Picture this: you’re walking along the street and pass someone wearing a safety pin fixed to their lapel. You probably think it’s holding the garment together or is perhaps a remnant from a punk-rocker past. But in reality, this mundane momento could be symbolic of a modern cultural movement.
On the face of things, safety pins are a pretty innocuous item. They were actually invented by a mechanic called Walter Hunt in 1849 to help him pay off a $15 debt. Later, he sold the rights to the patent of his innovation to the man he owed that money to for $400. It was the first pin with a clasp and spring function and was intended to spare fingers from the pointed end – hence the name.
The intended purpose of the safety pin presumably was – and still is – to hold together pieces of fabric. Some common uses for the device over the years have included securing cloth diapers, fixing damaged clothing and in first aid to hold bandages in place. But what you might not know is that the significance of the safety pin goes far beyond its household functions.
Believe it or not, the humble safety pin has come to acquire a number of culturally significant meanings over the years. In some countries, they are believed to protect against evil spirits and bad fortune. The items were also memorably appropriated by the punk subculture in the 1970s when they were worn as a fashion accessory.
But in recent years the safety pin has become symbolic of yet another movement. This time around, though, the wearing of the items seemed more subtle than it had in the days of punk rock. In fact, the meaning behind the makeshift fashion accessory was perhaps more powerful than ever.
The idea of using fashion as a form of expression and activism is nothing new. For instance, clothes have always played an important part in the women’s movement. Just took a look at the suffragettes, who dressed in white in the early 1900s. Or what about the 1970s feminists? Many of us will remember them highlighting their plight by symbolically burning their bras to challenge social expectations of the time.
Fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox explained the link between clothes and activism in an interview with The Zoe Report website in September 2020. She said, “Fashion was and is always political because it is a material way to express power.” And she added that literally wearing your beliefs on your person in this way could be traced back to the 1850s.
Early 20th century suffragettes were among the political groups who adopted some kind of dress code. Kara McLeod is a fashion historian and professor at California’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM). And explaining the movement’s uniform, she said, “The suffragettes wore white as part of a trinity of colors: white for purity, purple for dignity and loyalty, and green for hope.”
McLeod went on to explain the origin of the suffragette uniform. She told The Zoe Report, “The color scheme was first proposed in 1908 in the British publication Votes for Women by one of the co-editors Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Other publications promoted this, essentially, branding of the women’s suffrage movement.”
Suffragettes also used white, purple and green colors on accessories such as sashes, hat bands and ribbons. But why did they do that? Well, it meant that they could visibly align themselves with the feminist cause without committing to an entire outfit. And while green was the third hue favoured by British women, their American counterparts soon swapped it out for a shade of golden yellow.
Amazingly, the color white is still associated with the same cause the suffragettes were fighting for a century ago. Giving an example of this, McLeod revealed, “In 2017 the House Democratic Women’s Working Group asked women members to wear white to a presidential address as a group gesture signifying support for women’s rights.”
Given the significance of wearing white and the links it has to the women’s rights movement, some leading female politicians have donned the hue on important occasions. Yes, even Hillary Clinton wore a white suit during her final presidential debate in 2016. Congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Lois Frankel have also sported the shade.
It’s also believed that the popularity of jeans for both men and women was fueled by student activists who supported the civil rights movement. They apparently donned the workwear staples to show solidarity. Designer and historian Miko Underwood told The Zoe Report, “Denim served not only as a rebellious uniform to the culture of the middle-class activists, but also as a soul tie to the black laborers.”
Another group that utilized fashion to symbolize their movement was the Black Panthers. The group was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 to challenge racism and police brutality in the U.S. And members often wore black from head-to-toe – usually with sunglasses, a leather jacket and a black beret forming part of their look.
While the suffragettes and Black Panthers used just one color to signify their fight, the LGBTQ movement has chosen the rainbow flag as its emblem. The insignia was designed by a San Francisco-based artist called Gilbert Baker in 1978. And each of its six colors represents a different theme. Purple is for spirit, blue symbolizes harmony, green represents nature, yellow is sunlight, orange is healing and red refers to life.
It’s hard to miss the vivid colors of the rainbow flag, though you can show your support for certain causes in more subtle ways. For instance, you can pin a small badge, ribbons or symbols to show your backing for different movements.
Colored ribbons are often worn by people to raise awareness of and show support for a certain cause. For example, the pink variety have become recognized the world over as a symbol of breast cancer. And by pinning one to your clothes, you’re showing your support to those dealing with the condition while offering a sign of hope for a better future.
In 2016 Eva Longoria started a ribbon movement of her own at that year’s Oscars ceremony. The star asked actresses and actors attending the event to don a brown ribbon to show their support for the advancement of Latinos in the movie trade and in the wider U.S. Her efforts were subsequently dubbed The Brown Ribbon Campaign.
Then there’s the red ribbon, which is worn to show support and empathy for those dealing with HIV/AIDS. The symbol was adopted by the Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus group in 1991 and remains a powerful emblem of the condition today. Interestingly, it was originally picked as a sign of support because it was easy for people to copy.
But some signs of solidarity can be even simpler. Take for example the humble safety pin, which became a symbol of a movement in around 2016. But can you guess what makes this particular household item so ingenious when it comes to showing your support? Well, it’s the ease in which you can get your hands on them. Most of us will have at least one of them hanging around our homes, after all.
