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Pussy Riot and the Radical Power of Fashion
Isabel Slone on how the feminist punk band's blazing fashion sense is an integral part of their message

Pussy Riot supporters

“Mother of God, Virgin Mary, drive Putin away.”

These were the words spoken by feminist punk band Pussy Riot all the way back in February 2012, when they were arrested for performing a “punk prayer” in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, one of Russia’s holiest Orthodox churches. In a video of the performance, viewers can see members of Pussy Riot kneeling and crossing themselves before launching into a high-energy screamfest where the girls kick and jump to their song while security guards attempt to drag them offstage.

“Using swear words in Church is an abuse of God,” said federal prosecutor Alexei Nikiforov. By that logic, every 9 year old forced to go to Church out of obligation to their parents should probably be prosecuted too. What should have amounted to a slap on the wrist, perhaps a small fine, blew up into a spectacle that resulted in jail time for the women of Pussy Riot.

Even if we cannot understand exactly what the lyrics of their exclusively Russian songs mean, one thing we are able to understand is their look. Pussy Riot members don colourful minidresses paired with pink, blue and green stockings and signature knit balaclavas to obscure their faces. The balaclavas are meant to keep the band members anonymous and protect their identity, but weren’t quite enough. Three members of Pussy Riot ­­­­‑ Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Semutsevich ‑ have each been sentenced to two years in jail for the “hooliganism” of their church performance.

Pussy Riot is an extremely radical band that is challenging Russia’s monolith political system. There is no doubt that their blazing fashion sense helps to communicate exactly how radical Pussy Riot is. Their unified style is bright and colourful ‑ like a feminist lite-brite version of The Ramones ‑ an anomaly according to the West’s perception of Russia as something of a grey wasteland and an important aspect of their defiance. A Pitchfork interview with the Queen Mother of Riot Grrrl Kathleen Hanna points the conversation specifically in the direction of Pussy Riot’s outfits, and how their knit balaclavas invoked the spirit of the Guerilla Girls, art activists responsible for pointing out rampant sexism in the art world who obscured their faces to protect their reputations as artists.

But the homemade balaclavas were a little too radical for some, leading some people on the right wing of the political spectrum to label them terrorists, because obviously only bank robbers and criminals with something to hide are motivated to obscure their faces. Pussy Riot supporters have taken to dressing like band members to show their visible support for the cause, and showed up to Amnesty International vigils in the neon balaclavas and colourblocked minidresses of their heroes in mouth gags that read “Free Pussy Riot.”

The visual fashion presentation is clearly an important aspect of Pussy Riot’s message, there is no denying it. Yet an article called “Manic Pixie Dream Dissidents” that appeared on Registan.net, bemoans the media coverage of the Pussy Riot Trial as vapid and sexist, marveling at the incredulity that Pussy Riot have been “the subject of numerous fashion and style profiles ever since they first spoke out about the Russian government.” The assumption that fashion/style coverage of Pussy Riot trivializes their political message is bullshit, and demeaning to the expression of traditional “femme”-ininity. Sure, there are certain aspects of traditional fashion media that stand out as problematic, like the pervasiveness of traditional beauty standards, but this ignores the extreme power that fashion can have when women reclaim it from the ground up.

Of course Pussy Riot have been the subject of numerous fashion and style profiles: look at what they wear. Their semi-matching band attire can be read as part of a costumed performance. When they wear the balaclavas, the women are not to be identified as individuals, they are supposed to be recognized as Pussy Riot. As I wrote last week: “dressing like fictional characters allows us to temporarily explore something outside ourselves.” Pussy Riot might not be dressing up as fictional characters per se, but they are using their outfits to project an image of a colourful wall of protest against Vladimir Putin.

It angers me to see other women shitting all over the power and importance of fashion, as if they have internalized the misogynist attitude that only traditionally male interests such as politics are worthwhile. What would be the point if Pussy Riot was relegated to the political mid-section of the newspaper? The more sections of the newspaper Pussy Riot appears in, the greater impact they are having on the world and the further their message is spread.

In fact, the end quote from a Pussy Riot article in the New York Times style section is anything but trivial and far more empowering than any sentence in the over-critical Registan piece: “Three women standing up against Putin. They are nobodies. They could be silenced tomorrow. They are sheroes, to the world.”

Indeed, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Semutsevich are sheroes and will no doubt serve their sentence with the solidarity of many supporting their cause. Pussy Riot are mothers, wives, radicals and damn good dressers. We are all Pussy Riot.

____

Isabel Slone is a Toronto-based fashion blogger and writer. Follow her on Twitter at @isabelslone.

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