The following is an excerpt of an article I wrote for the Chap Magazine's February/March 2012 issue:
...When Winston Churchill dismissed Mohandas Gandhi as “a half-naked, seditious fakir,” Gandhi, rather than describe the Prime Minister as a bloated imperialist in pinstripes, explained that he wore his loincloth as “the symbol of India's distress.” The sans-culottes of the French Revolution took their name because they wore long pants rather than the fashionable knee-breeches of the bourgeoisie (two decades later, the arch-dandy Beau Brummell made long pants de riguer fashion throughout Europe.) In the English Civil War Parliamentarians were called “Roundheads” for their close-cropped hair, in contrast to the foppish curls of the Royalists, first as an epithet and then taken up by the Parliamentarians in defiance. The song “Yankee Doodle,” (one of the first recorded uses of the word dandy,) was originally sung by the red-coated British Soldiers (called “Lobsterbacks” by the colonists,) who mocked the colonists' slovenly appearance; saying they were stupid enough to think a feather could transform them into fashionable “Macaroni”-wigged dandies. The ragged Continental militias soon claimed the song as their own.
A different sartorial radicalism is seen in the struggle for black civil rights. At the beginning of the 20th Century, a popular minstrel character was “The Dandy Colored Coon,” mocked for trying to dress above his station, looking ridiculous in a battered top hat, cracked monocle, and patched tailcoat. In subsequent years, entertainers like the immaculately-attired Duke Ellington - “Harlem's Aristocrat” - challenged this stereotype by dressing better than their white audiences.
A crucial aspect of the protests of Martin Luther King was the assertion of dignity. For black Americans, whose ancestors had been sold naked as chattel, clothes were a symbol which affirmed their humanity. The image of black men and women in their Sunday best, led by Dr. King in his sack suit and fedora and Bayard Rustin in a thin knit tie and slim-lapel jacket, were striking. Malcom X, in his tab-collar shirt, tie clip, and sharp squared glasses looked like a serious-minded man who could cut you with the crease of his pants. These people demanded respect with their appearance and dignified manner...