The little orange square: fashion and divestment

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda '17
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda.

On September 21, around 200 Swarthmore students joined the group of 40,000 marching in New York at the People’s Climate March, one of the largest displays of group action against climate change to date. Many of them had little orange felt squares pinned onto their jackets or their backpacks. The square represents one subset of the group that marched — those who are working against climate change by trying to convince institutions, often colleges, to divest from fossil fuels.

Events like PCM draw attention, energy and new members to movements like divestment. But the momentum they create can slowly dwindle, as students get caught back up in the everyday grind of schoolwork, parties, and their own pile of extracurriculars, which, for many of the Swatties who were at PCM, has nothing to do with divestment or any other climate change action.

A month later, and the little orange square you were passed at the march comes into play. Fashion is a part of that everyday routine that seems to swallow important but intimidating outside realities — for example, how to actively take a stand against climate change when you cannot fathom even going to class without spending the first ten minutes of said class waiting in the Kohlberg coffee bar line for a blessed drop of joe.

Clothing has always been connected to activism, in that activism has stereotypically been identified with distinctly dressed “bohemians” and social outsiders — think the classic flowy-haired early-70s girl in her long skirts and tunics. The clothing choices that are initially associated with a certain lifestyle and set of (often activist-oriented) beliefs become mainstream, however, and lose much of their initial clout — think my mother, a Barnard ’80 girl who never wore makeup because she was, as she now admits, a “fake hippie,” emulating an image without committing to ideals. Consider the “punk” t-shirts your 13 year old sister wears.

But the cynicism with which we dismiss a valid connection between clothing and ideals misses the fact that something important happened between the period during which the “hippie” look originated and the period during which my mother adopted her faux-hippie look. There was a change in public attitude towards the ideals represented by those clothes. Of course, part of that change in attitude towards the clothes can also be attributed to a rupture between the original meaning attached to the clothes and the meaning they held as they entered the mainstream.

But symbols, rathers than an overall “look” associated with the radical vanguard of any movement, are a more specific and targeted sartorial signifier of ideals,  and thus may be better suited to retaining meaning in a transition of beliefs from a small, perhaps culturally distinct (and so often sartorially distinct) group to the mainstream. Adopting a symbol, like the orange square, or the now familiar peace sign, is an ideological adoption, rather than a cultural emulation.

Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda '17
Photo by Ashlen Sepulveda ’17

The peace sign carried potent ideological meaning when it was first donned by ’70s activists; it has become the kitch symbol on the back of my sparkly children’s backpack by 2014. It carried meaning with it from outside the social mainstream into the center of the mainstream (truthfully: The Children’s Place). Although its message is diluted because its context has changed and the specific situations that ideology was once attached to have changed, I know what that peace sign means, and I can find it throughout mainstream culture.

Looking around the Swarthmore campus, a month after PCM, I think the orange square may be nestling its way into at least our own campus’ mainstream. We all know it as a symbol for divestment, and we largely know what that means (see Steven O’Hanlon’s October 9 article if you don’t). But we also seem, to a greater extent than certainly I have ever before been aware of, and through a broad, “non-radical” cross-section of campus, actively to be wearing them.

A sartorial symbol like the square is exceedingly powerful at moment like this, when the idea of divestment, post-PCM, feels relevant across campus, and when everyone wants to express solidarity with something they believe in; but people also want to fit that solidarity into their everyday lives, the same way they fit their other ideals and passions into the framework of habit and commitment.

The orange square isn’t the entirety of a commitment to divestment, and certainly for many of the students with an orange square decked jacket, a clothing choice is only one small signifier of commitment to a campaign they have poured an exceeding amount of effort into. But for others, it may be; the orange square is going “mainstream,” which means it signifies ideological commitment and not necessarily any other kind of commitment.

As we move into the fourth year of the divestment campaign at Swat, we will see what this widening range of at least sartorially vocal support for its ideals will mean. After PCM, and October 13t’s Pentagon report that climate change poses an immediate threat to national security, the proliferation of little orange squares may signify a strengthening of the divestment campaign at Swat and imminent change.


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