Blog | Fashion, feminism and the art of protest

This blog features an interview with Bristol rebel Kathy Fawcette, founder of The Excessories, on fashion, feminism and how art opens up the protest space.

Describe the moment you decided to join XR. Where were you?

Having being concerned about environmental and ecological issues for most of my life and only seen things get worse, I was on the point of giving up. I had an overwhelming sense of hopelessness in the face of a global machine.

I came to a Bristol rebel meeting in January 2019. It was exciting and inspiring to be in a room full of people who were ready to step things up in a way that felt urgent and focused – it gave me a renewed sense of our collective power. There wasn’t any explaining, justifying or defending the science, it was just; “Let’s get on with this, we’ve got a job to do”.

How does fashion help you to express yourself in the protest space?

As much as it can be vacuous and conformist, fashion can also be creative and beautiful. It’s a form of personal expression and what we wear can convey both who we are and our values.

In the street, there’s very limited time to grab people’s attention and get a message across quickly and simply, so our costumes and performance needed to speak – loudly – for themselves.

Why Marie Antoinette?

Metaphors help us make sense of the world. We use Marie Antoinette as a symbol for the excesses of our society. While Marie Antoinette was herself probably something of a victim (albeit a very privileged one) as the poster-girl, she provides a visual short-hand for excess, decadence and inequality. 

The Excessories’ hope was to communicate some complex ideas but with a core message that mainstream consumerism is driven by the lifestyles of a privileged few and a multi-billion pound marketing industry.

Why should we be talking about fast fashion’s contribution to the climate and ecological crisis?

Fast fashion is the production and consumption of cheap garments that resemble luxury trends. But they have a short life-cycle driven by marketing creating a desire for endless ‘new’.

The cost of this industry is human, ecological, environmental and global – from the pesticides and chemical dyes used to manufacture the clothes, to the landfill where much of it all too soon ends up. In 2018, the UK consumed 60% more garments than in 2000 and 60% of clothes produced are thrown ‘away’ within a year.

Why do you conceal messages within your skirts? Is there an element of feminism in this decision?

Ha! I’d love to say yes, but not intentionally, no, though I like to think that a feminist consciousness runs through everything in my life! The unexpectedness of skirt-lifting certainly felt like we were playing with something taboo, and it definitely attracted attention on the street!

The message in the underskirts, a stark contrast to the ornate outer dresses, gave it real impact. The coquettishness of the characters’ personas was also fun – we enjoyed embodying the careless indulgence of the 18th Century French courtiers.

How do you feel about performance as a vehicle for change? What does performance achieve that road blocking can’t?

All forms of non-violent activism have their place. And different things engage different people. For XR it’s important to speak to as wide a demographic as possible. We need an ecosystem of action that takes us in the same direction, towards our three demands, and this is going to need all of us!

Road blocking makes people stop and confronts them with the issues in a way that is direct. It’s been incredibly effective in giving us visibility, media coverage and support. But I think we also need to be honest with ourselves in recognising these approaches can alienate some people, too.

I wanted to try and side step some of this negativity and draw people in with a friendly and amusing persona that made them feel like a willing audience rather than a target.

If we want to change what people think or how they behave, we need to start by changing how they feel. Art is about expression and communication and can connect us directly to people’s emotions. This is powerful. It’s not the only tool in our toolkit for activism, but it will always be vital to getting the message across.

Can you talk us through the creative process for designing and making your dresses?

I’d had a Marie-Antoinette costume in my wardrobe for years – bought from a theatre company that was closing down, and using it for something like this had been bubbling away in my head for ages with ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ political austerity.

Creating the costumes was a team effort. I came across another costume shop that was closing down and so acquired a few dresses as a starting point for the extraordinary final versions! As we worked, the wigs got higher and higher, the skirts got wider and wider, and everything became more and more ornate.

Once the costumes were ready to go we were lucky to be coached in how to walk, dance, flirt and vogue our way down the street like the 18th Century French courtiers we had become. Other members of XR offered us their graphic design, photography and video making skills.

As a new act we are still learning and evolving, and next time hope to be accompanied by a rebel court musician and maybe even some French peasants!

Follow The Excessories on Instagram >

Watch this video from our Fast Fashion action in Cabot Circus in 2019

Thanks to Billy Stockwell and Ellie Kenny for producing!