Whose Streets?

The Fashion Window Now: A Contested Surface

SoHo, New York City, June 2020. Photograph by Alexis Romano @dressondisplay.

A strange stillness, save the occasional pedestrian and car, characterised the cobbled streets of New York’s SoHo last weekend, normally teeming with shoppers. One man had a camera, like me, and perhaps sought to document the neighbourhood’s transformation. For over two months it has resembled a plywood jungle. The upscale fashion boutiques housed within the area’s familiar nineteenth-century white cast-iron Italianate buildings, have boarded their windows. Some have painted the wood white, so to further camouflage it against the façades, an attempt at temporary invisibility.

At one point, a seemingly interminable row of police vans interrupted the scene, sirens blaring. I hear the familiar roar of a crowd, a Black Lives Matter protest taking place a few streets away on Broadway: ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ With shops muted, others battle for ownership of public space through sonic and visual expression.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have (once again) exposed the generalised racism embedded in our many societal structures. The fashion system, as a shaper and signifier of power and hierarchies of beauty, race and wealth, has found itself newly re-symbolised, its abandoned public spaces the ideal surfaces to communicate messages of injustice and protest. In Beverly Hills, stores have also clad their upscale metal, stone and glass façades in a protective plywood layer. Chanel’s now reads ‘Living in hell.’ There’s more: ‘Fuck the Police’ (Hermès), ‘Burn prisons’ (Fendi), ‘The revolution is coming’ (La Perla), ‘Can’t be silenced,’ ‘Eat the rich’ (Gucci), and ‘Make America pay for its crimes against black lives’ (Alexander McQueen). In New York, messages like ‘Redistribute the wealth/redistribute the power,’ ‘I can’t breathe,’ and ‘Rest in power George Floyd and the others,’ pepper the retail landscape, textual juxtapositions that work to shift the meaning of these elite fashion spaces.

Stores all across the retail spectrum have been vandalised, and images thereof disseminated globally through a photo-reportage lens, interspersed with scenes of clashes between police and protesters. Pictures of broken glass, mannequins and clothing strewn onto city streets, stands in stark contrast to the strand of twentieth-century photography that documented the pristine shop window, from Eugène Atget’s rows of carefully placed corsets on body forms; pictures by Walter Evans and Lee Friedlander that eerily tease out the animate qualities of mannequins; to mid-century glass reflections of urban action by Saul Leiter.

Shop windows appeared in greater numbers from the mid-nineteenth century, spurred by the intersection of building technologies, such as cast iron and plate glass, clothing production, and the growing sophistication of fashion industries, with the development of merchandising, sales techniques, and advertising. The nineteenth-century department store (a majority of which were located in present day SoHo), with the wide array of wares it peddled, was a product of this landscape. In visualising the merchandise inside, their windows hastened purchases, and kept the wheels of consumerism turning.

For fashion historian Elizabeth Wilson, the department store, and its replacement of shop window panes with plate glass, ‘testifies to the importance of looking in capitalist society.’1 Because glass restricted onlookers’ haptic relationship to the goods, it placed focus on the visual, ‘transforming the already watching city person into a compulsive viewer,’ according to historian William R. Leach.2 In their writings on fashion and everyday life, design historians Cheryl Buckley and Hazel Clark further assert that, ‘Well before the cinema became a widely popular pastime, the department store was educating people across the social spectrum to look and desire though glass, as window-shopping became a huge leisure pastime.3 The Victorian-era window sharpened onlookers’ gazes, and although copious technological advances in image-making have since expanded our modes of perception, this earlier training still mediates our collective relationships to city space.

These window displays have also served to crystallise, animate and narrate various meanings of fashion. They provide information on sartorial items, and demonstrate how to use them, all while training us to view fashion in relation to lifestyle. We learn to fantasise, and to aspire to certain ideals. Their presence asserts that fashion is life, and spectacle. As in the past, they instruct us on how to look, at fashion, and dressed bodies in the form of mannequins. Moreover, we project our own likenesses on to the spectacle, literally, via glass panes, merging our subjectivities with the images projected out to the street. How does their newfound lack of glass, without the capacity for reflected imagery, affect our lines of vision? Does it give passers-by some space for internal reflection, without the distraction of mirrored and brand imagery? Or does the new matte streetscape in all its flatness rob of us of our sense of urban alertness, our alacrity? Something is missing, and it results in a feeling of disconnect. I remember my own stroll through the SoHo streets, and how I looked at myself in car windows when I could. I was not reflected in the shops, and so I searched for myself elsewhere.