Though 2016 wasn’t the first time that safety pins acquired some cultural relevance. For instance, in Mexico pregnant women sometimes place one near to their stomach believing it will protect their unborn baby from loss or illness. And in Ukraine they are pinned to the inside of kids’ clothes in a bid to defend against evil spirits.
Safety pins were also borrowed by the punk movement in the 1970s. The use of the items in this subculture was seemingly as practical as it was aesthetic. After all, they were mostly used to keep their ripped and ragged clothing together. Safety pins also proved useful when people fixed patches of their favorite bands.
In its most recent incarnation as a cultural symbol, though, the safety pin has come to represent something more powerful than perhaps ever before. The movement was born in 2016 at a time when some sections of society felt at risk of emotional or physical abuse. And people had wanted a way in which they could clearly show their support.
The idea behind the modern safety pin movement, then, was to wear one to signify your solidarity with those who might feel marginalized or vulnerable in society. And it didn’t matter where on your person you wore one. It could be on your lapel, collar, skirt or dress; the mere presence of the simple item meant that you were willing to speak up for those who might need backing.
Some of the marginalized groups the safety pin movement aimed to show solidarity with included women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities. And playing on the name, the pins were supposed to show to these people that they were in a “safe” space.
So by simply donning a safety pin, you could subtly but clearly mark yourself as an ally to those affected by all kinds of discrimination. These included, but were not limited to, sexism, ableism, racism and Islamophobia. And while the idea was simple enough, it soon caught on.
In 2016 Brooklyn-based graphic designer Kaye Kagaoan explained the safety pin movement in an interview with The New York Times. She said, “It’s a matter of showing people who get it that I will always be a resource and an ally to anyone and everyone who wants to reach out. When I saw it on Facebook, it was so simple. It resonated with me.”
And even celebrities got in on the act. That same year British actor and X-Men star Patrick Stewart posted a picture of himself on Twitter in which he sported a safety pin on the lapel of his jacket. At the time of writing the actor’s post has 9,500 retweets and 25,700 likes – as well as a number of supportive comments.
Apparently, the wearing of safety pins as a symbol of solidarity was inspired by Australia’s #illridewithyou movement. The campaign was started in the wake of the Sydney cafe siege in 2014. It was then that members of the public donned safety pins to show support for the Muslim community.
Many felt that the wearing of safety pins was in opposition to the rise in right-wing politics, though others saw it as something much more pure. As Sabrina Krebs, a student from Guatemala, explained to The New York Times, “More than anything, it’s pro-kindness… It’s a form of resistance to hate and to negativity.”
For Krebs, part of the safety pin movement’s charm was that it was accessible to most people, thanks to the everyday nature of the object in question. She explained, “Everyone has safety pins in their house. It’s something everyone can join.” With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the item took off as a symbol of solidarity.
And Krebs wasn’t the only person to comment on the lack of effort one had to go to in order to acquire and ultimately wear a safety pin. Truck driver Robert Clarke also told The New York Times, “It doesn’t take much to wear a safety pin. I have them on several jackets, so I don’t have to think about it.”
But the relative ease in which a safety pin allowed people to show solidarity was also a bone of contention in itself. Why? It was suggested that wearing an item did not amount to taking action of any kind. And on Twitter, the trend was slammed by some as “slacktivism,” which, of course, blended the words “slacker” and “activism.”
Author Christopher Keelty went so far as to say the movement was more about certain groups of people relieving their guilt than actually supporting marginalized or vulnerable communities. Keelty said of safety pins in a self-penned piece for HuffPost in 2016, “They’ll do little or nothing to reassure the marginalized populations they are allegedly there to reassure…”
Keelty went on, “… Marginalized people know full well the long history of white people calling themselves allies while doing nothing to help, or even inflicting harm on, non-white Americans.” And he added, “We don’t get to make ourselves feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating ourselves as allies.”
A number of Twitter users echoed similar sentiments to those expressed by Keelty. One wrote on the social media platform in 2016, “By all means, wear a safety pin if you think it’s somehow helping someone. But do not make it the only thing you do to be an ally.” And such criticism did appear to have an impact.
Another safety-pin-wearer took to Twitter to acknowledge that more needed to be done. The user wrote, “I recognize that wearing a safety pin is not sufficient action and does not supplement [or] provide active, constructive work. Donate time. Donate money. Support people in your community with action. If you still wear the pin be sure to be ready to back it up.”
But for all the backlash the safety pin movement sparked, it did have its supporters, too. Writing on Medium in 2016 Anoosh Jorjorian said, “I’ve heard from plenty of POCs and Muslims as well as some LGBTQIAs that they feel surrounded by enemies. The safety pin helps them feel that they are not isolated and alone.”
What’s more, writer Michelle Goldberg suggested that the safety pin movement had the potential to bring people together. In 2016 she wrote in the online magazine Slate, “We need an outward sign of sympathy, a way for the majority of us who voted against fascism to recognize one another.”
Clarke, meanwhile, told The New York Times that the safety pin was a symbol to others of his solidarity and a constant reminder for him to step up to the plate. He explained, “A big part of wearing it is the mental preparation on my part. If I do see something, I’ve thought it through, and I’ll stand up and say something and not be a silent witness.”