The Public Order Act: Defining Political Uniform in 1930s Britain

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In a 1933 speech reported in the press as ‘The Age of Shirts’, G. K. Chesterton sought to rationalise a newly-emerging sight on the streets of British cities. ‘It occurs to me’, he said, ‘that what is happening to-day has always happened at intervals in human history. There are moments when a civilisation begins to stagger and grow bewildered.’ He explained, ‘People rush about. They form groups. They wear peculiar kinds of shirts.’ (‘Gossip of the Day’, 1933: 10). To Chesterton, the formation of political sects defined by distinctive attire was part of an enduring tradition. Another contemporary summary exploring the rise of uniforms on the streets of Britain found historical parallels in centuries-old European battle narratives: ‘During the English Civil Wars Cavaliers and Roundheads were easily distinguished by their clothing’, it was noted. Equally, the same report observed that the white roses of the Houses of Lancaster and York operated by dressed distinction.; the coloured shirts of the Camisards in the religious wars in France under Louis XIV and the red blouses of Garibaldi’s troops during the Italian wars of liberation were also name-checked (Meetings, Uniforms and Public Order, 1937: 6). Yet, while such approaches positioned the street skirmishes of the 1930s as part of a predictable continuity, many others including Members of Parliament felt that the rise of organised violence between rival political groups in clashing bodies as well as shirts required new interventions for new times. These debates crystallised in the passing of the British Public Order Act of 1936, which, in its opening salvo, banned the wearing of political uniform in public places. The Act still stands.
Under the auspices of the Act political uniform was never clearly defined; indeed, the core difficulty of articulating its object was a central point of contention in the formation of the initial Bill and its later implementation as law. As such, the Act offers a pertinent focus for exploring the challenges and limits for understanding uniform as a category more broadly. While the Act was partly structured to dismantle the ascendant power of the British Union of Fascists (‘the Blackshirts’) by attacking a central aspect of their collective identity, the ruling also had a wider knock-on effect on other 'shirted' organisations of diverse purposes, resulting in a variety of legal outcomes tested through telling court cases. This essay examines the broader purposes of the Act and its wider reaches and explores in particular the opposing fortunes of two lesser-known green-shirted organisations that came under the Act’s radar. Drawing on parliamentary reports, Home Office correspondence, institutional literature and press reaction, the essay explores the philosophical debates that played out around the meaning of uniform at the formation of the Act, the creative clothing strategies employed in reaction to the ban and the legacy of the Act on political organisations in the present day.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUniform
Subtitle of host publicationClothing and Discipline in the Modern World
EditorsLisa Godson, Jane Tynan
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages27
ISBN (Print)9781350045552
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2019


  • political uniform
  • symbols
  • Kibbo Kift
  • Blackshirts
  • fascism
  • protest


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