Last Friday the Internet was filled with articles, comments, and tweets promoting the wearing of safety pins to show solidarity with minority groups who feel unsafe in wake of the election. As a Vox article described, the idea of using a safety pin as a symbol began in the U.K. after the Brexit results (another vote with a heavy anti-immigrant tone), with one of the founders tweeting: “I quite like the idea of just putting a safety pin, empty of anything else, on your coat. A literal SAFETY pin!” It sounds like a humble choice, but the safety pin is already imbued with meaning in fashion.
It is most famously a key feature of punk style, both adorning clothes and holding them together, an icon appearing on artwork and album covers. There are many elements of punk style, but the safety pin seems to be the symbol most readily linked to the subculture. When writing about the importance of rebellious fashion in punk, sociologist Dick Hebdige (who literally wrote the book on subcultures and style) noted that “safety pins were taken out of their [original] domestic ‘utility’ context and worn as gruesome ornaments through the cheek, ear, or lip.” For a culture based on disrupting the status quo, the establishment, and promoting individuality, their choice of household object was the ultimate appropriation, directly subverting what they were rallying against.
This appropriation is considered to be a form of bricolage, which John Clarke (quoting Claude Lévi-Strauss), explains as “the re-ordinary and re-contextualization of objects to communicate fresh meanings, within a total system of significance, which already includes prior and sedimented meanings attached to the objects used.” Safety pins are now intrinsically linked to punk style, but that doesn’t mean their visual meaning is locked in place. If pins can hold their original “household object” definition, along with their “anti-establishment” definition, there is no reason why they can’t adopt a new visual language.
To be clear, this would-be safety pin movement is not a subculture, it’s a symbol. What’s interesting is that in both cases of meaning being attached to the tiny objects, they are used as a form of protest or rebellion—just in very different ways. Where it was once a loud, vulgar stand against mainstream ideals, it is now a quiet voice against prejudice behavior that seems to have been emboldened by recent political platforms.
Photos: Getty Images
While there are criticisms against the promotion of wearing the safety pin (as i-D rightly pointed out, those who choose to wear a safety pin as a symbol of solidarity must also be willing to play and active role in speaking out against bigotry), one should not underestimate the power of visual cues. If safety pins were able to become such an important icon to our notions of what is “punk,” then who is to say that they cannot go on to provide a necessary reassurance to those who feel threatened in our current climate? In the first few days after the election, reports swirled of racist graffiti and hate crimes being committed across the country. At a time when many are trying to communicate their unwelcoming nature to the world, perhaps we should be making safety equally visible.