What to Wear to a Protest

By Ariana Ortiz

Women's March protestors in San Jose, California on Jan. 21, 2017.    Gordon-Shukwit / Flickr                                                                                                                           

Women's March protestors in San Jose, California on Jan. 21, 2017.   Gordon-Shukwit / Flickr                                                                                                                          

In today’s volatile political climate where a new executive order seems to materialize every five minutes, many American citizens are taking up their right to protest. If you’ve never participated in a march, protest, or demonstration before but now feel a burning need for it emerging in your soul, you may be a bit embarrassed to ask what to wear. Maybe you’ve attended protests before, but want more specifics to be better prepared for your next demonstration.

Don’t fret, because we have some tips and advice from experts to help you along your journey in activism. 

Above all, dress for functionality.

From head to toe, every piece of clothing you wear to a protest should serve a purpose. Political organizer and activist Genevieve Davis, who began organizing in high school and currently works with the Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC), suggests dressing in layers for the sake of comfort and mobility.

“You'll be outside moving around a lot, so chances are you'll want layers. Wear clothing you would feel comfortable moving around in.” Davis says.

Layers are also useful to avoid weather-induced suffering; you can add and remove pieces as the temperature fluctuates throughout the day. Always ensure your outermost layer is waterproof, whether it is a rain poncho or beloved raincoat. 

Comfortable, no-slip waterproof shoes with arch support are necessary to keep you focused on the protest rather than your soaked, aching feet. Bring tennis shoes and sneakers in the case of warmer weather and insulated boots for frigid temperatures. While it may be tempting to spring for a pair of intimidating combat boots just for the occasion, save money and closet space by waterproofing a pair of shoes you already own. Bustle recommends Kiwi Camp Dry Water Repellent’s formula, which lasts a long time between applications.

During the Women’s March this past January, women and men alike donned pink crocheted “pussy hats” around the nation. While these hats undoubtedly helped protestors stay toasty in frigid weather, they also served to provide a striking, pink-tinged image: A united front of people marching for women’s rights. 

American flag hijabs were spotted at the numerous pro-immigrant protests organized in response to President Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, serving as a sharp visual reminder that the identities of “Muslim” and “American” are not mutually exclusive.

Consider a t-shirt emblazoned with the message you’re trying to spread—if the discourse surrounding Dior’s “We Should All Be Feminists” shirts at their Spring 2017 show demonstrates anything, it is that fashion has always been a kind of protest in itself.

Safety first, always.

Remember that when you participate in a peaceful protest or demonstration, there is a measure of danger you’re signing up for. You will be running the risk of bodily injury or arrest by attending. 

“Most worst-case scenarios I've seen are just the police reacting really violently, or people that may not necessarily be there with the common good of the protesters in mind coming in and reacting violently despite what the leaders advised.” Davis says.

Leave valuables like jewelry behind, as they can easily get lost in a crowd or even pose a risk of injury if the demonstration starts to get hectic. 

Bring your ID and a small amount of cash in a concealed money pouch. While it is not mandatory for you to give proof of identification to authorities for participating in a protest, the ACLU recommends having your identification on hand to encourage an earlier release in the case of detainment.

Security guidelines for the Women’s March on Washington were notoriously strict; only clear, uncolored backpacks no larger than 17”x12"x6" were permitted. Any purse or bag that was larger than 8”x6”x4” was subject to be confiscated. While clear bags are normally only seen in the hallways of safety-conscious public schools in post-Columbine America or even Prada’s Spring 2010 handbag collection, tens of thousands marched for women’s rights with their backs adorned with them. 

“The clear backpacks at the Women’s March were a kind of statement in itself to its organizers and to law enforcement,” says stylist and NMSU fashion student Zoe Housen. “Like, ‘we know you don’t trust us to be nonviolent, but we’re still showing up to march.’”

A clear backpack will not guarantee that you won’t be stopped or questioned by police, but wearing one is a safety precaution for any demonstration, just as bringing your identification is. Refinery29 has compiled a handful of sturdy options from retailers such as Amazon and Urban Outfitters. If you’re a more hands-on person with a love for sewing and crafting, YouTube user “Ryan IDK” has graciously uploaded a tutorial on how to DIY your own clear backpack.

Now, what will you carry around in your clear and very on-trend backpack? 

Lip balm and baby wipes are basics that will help you avoid chapped lips and discomfort. If your demonstration is an all-day kind of event, these two items will save your sanity. Basic first-aid items such as bandages and alcohol wipes will go a long way in case you or anyone around you sustains minor injuries.

While sunscreen is always advisable, spring for one that is water-based: In the event of tear gas or pepper spray, an oil-based sunscreen will absorb tear gas and worsen its effects, according to International News Safety Institute (INSI), an organization devoted to safety for journalists. This also applies to any lotions or cosmetics—be sure to wear only those that are water-based on the day of the protest.

Street Medic Wiki, an online resource by and for volunteers who provide first aid at demonstrations and protests, recommends a solution of half liquid antacid and half water to rinse out pepper spray-affected areas such as the eyes, skin, and mouth (if the individual can breathe). If you choose to bring along a squeezable bottle of this just in case, be sure the liquid antacid you use is aluminum hydroxide or magnesium hydroxide-based, such as plain or mint-flavored Maalox.

You don’t have to bring a street medic-worthy arsenal, but there’s nothing wrong with being prepared with a few essentials in case things take a turn for the less peaceful.

Your cell phone is an important tool; make sure you bring it fully charged, accompanied by an external battery charger. If your security settings are set so you can unlock your phone with a fingerprint, the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests you consider changing them so a code must be input. Authorities cannot compel you to tell them your code, but they can require you to press your thumb to it, thanks to a judicial ruling in Virginia in 2014.

You may feel tempted to try and Snapchat or record every moment of the protest—Davis advises you withhold that urge.

“A lot of demonstrations lately have been so heavily focused on the social media image, which is important in a lot of ways because you need to let people know things are happening,” Davis says. “But I also feel that taking a constant stream of pictures as well as removing yourself from the moment really takes away a lot from the objective and the personal experience… Bring your phone in case anything happens, but use it only to a minimum.”

Show up to the protest with helpful numbers decorating your arms in permanent marker in case of arrest. A useful phone number to start with is the National Lawyer’s Guild NYC at (212) 679-6018. Keep that permanent marker on hand so you can jot down any badge numbers of police officers you see abusing their stations.

Stay hydrated and keep your blood sugar up by bringing a water bottle and calorie-dense foods like granola bars, trail mix, or even packets of honey. 

You are now a reflection of the cause you’re marching for.

Lastly, remember that once you decide to march in a protest, you are no longer only representing yourself. As soon as you join your fellow protestors, you have become a part of the collective face of a movement.

“How you present yourself is important in everyday life, yes. That also goes for protesting, you are representing a cause. But in a way the functional aspect of protest clothes is a statement in itself,” Housen says. “It shows that you’re here to march, here to be taken seriously.”

So whether you show up in a homemade t-shirt courtesy of puffy fabric paint or you purchased a piece directly supporting and benefitting the cause (think the “I Stand With Standing Rock” t-shirts popularized by actress Shailene Woodley), know that your presence and willingness to march are in themselves powerful statements.