The Yellow Vests That We Wear (or, an anthropology of garments and testimony in the early 21st Century)

chick-fil-a yellow vest in Syracuse

Photo: a Chick-fil-a worker at a Syracuse restaurant. Courtesy of strimble@syracuse.com

I just came home from a Chick-fil-a restaurant just south of Los Angeles. A line of 20 automobiles wrapped around the building of this particular franchise. Honking horns. A kind young Southern Californian responded with “my pleasure” when I said “thank you”. He was wearing a neon yellow vest. I asked him how he endured the inpatient line of cars. He responded: “You just don’t know.” He seemed artificially happy. His neon yellow vest – intended, I suppose, to keep him from being clobbered by an absent minded driver – could have easily been a message of his resistance to what he had to deal with. However, if you step back, this young man (and his yellow vest) was part of the Chick-fil-a corporate model of good chicken, efficient service, and a vow to never be open on Sunday.

Recently, news reports of “Yellow Vest” riots (protests) have spread across the Western news media outlets. Apparently, citizens in France typically carry yellow vests in their cars as they drive from place to place on a daily basis. (The vests, I assume, are worn if their cars are ever stalled on the side of a French thoroughfare.) They (French citizens) have embraced this shared tool of motor safety as their uniform during nationwide clashes with police in the streets of Paris in protest against the economic conditions of their nation-state. 

Anthropologist Karen Hansen suggested in 2004 that clothing (garments) exists within “economic circuits”. She notes how most anthropology of clothing discusses clothing as it represents  “something else rather than (being) something in its own right”. However, right before our eyes, clothing is being used in new ways as a sort of circuitry within a worldwide assemblage of oppression and resistance. It is used to represent freedom in an increasingly stuffy world. 

In prisons in the United States and internationally, yellow is a key (common) clothing color for inmates. Some prison management teams justify the use of yellow clothing by stating that yellow clothes make prisoners easily detectable if they were to escape into the vegetation/desert/water that exist outside the prison wall. Outside the context of mass incarceration, yellow garments are increasingly present in other sites of human control. They are used to massage human flows of commerce, entertainment, and hope. 
Paris Yellow Vest protests

Photo: a scene from the “Yellow Vest ” riots in France (December 2018)

From 2008-2010, I used to go to UNC games as a graduate student at UNC. I remember finding out that another Lumbee person worked security at the games. I didn’t know him well, but I remember seeing his team of security personnel for the first time. They wore bright yellow shirts with the word “security” on the back. I could tell that they were specially trained to handle UNC’s sporting events. I remember attending a UNC-Kentucky game back in 2010 and there were several Kentucky fans one level up who deliberately taunted UNC fans. They called us names. They pointed up into the Dean Dome rafters and shook their heads.
Show Pros Security - Duke vs. UnC

Photo: UNC Athletic Security –  and their standard yellow shirts – holding back UNC students

I watched closely as the men in the yellow shirts took notice of the loud commentary. The animosity from Kentucky fans on this night was allowed. It was part of the economics of this moment. They (Kentucky fans) had paid the price of admission to get a few words in. The yellow shirts were meant to lightly cover the sea of Carolina (baby) blue at each sporting event.

While the shirts of these UNC approved officials said “security” – a term that has evolved rapidly in the United States since 9/11/2001 and the creation of the Patriot Act and related domestic policing – they seemed to have a less subversive role. They were meant to condition. They sat like oil on top of water. They were there. They were a covering. However, if the crowd of UNC fans wanted to storm the court at the Dean Dome, they could have. The yellow shirts weren’t actual protection. They were, rather, a warning that fans in the stands should know their boundaries. Fans were paying customers and problems to be dealt with.

It is interesting how corporations (yes, universities are corporations) simultaneously invite you in as guest and intruder. They want your money, but they don’t want you to dictate what you do after you pay. They want to provide you with the conditions of human emotion and ecstasy, but they want you to quiet it down. They want you to want a chicken sandwich, but they aren’t prepared for thirty customers who drive into the parking lot simultaneously and demand their perfectly cooked meal. (Also, Chick-fil-a knows that I crave their chicken on Sunday…when I cannot get it!)

Much of this comes down to how America formed as an institution of bodily control. Before America, the Roman Empire was a system of crowd control that was unprecedented. The Roman government was able to precisely situate large communities within and around their sites of art, crucifixion, and public theater. Rome was feared as if it was God because they (Roman agents) seemed to be everywhere.

By the time Europeans stumbled upon American Indian communities, the tactics of crowd control were part propaganda, part deception, part brutal violence. After White Americans enslaved Indians and Africans, America became good at making everyone else control everyone else. (The fancy word for this is hegemony.) Society became polite. We ignored how governments and corporations were poisoning us. Now we have men/women in yellow suits measuring toxins in our swamps.


Photo: An advertisement for my environmental health class at Biola University. 

Our coming into a place to purchase a product was as much about social manners as it was about obtaining the product. Eventually, suburban malls taught us to systematically purchase within the themes set by corporate imagination machines. Now, in the age of “Black Friday”, humans are increasingly trained to seek a well-priced commodity with laser/artificially intelligent precision. The panic of Black Friday is part of a massive, far-reaching movement of retail corporations into the business of crowd control. In fact, Wal-Mart, one of the world’s largest retailers, has been sporadically issuing yellow vests to its supervisory employees since around 2010. Wal-Mart’s yellow vests are now used across all of its stores by employees who hold important social roles within the movement of humans (and animals) through its stores. A Walmart employee (on the website Reddit) fired back this year about his/her desire for one of the yellow vests:

Do you think that customers respect the yellow vest? Do the shoplifters think that the yellow vested employees are more experienced? I am an SCO host, but I don’t have a yellow vest. Thinking about asking for one to look more authoritative.

I would argue that this type of request to “look more authoritative” is part of a movement by humans across the world to find ways to change the symbols of their vulnerability into statements of human worth. In 2016, a car crash in Anchorage, Alaska led to the work of the Alaska Injury Prevention Center to make homeless citizens more visible. Their work is part of an emerging political movement in Alaska dedicated to the hilighting of pedestrian vulnerability. 


Recently, I found out that the women and men who help park cars at my church south of Los Angeles wear bright yellow vests. Whereas these vests do serve the purpose of keeping them from being run over by the automobiles of church attendees, the vests are much more. They represent the presence of these women and men within the Christian community. They represent their individual commitments to ushering (directing) humans into relationship with Christ. 

I’m writing an ethnography of Michael Jordan. This conversation – about garments and testimony – is part of that story of Jordan. I’ve also been teaching future nurses and physicians over the last several years. Their jobs are as much about garments (what garments mean) as they are about healing human lives. Even in an increasingly virtual (non-tangible) world, garments are mediums though which we can begin to understand…everything. They are conduits through which testimonies are expressed and suppressed.