What Does a Radical Look Like?

A new exhibition of Richard Avedon's photography shows off the sartorial choices of activists like Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg.

© The Richard Avedon Foundation

As Oscar Wilde once observed, "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances." The photographer Richard Avedon, who straddled the worlds of fine art and fashion, surely would have agreed with him. And yet Avedon—who preferred to keep props and lighting to a minimum—didn't seem to judge his subjects as much as to let them incriminate themselves. ("A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he's being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he's wearing or how he looks," Avedon said.) Deeply revealing as his portraits seem to be, he nonetheless contended that they were also simply studies of the superficial. "My photographs don't go below the surface," said Avedon, the only photographer whose work has been treated to two major exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "They don't go below anything. ... I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues."

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A week after the attempted comeback of the most significant political movement of the new century, an Avedon triptych now on display in New York gets a person thinking about the clues radicals have used over the years to signal their political beliefs. The "photo mural" in question, part of an exhibit that opened over the weekend at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, features the Chicago Seven—the activists, Abbie Hoffman among them, charged with conspiracy after protesting the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. (Hoffman was arrested while eating breakfast for having the word "Fuck" written on his forehead—the kind of clue that's hard to miss.) Though taken in 1969, as the Seven were awaiting trial, the three-part image looks as though it could have been shot in today's Williamsburg. Many of the men are wearing high-waisted jeans; a couple are in whimsically striped shirts; two wear funky glasses; one has a woven belt, tied in a big knot. There's also plenty of facial hair to go around. As a group, they come off as more goofily disdainful than revolutionary.

At the same time, they look quite different from their bourgeois contemporaries pictured on the other side of the gallery: the members of Allen Ginsberg's extended family. Those photos feature men in crisp suits and requisite ties, ladies in polite cocktail dresses and kitten heels. No one would've mistaken the Ginsbergs for Yippies—members of the countercultural 60's youth movement that Hoffman helped to found—just as no one would've mistaken Hoffman for a banker or any other kind of office worker.

One of the primary ways that the Yippies (and the beatniks before them) demonstrated their anti-materialist values was by shopping at thrift stores, according to Tove Hermanson, a senior contributor to Worn Through, an academic blog about apparel, who is working on a book about revolution and style. "Secondhand style enables wearers to confront the mainstream public by communicating allegiances to anti-consumerist lifestyles and radical sociopolitical philosophies," says Hermanson. "Flaunting un-cut hair and wearing mended and outdated clothes has acted as a peaceful visual assault on middle class standards" for decades.

During the French Revolution, the sans-culottes—a political group that played an important part in the war—were a little less peaceful about fashion. Their nickname, "without breeches," refers to the popular silk knee-length pants that they couldn't afford—and were, in fact, legally prohibited from wearing. ("There is a long history of sartorial laws in Europe forbidding lower classes from wearing certain clothes so as to impose visible distinction between groups, eliminating any possibility that any man or woman might be mistaken for a member of another class," Hermanson points out. "These laws could be extremely complex and specific; royalty may wear ermine, aristocrats may wear beaver, working class can wear muskrat.") With tensions running high, the have-culottes had to watch their backs, protecting themselves and their breeches from the have-nots. "In the moments before and during the French Revolution, sentiment turned against the wealthy and it became a liability for people to flaunt their status—aristocratic men were attacked in the streets if they dressed too ostentatiously," says Hermanson. As a result, they would "disguise themselves in work wear—long trousers, not any variation of culottes."

Aside from PETA victims, the extravagantly attired haven't typically been the targets of violence in the U.S., not even with hatred of the rich running as deep as it has in the past few years. Outside of the U.S., however, personal style can still be dramatically—and dangerously—political. As the New York Times reported in March, "A recent spate of killings and intimidation aimed at gay Iraqis and teenagers who dress in brash Western fashions is sending waves of fear through Iraq's secular circles." As many as 40 young Iraqi men who favored the tight-T-shirt-and-skinny-jeans look that is popular with Brooklyn's hipsters have recently been bludgeoned to death with cement blocks, according to justice groups. "Human rights advocates say the threats and violence are aimed at gay men and at teenagers who style themselves in a uniquely Iraqi collage of hipster, punk, emo and goth fashions," Jack Healy wrote for the Times. "The look, shorthanded here as 'emo,' has flourished on Baghdad's streets as an emblem of greater social freedom as society has begun to bloom after years of warfare. But it has drawn scorn and outrage from some religious conservatives."

The most prominent political radicals in the U.S. today—the Occupy Wall Street contingent—can choose their outfits without fear of being assaulted by anyone other than the police. Plenty go in for a hippie style, and favor "headbands, dip-dyed hair, loosely-fitting clothes, Birkenstocks or other sandals," says Madison Moore, a doctoral student in American Studies at Yale University who is working on a book about fashion. "I've seen a lot of hemp bracelets, torn jeans, 'peace' necklaces, and guitars (as an instrument and an accessory)." But there are also Occupiers whose fashion forefathers are the Sex Pistols. Plenty of protestors at Zucotti Park had "partially shaved heads ... mohawks, and those big wide legged pants with all the buckles on them," Moore observes. (Hermanson points out, "The anti-establishment thrifting tradition continued with the anarchist punks who sported ragged, sloppily mended clothes with safety pins in contrast to '80s polished business chic.")

But these days, differentiating the activists from the bourgeoisie on the basis of their attire can be much harder than it was in the past—perhaps in part because of the speed with which the fashion world is able to transfer looks from city trendsetters to malls across America. (That's something that Andy Warhol, another one of Avedon's subjects, also currently on display at the Gagosian—wouldn't have had a problem with. One of Pop Art's major themes is the replication of images.) "Urban Outfitters, like many stores that market 'cool,' are watching what people do on the streets," says Moore. "And the store works so fast that by the time they get wind of what's hot, it's already for sale." For a period, Urban Outfitters subverted the anti-materialistic ethic more, um, seamlessly: It sold secondhand clothes—at a significant mark-up, of course. Moore adds: "For the record, 'Urban Outfitters' is run by a hyper-conservative, which goes against the grain of the store's brand image of being the place where it's possible to purchase the [look of the] liberal zeitgeist."

But any modern-day political malcontents frustrated by the way fashion choices that once meant something have been co-opted by the capitalists can take comfort in a tip from Glenn O'Brien, a.k.a. The Style Guy, who writes GQ's fashion advice column. "I don't think you have to look like a radical to be a radical," he says. Clothes, in other words, don't necessarily make the activist; ideas do.