Just as fashion is a means to express our individual creativities in relation to the images the industry disseminates, it creates and propagates the racial inequalities we are still subject to. In the U.S., its history runs parallel to that of Black servitude and racism. As the scholar of Afro-Diasporic dress Jonathan Square has written, the development of the fashion system relied intrinsically on slave consumerism.4 Beyond that, it flourished largely through the exploitative labour and stylistic appropriation of minority populations. In viewing last week’s imagery of the vandalised storefronts of multinational fashion brands, the fashion and labour scholar Minh-Ha Pham commented on Instagram: ‘They deserve every bit of critique. Global fashion has enabled systemic mass corporate looting of people and places in and from the Global South under the guise of trade and labour deregulation, international intellectual property laws and logics, and supply chain subcontracting for far too long.’5 The writing on plywood walls testifies to the experience of the many who have been affected by the industry’s troubling history (and present).

Paradoxically, the shop window could also be seen to signal democratic modes of consumption, opening luxury spaces to the street, the symbol of the masses and, as the philosopher Henri Lefebvre theorised, of everyday life.6 The window is an interface between public street space and rarefied fashion space, but functions as a barrier to many of us. Noting the similarities between commercial fashion and art spaces, the art critic Hrag Vartanian writes how ‘insecurity is key to a thriving luxury industry,’ fostering an air of exclusivity around the products on offer while keeping certain people out.7 In addition to aloof staff and uniformed security personnel, this manifests physically, through an imposing door, lack of seating, low temperatures, and sparse interiors. Shop windows, in dividing public and private spaces, similarly serve as structural reminders of difference and exclusion.

This has been exacerbated during the lockdown, as many elite fashion spaces fortified themselves further, turning windows into walls and removing merchandise from their premises. This protection seems off-key and symbolic, as these physical spaces increasingly shed their economic relevance, with retail operating primarily online, and in many cases halting completely in the pandemic. It elicited immediate reaction from the community, who felt it created an aura of mistrust, ‘as if in anticipation of riots and civil disobedience.’8 The notion of walls has assumed heightened meaning during the Trump presidency, symbolising exclusory, anti-immigration and racial politics. This is being played out on numerous social fields, but perhaps none as brazen as in the luxury industries. Their walled protection of nothing serves to uphold the inequalities they traditionally perpetuate, as well as antiquated modes of policing – a concept so fraught in the current climate. The disparity between heavy security around product and retail space, and fashion brands’ diversity efforts at the level of representation, manufacture and staffing, as is being reported by commentators from @diet_prada to fashion academics such as Kimberly Jenkins, is jarring.

In contrast to the permanence of concrete, the plywood jungle is malleable and ephemeral, and constantly in flux. The artist Jason Naylor was commissioned to paint a scene of hearts, rainbows and butterflies on the plywood protecting Coach during lockdown, a clear act of branding; in contrast to the obvious fortifications, this one glosses over and hides the ugly reality. Or you may have noticed the murals decorating various Sephora flagships, with their Matisse-esque globular shapes. These are the work of Theresa Rivera, hired by various Business Improvement Districts of Manhattan (BIDS) to beautify the city, and in another sense perhaps reassure citizens and potential investors that all is well. In contrast, since the protests began, the plywood walls at Louis Vuitton in SoHo became larger, made of corrugated metal, and guarded by police officers.

These are contested spaces today, and should be considered in terms of the voices occupying them, and their diverse aims. Diversity is a defining feature of ‘Thank You,’ 123 photographs of the city’s essential workers, from health care officials to construction workers, posters that are pasted to many of the boarded shopfronts. It was conceived within the context of street artist and photographer JR’s ‘Inside Out Project,’ in which people contribute their portrait, a merger of personal identity and public art, and in the case of ‘Thank You,’ a juxtaposition of fashion spaces and diverse, everyday faces. Some are identified by their uniform, others not, but most are photographed masked. This has invited public engagement, adding voices and layers of meaning, in the form of graffiti or (masked) selfies. In one poster adorning the walled windows of the Gerard Darel boutique in SoHo, an image of a police officer now also includes the letters ‘FTP,’ whilst that of a soldier reads ‘murderer.’

