Fashion Statement as Political Statement: The Antislavery Movement and “I Can’t Breathe”

Am I Not a Man and a Brother?Anti-slavery medallion. Josiah Wedgwood, 1787 (Photo: British Museum)

Amidst the protest movement that has taken shape in the weeks since grand juries in Missouri and New York determined not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, few elements have been more visible than the wearing of black t-shirts emblazoned with the words that have emerged as the movement’s slogan and rallying cry. Athletes, entertainers, and ordinary citizens alike, both black and white, have made appearing in shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” a sign of identification with and sympathy for protestors’ demands for reform of police forces and the criminal justice system. While easily and often dismissed by opponents as a cheap gesture or a stunt, in truth fashion statements have doubled as important political statements in movements for racial justice ever since there have been movements for racial justice.

The transatlantic antislavery movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presents the prototype for the meeting of fashion and politics as it relates to race. In 1787, a group of a dozen Londoners formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and several members were soon charged with the task of designing an engraved seal for the group’s use. They turned for expertise to Josiah Wedgwood. Most famous today for the blue china pattern that bears his name, Wedgwood was a pioneer in industrializing the production of pottery, a close friend of British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, and an early member of the Society. His factory designed and soon began mass-producing jasperware cameo medallions featuring what became the Society’s emblem: a kneeling, enchained, and partially unclothed African man in profile, surrounded by the motto “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” The medallions attracted enormous attention for the Society and the movement, in no small part because it quickly became popular among English women to incorporate them to their apparel. As Clarkson described the trend, “ladies wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental matter as pins for their hair.” In short order, the medallions were everywhere. “At length,” Clarkson continued, “the taste for wearing them became general, and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honorable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

It rarely took long in the eighteenth century for an English fashion trend to become popular in the United States, and the vogue for the antislavery emblem was no exception. In 1788, the Society sent a shipment of medallions to Benjamin Franklin, who was then president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the first American organization formed for the purpose of abolishing slavery. The craze for wearing the cameos took the United States by storm as well. From women who wore them in their hair to men who carried snuff boxes and pipes, Wedgwood’s design assumed its place in American culture as the most widely identifiable symbol of the antislavery movement, and it would not relinquish that position for the next fifty years, by which point it had become a logo as much as a fashion statement. It could be seen not only on jewelry and personal items, but also on pieces of pottery, boxes, coins, tokens, broadsides, and pamphlets. A female version was even crafted, with the motto changed to read “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?”

It remains to be seen whether “I Can’t Breathe” becomes an enduring slogan for the protests taking form in America today, and whether the fashion associated with that slogan spreads to a wider segment of the population and moves beyond t-shirts alone. But we ought not underestimate fashion’s value and significance for building momentum and visibility for a political cause. Wearing one’s politics for all the world to see may be among the easiest steps sympathizers and supporters can take, but such self-expression signals to others that they are not alone, says that even those who do not march in the streets believe that marchers do so with right on their side, and allows those who wear the t-shirts to feel that they are not only making their opinion known. They are part of a movement. And movements make change. Just ask the abolitionists.

About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.

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  1. This is fascinating. It would never occur to me to put these things together this way, but it definitely works… and is thought provoking. Thanks for this.

  2. This is such a cool connection. Yet I hope the parallels are not too close. While abolitionists drastically shaped British politics by the 1830s, Americans in the South continued to expand slavery through the 1850s, and disgruntled Northerners sometimes attacked abolitionist headquarters. Hopefully systemic change is easier to come by with today’s inequalities.

    Anyway, great article. I never knew that the abolitionists used fashion to raise awareness.

    1. Very true, and even though I hesitate to push historical analogies too far, it’s not hard to see many parallels between then and now. The abolitionists, for example, certainly would have recognized the northern conservative backlash on the grounds that the demand for justice is an incitement of violence, and the effort to ask protestors to “calm down” and reflect rather than forcefully stress the urgency of their case, both of which we have seen this week.

  3. Great article! Would I wear an “I can’t breathe” barrette or bracelet? No, probably because of my skepticism about the commodification of dissent. Even if I knew proceeds went to the cause, I would fear that wearing these things would make me look like a tool. That’s one way that our 21st c social movement terrain is different… The t- shirts worked because they were so spontaneous and seemingly non-commercial. But I’m guessing that efforts to push it further will not gain much steam.

    1. Interesting observation, and I wonder if abolitionists raised a similar concern about the commodification of their movement. Some abolitionists, after all, took their radicalism in the direction of utopian socialism. Then again, many checked their critique of capitalism at the door in the interests of advancing the cause of “free labor.” I did see a story the other day where someone in Illinois was trying to trademark the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” for the purpose of selling t-shirts, hoodies, etc. Which makes your point precisely.

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