A Sundress in an Age of Riot Gear


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Images of Confrontation

CreditJonathan Bachman/Reuters

IN the days before yesterday’s killing of three officers by a gunman in Baton Rouge, La., a remarkable image surfaced that captured the protests over the shooting of Alton Sterling in that city on July 5. It communicated more powerfully, and globally, than any other the standoff between aggression and civility in the current turmoil around race relations in America: that of the woman in the summer dress.

Taken by Jonathan Bachman, a photographer for Reuters, the photograph shows a young African-American woman in a long black-and-white dress that is blowing gracefully in the wind, staring serenely at two policemen in black riot gear who have come to arrest her, in front of a much larger corps of police officers also in riot gear.

It has, in the days since the event, gone viral, but the woman in question, Ieshia Evans, who spent a night in jail for obstructing traffic, has said little beyond a couple of brief statements, thus allowing the image to speak for itself. And it has, becoming a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement and inspiring such words as “legendary,” “iconic” and “gorgeous.”

The picture has become the latest in a series of photos capturing the violent bifurcation of contemporary society: The woman in a red dress turning her head as she is being tear-gassed by riot police officers in Istanbul during an anti-government demonstration in 2013; the man in a white shirt and black trousers facing the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989; the young man in the big sweater putting flowers into a gun held by a National Guardsman on the Mall in Washington in 1967.

Why do these images, of all the images from such emotionally and physically fraught events, affect us so intensely? In the case of Ms. Evans, it is partly her posture — head high, shoulders back, eyes seemingly looking beyond the chaos in front of her to a better place — but, though it may sound reductive, in her photo, as in all of them, it is also the clothes.

In a visual age, we read narratives into images, and clothes are a crucial part of that language. They are the ingredients of a shared vocabulary, the starting point of the snap judgments and assessments we make throughout the day.

There is a reason these images have become identified according to what the protagonist is wearing; woman in a summer dress, not woman facing policemen, or woman in Baton Rouge; woman in a red dress, not woman being tear-gassed.

The clothes tap into all our subconscious associations and connect a far-off event to our own experiences. They telegraph the fact that these individuals are private citizens, taking a stand for what they believe is right. They powerfully underscore the collision of the extraordinary and the ordinary. They make it personal.

On one side, after all, are the people — we can’t even really tell if they are men or women — in black, faces shielded, guns at the ready. Their clothes disguise the person beneath, rendering them faceless, threatening, monolithic. (On Twitter, the officers in the Baton Rouge picture were compared to storm troopers.) And juxtaposed against them: just a man, just a woman, who got up in the morning and threw on some clothes.

In China, it was the classic office uniform: white button-down shirt, dress pants; the kind many men put on every day to head off to their jobs, no matter where or in what country.

In Turkey, it was the female equivalent of the same, a neat dress of the sort most women wear to work: round-necked, short-sleeved, complete with flat leather shoes and a tote bag slung over a shoulder. It spoke of lunch breaks and errands to run.

And in Louisiana, it was a sundress: ankle-length, feminine, spaghetti-strapped. The kind you might wear on a hot summer day or out to dinner with friends. The kind that is so universal, and so concretely visual, that Irwin Shaw titled a short story after it in 1939: “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses.”

None of these are the clothes typically associated with protest movements, the kind of sartorial statements that wear their politics on their sleeves and can be dismissed on sight by those who don’t share the same agenda. They aren’t camo from the Army-Navy store or Mao jackets or Che caps or slogan T-shirts or even denim. They don’t suggest rebellion or activism, but rather humanity: everyday life, and everyday closets.

The kind you have. As do I. When we see them, we see ourselves.

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