don’t Want Pershing” (nuclear missiles) T-shirt (which she wore to meet then-PM Margaret Thatcher), to Ashish’s powerful “IMMIGRANT” shirt (which he wore to present his spring/summer 17 collection, a sombre show exploring the rise of hatred in post-Brexit-vote Britain).
As American actor Connie Britton discovered when she tried to promote the campaign Poverty Is Sexist at the Golden Globes, the red carpet isn’t always the easiest place to make a political statement -- especially not a nuanced one. And balancing your role as the ‘face’ (and ambassador) of a fashion brand with any desire to speak out on potentially controversial subjects is practically impossible. But Millie Bobby Brown managed to use her platform at the Kids’ Choice Awards over the weekend, and her role as the face of Raf Simons’ “By Appointment” service at Calvin Klein, to do just that.
"The shirt wasn’t aggressive, but it’s message was certainly confronting. Being the same age as many of the dead, the 14-year-old actor forced viewers to confront the reality of gun violence in America"
In solidarity with the hundreds of thousands who marched for gun control across the US on Saturday, Millie had March For Our Lives embroidered across the back of her all-American style denim cowboy shirt. Underneath were the embroidered names of the 14 children and three teachers who were murdered by the Parkland school shooter; on the front it read “Never Again”. The shirt wasn’t aggressive, but it’s message was certainly confronting. Being the same age as many of the dead, the 14-year-old actor forced viewers to confront the reality of gun violence in America, and the stake that young people -- whose voices are so often dismissed -- have in the debate.
"The March For Our Lives demonstrations that took place all over the world today have inspired me and impacted us all in one way or another," Millie said, while accepting her Favourite TV Actress award. "I’m fortunate to be here tonight to receive an award as an actor. I get to be up here, and I’m privileged to have a voice that can be heard, one that I can use to hopefully make a positive difference and help influence change," she continues, before dedicating the award to victims of gun violence.
Having your outfit custom made for an awards ceremony -- some of the most visible stages in the world -- is nothing new. But having a political message that you have chosen, because you also have something important to say about it, is surely a worthy contemporary take on Katharine Hamnett’s iconic DIY T-shirt protest. Hamnett didn’t want to meet Margaret Thatcher (or “that murderess,” as Jasper Conran memorably put it), but she realised the platform it would give her, the opportunity to make a statement, and “knocked up that T-shirt a couple of hours before the event”. Millie may have had longer to think about it (the March was announced in February), and time to commission custom pieces from Calvin Klein, but the polished look doesn’t make her intention any less punk. If there’s such a thing as ‘protest fashion’, then this is surely it.