In L.A. Abel Macias, with Lawson Fenning design shop, is now working with neighbouring design businesses, to invite local residents (through Arts Bridging the Gap and Inner-City Arts), to create murals on shopfronts in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Their messages – ‘Breathe with love,’ ‘Racism is the Real Virus’ – connect recent events to the country’s history of systemic racism. They are also affiliated with Natalie Patterson and Allison Kunath’s ‘A Love Language Project,’ which transforms boarded up shopfronts in L.A. (on the demand of the business or brand in question) into ‘protest messages’ that ‘amplify Black voices and encourage meaningful conversations around the liberation of Black lives.’ Many relay the powerful words of activists and writers such as Desmond Tutu, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Others are newer expressions, like one by Patterson on the façade of The Butcher’s Daughter that reads, ‘This is not a riot. This is a revolution. This is resistance. This is a fight for Black life.’

This weekend in mid-June, one week after I began this article, SoHo too looks different. There is colour, so much colour, and people, who have come to look. Not an inch of plywood on Wooster and Greene Streets is left untouched by muralists, or collagists. As in L.A., these also merge creative expression and protest, and include painted images of Colin Kaepernick kneeling by Nick C. Kirk and portraits of victims alongside ‘Say their names.’ Messages of world peace and brotherly love or words by MLK, Malcolm X, and Langston Hughes juxtapose critical messages like ‘The Eyes of the World Are Watching’ and ‘Protect Black Women.’ Muralists’ messages chime with those of anonymous protest taggers, who voice their frustration and anger, on the themes of wealth disparity, representation, activism, and governing and policing bodies. Does this signal a turning point in anti-racism movements today, led by Black Lives Matter? That is, the emergence of more mainstream activism seems evident from a new repertoire of ideas and terminology communicated to and employed by a more diverse group of marchers and supporters.

As the title of the 2017 documentary on the 2014 killing of Michael Brown and the Ferguson, Missouri protests suggests, ‘Whose Streets’ (dir. Sabaah Folayan), this movement seeks to reclaim space by and for the underrepresented. As such, its evokes the early years of graffiti art, so central to the shifting aesthetic of New York’s streetscapes, whereby Latino and Black youths tagged their names on walls in the 1980s to assert their presence, a creative act that was criminalised. Oppression materialises itself in different fields, from police forces to corporate fashion, and wields its power over space. SoHo’s ever changing streetscape attests to this. A local resident, the writer and photographer Tequila Minsky is documenting recent events under the hashtag ‘Make SoHo Art Again.’ During our conversation this weekend she expressed her praise for those who have decided to ‘take back the window’ and return SoHo rightfully to artists and activists, not elite ‘irrelevant’ global fashion brands. Plywood surfaces separate and exclude yes, but they also invite expression that helps us to see past the walls for new, more representative, reflections of each other and our space.


Dr. Alexis Romano, a historian of design and visual culture, is adjunct Assistant Professor at New York City College of Technology and Parsons, the New School for Design, and a co-founder of the Fashion Research Network. She will be the 2020-21 fellow at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  1. Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (London: Virago, 1987 [1985]), p.152. 

  2. William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Pantheon, 1993), p.63. 

  3. Cheryl Buckley and Hazel Clark, Fashion and Everyday Life: London and New York (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), p.73. 

  4. Jonathan Square founded and runs ‘Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom,’ a curatorial platform that explores intersections between slavery and the fashion system, and is currently developing a book on the topic. https://www.fashioningtheself.com 

  5. Minh-Ha T. Pham, personal Instagram @minh81, 30 May 2020. 

  6. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life. Volume II: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, trans. John Moore (London and New York: Verso, 2002 [1961]), p.309. 

  7. Hrag Vartanian, ‘As Black Lives Matter Protests Continue, Some NYC Art Galleries Board Up Storefronts,’ Hyperallergic, 4 June 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/568948/black-lives-matter-protests-nyc-art-galleries-board-up-storefronts/ 

  8. Elizabeth Paton, ‘In the U.S., Luxury Brands Board Up the Store,’ New York Times, 27 March 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/style/coronavirus-boarded-up-luxury-stores.html