The Symbols We Wear That Speak Our Lives

4 min read

Regardless of where you stand in the current political maelstrom of protests, you have to tip your hat to the cleverness of the Pussyhat Project. In one simple product, with one basic color, Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman of the Little Knittery in Los Angeles seized upon an idea that would encapsulate all that the protest was meant to convey. As a protest symbol, it was the perfect article, and Suh and Zweiman join a long line of protest-creatives who have used merchandise to articulate dissent.


In 1983, Katharine Hamnett lined up to shake Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hand. Minutes before, she pulled an anti-nuclear protest t-shirt from her bag and quickly threw it on, startling the Iron Lady with her garb and provoking a public conversation about nuclear missiles.


Hamnett would go on to design many other protest shirts, including the “Choose Life” t-shirt made famous by musician George Michael. Hamnett declared that the t-shirt was designed to “make you think, question, and hopefully act,” also stating that “they are actually … designed to be seminal.”

Brevity being the soul of wit, the shirts were simple: white t’s with stark, declarative fonts screen-printed in black, the letters shouting protest from the austere t-shirt canvas. Similar visuals were used in the sixties when civil rights protesters wore posters around their necks bearing the phrase “I am a Man” (Martin Luther King was assassinated on his way to join that protest).  

During the Vietnam War, 1,000 celluloid buttons were produced at a small Chicago bookstore with plain lettering circling a peace sign; the “Make Love Not War” phrase gave words to a movement that woke the social consciousness of the world.


The world lay shocked from the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks when French designer Jean Jullian sat down to sketch a simple symbol that best expressed his feelings, and in so doing he gave a reeling world an anchor in the form of t-shirts, posters, buttons, and flags.

Simple colors, typefaces, and shapes form symbols that define our identity by giving voice to our innermost thoughts and passions.

Carl Jung stated that human beings have a “symbol-making propensity,” they “unconsciously transform objects or forms into symbols thereby endowing them with great psychological importance.”

Not only do the shapes of symbols translate great import to us but their colors have significance too. Colors act as small communication-convoys for ideas: Green party. Red state. Blue state. Red scare. Orange versus blue. Rainbows. And, the color pink.

The great artist Kandinsky stated that colors both reveal and conceal, “The splendor of color … must seize the viewer, and at the same time, it must conceal the underlying … emotions of the artist.” Why conceal? Kandinsky writes, “in every picture … a whole life is concealed, a whole life with many torments, doubts, and moments of … enlightenment.”

These modest objects: t-shirts with unadorned phrases, basic celluloid buttons, pink knit hats,  are imbued with what Kandinsky referred to as having a “secret soul,” there is more than meets the eye. And with the profusion of media coverage today, these symbols represent a visual opportunity to inspire tribal unity while awakening the world to a different viewpoint, truncating ideas to their essence, providing a mental heuristic (shortcut) for comprehension of a worldview.

Thoughts take time to untangle themselves from the complexity of feelings, particularly in moments of cathartic, emotional upheaval (such as an election or a revolution). We realize that these clumsy bricks called words are not malleable when we need them most. When locution fails, symbols speak for us, and by wearing them, they emanate truth from the inarticulateness of our soul, elucidating our thoughts, giving sound to suppression, unification to our isolation. And, lest we begin to take ourselves too seriously, they also provide a necessary bite of satire into the tenuous public conversation.

Even those that cannot make the protest -from their couches, from their dens, from their barstools- can identify with the symbol: the pink hat, the bold placard with the phrase “I Am a Man,”  the declarative statement “Votes for Women,” and this spectator finds “a sympathetic vibration within his own soul,”* they connect with the symbol and rise in spirit and are able to sing as one chorus the song of solidarity.

If created thoughtfully and executed with passion and purpose these products can transmit a profound emotional connection. Through even the conduit of a simple button or even a hat, we can fashion the voice of dissent, crafting a visual megaphone for the voice of democracy to be heard. When Kandinsky stated that in every picture (every symbol) a whole life is concealed, these products we wear can visualize to the world a totem reminder of the lives of people whose opinions might be hidden in the margins.

As symbols, they help shape public discourse and by so doing become symbols that speak our lives as well.



*Kandinsky again
Photo: Instagram/P_ssyhatproject