On January 21, 2017, hundreds of post-Inauguration Day protests, rallies, and marches took place across the US and around the world. Largely organized by women and around “women’s issues” (which are not really only pertinent to women), the Women’s March on Washington and its related events served a smorgasbord of issues that were probably not all, entirely, to the taste of every participant–which did not keep them from coming out by the millions. Such is the nature of progressive politics in its sweeping gestures toward inclusion and diversity. Even so, the various marches were alike in several factors, including their overwhelming numbers, their overwhelmingly peaceful character, and their overwhelming pinkness. The latter was in part due to many artifacts in the crowds utilizing that color so long associated with all things feminine, but one item rose above the rest: the headwear that many of the participants wore. Simple in shape, the flat, boxy hat, when slipped over the head, reveals pointy “ears” that gives rise to its name: the pussyhat.
Given the success of the marches and ubiquity of the hats within them, the pussyhat may become one of the great examples of political headwear in the history of this sub-sub-sub-set of material culture history, which is a long one. Hats have enjoyed a rather rich association with politics through time, as their meanings might be casually hewn or (as in this case) intentionally sewn. Ancient Greeks recognized different tribes by their chapeaux, especially those who donned a pointy cone later called Phrygian caps, which were later embraced to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty during various eighteenth-century revolutions: Americans called it them Liberty Caps. In the early twentieth century, hats were intentionally wielded within the strive toward Turkey’s westernization during the establishment of the Republic when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk required men to wear European-style hats in replace of the fez that had been traditional for about a century, thinking that modern hats would modernize their wearers. Meanwhile, Americans popularized straw boaters, usually festooned with bunting and buttons, as the canonical rally and convention hat. Again in the 1960s, activists and revolutionaries countered the decorum of broad-brimmed hats by donning berets to conjure a militarist attitude, famously captured in the Guerrillero Heroico.
Hats have only gained prominence at political rallies–especially televised ones–in the most recent decades, as a way for individuals to draw media attention to themselves (and, of course, their party), and for organizers to indicate solidarity among a crowd. Such was certainly the case during the 2016 presidential election, when the platform of the candidate who ultimately won the Electoral College became closely identified with a red trucker hat bearing an ostensibly, but backwards-looking and nostalgic, patriotic slogan. Reaching a certain portion of the electorate that was clearly feeling left out of global change, its form identifies with traditional masculinity and blue-collar labor, while its color is associated with the American flag but, perhaps more to the point, is also the shade favored by bullfighter to enrage their prey and thus may likely pump up (if not help to flat-out enrage) rally attendees. The factory-made hat (sometimes labeled “made in the USA,” but not necessarily so and not entirely so) was a tremendously successful element of the campaign, yet as ill-fitting and foreign in its candidate’s wearing–one might argue–as are the values it symbolizes within his actual life experience.
How different, then, is the hat we saw amidst the crowds flowing through the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston and beyond on January 21: not a device shrewdly chosen and mass-produced to elicit common response among a crowd of followers, but the result of a totally grassroots campaign, like the rallies themselves. While the innocent (or out-of-touch) might see their shape as having some vaguely feline-feminine quality appropriate to a Women’s March, no one was calling these kittyhats; they of course were a direct response to one of the most degrading and disparaging comments to come out of the red-capped candidate’s mouth. In no way is the pussyhat’s hue a washed-out, weaker version of the candidate’s hats; in this context, pink is potentially more biologically referential than generically pretty–although it’s that, too (and, depending on the wearer, ironically so–or not).
Also unlike the uniformity of the manufactured red hats, the pussyhats reveal a variety of shades and patterns of pink, as diverse in their slightly different shapes, fabrics, and methods of fabrication (some real works of art by skilled knitters and others clearly a person’s first go at a sewing machines). This too is significant, for the making of these hats is as important as their wearing. The real gist is for them to be handmade–so much so, that knittters took pity on their non-needlework-able sisters and passed them around both through small social circles as well as through a well-organized online campaign (no doubt the need also drove some robust Etsy traffic).
The mass creation of hundreds of thousands of pussyhats in a relatively short time frame is a testament to both contemporary social media and age-old needlework technology. The two merge in what may be the biggest global act of Craftivism in history: a pointed use of handicraft for the cause of activism, oftentimes (maybe usually) from a feminist point of view and making use of crafts that have been traditionally associated with the feminine sphere. In the best Craftivist practice, the pussyhats accomplish both goals by merging the advocacy of voice and hand, while also bridging the divide between the personal and the global.
So the pink hat is at once an individual, unique artifact in the making and a communal event in the wearing, much as the marches themselves joined vast swaths of people from broad demographic representations. As a specifically feminist strategy they reclaim and repurpose a word that had been used to belittle and degrade while claiming and proclaiming a color that is a powerful, clashing counterpoint to last summer’s red hat and its regressive attitude. With varying levels of craft expertise, fiber, fabric, pattern and color, they announced diversity within overall unity, perfectly symbolizing the recognition of plurality’s strength within any movement–or society–that hopes to march forward.