Back in early March, I saw a girl on the corner of my street with thousands of red felt squares and safety pins stuffed in her shoulder bag and a messy hand-written sign saying “GRATUIT!” This was my first encounter with the carré rouge, the simple swatch of fabric that has come to symbolize the Quebec student strike.
It’s rare that a protest movement affects the way thousands of people get dressed, but the strike has done just that, turning the red square into both a symbol of solidarity and, for some, a conscious fashion statement.
If you’re unfamiliar with the politics behind the carré rouge, let me give you a brief rundown: In mid-February the provincial government announced a plan to increase tuition by 75% over the next five years. Student unions decided to strike, and, since mid-February, marches have taken place regularly throughout the city. What started as a student movement quickly morphed into a mass social protest after the provincial government passed the controversial Bill 78, which states (among other things) that a group of over 50 people is an illegal protest. Suddenly, it became less about tuition and more about the government’s dismissive (and borderline unconstitutional) behaviour.
The symbol came out of a 2005 student strike against funding cuts to grants and loans, and comes from the expression “carrément dans le rouge” or “squarely in the red,” which refers to the amount of debt students are facing.
In the past five months, the red square has become ubiquitous. I’ve seen it worn as earrings, dangling like tassels from the hem of a skirt, pinned on backpacks, shirtfronts, and leather jackets, piled like candy in a bowl at a bar, and secured to the lapel of more than one classy business suit. Arcade Fire wore the red square durning their recent appearance on SNL, exposing the symbol to a whole new audience. I am most excited, though, when I see it put to good, practical use, like when naked protestors use squares of red duct tape as pasties.
This is the brilliance of the symbol: it’s accessible and versatile. Unlike the recent Occupy movement, which has been characterized by the Guy Fawkes mask, the tuition protesters have found an elegant, understated way for the public to show their support. There’s sophistication to the strong but silent symbolism and the fact that an individual can so easily incorporate their particular political view into their day-to-day dress. The red badge affirms the wearers unity while allowing them to express their individuality.
Nothing proves this more than the massive monthly demonstrations where protestors take the emblem one step further: painting their faces red, shielding their eyes in red Ray-Bans or sporting a pair of red jeans. In this context, even your typical lumberjack shirt takes on new connotations.
The movement may have started with a single felt square, but it’s the individuality of the supporters and their ardent solidarity with the cause that has pushed the emblem to become both a sign of revolt and an informed clothing choice.
text by Sacha Jackson
images by Allison Staton