“Clothing? Clothing doesn’t make me powerful.”
Jane Fonda doesn’t have time for superficial prattle. As a fashion reporter, I’ve been conditioned to ask celebrities about their defining style moments, so the Ferrari-red coat Fonda has been wearing to all her Fire Drill Friday demonstrations in Washington, D.C., is toward the top of my list of questions. For three months, the nation has watched, beguiled, as the 82-year-old Grace and Frankie star—glamorously sheathed in the now-iconic piece of outerwear, a pair of plasticuffs secured around her wrists—endures week after week of arrests for protesting the government’s inertia in the face of climate change. But Fonda swears that wool coat is the last piece of clothing she’ll ever buy. “One hundred percent of climate scientists agree that we’re facing a drastic catastrophe,” the actress tells me over the phone from the nation’s capital—her temporary home since last October—an urgent staccato punctuating her every statement. The revolution clearly doesn't accommodate pleasantries. And Fonda did not move to D.C. to become a style icon.
For the Oscar winner, who spent 20 hours in jail late last year for civil disobedience (“One night, big deal!” she told reporters, unphased), risking arrest in the name of activism is not new. In 1970, a 32-year-old Fonda was famously taken into custody after embarking on a speaking tour around Canadian universities where she publicly denounced the Vietnam War. The National Security Agency had been monitoring Fonda for years and finally detained her on suspicion of drug trafficking. Her mugshot, picturing her epochal hairstyle from the movie Klute (think: chic mullet) and a solidarity fist held up to the lens, quickly became a symbol of the anti-war movement.
You don’t typically see celebrities, much less octogenarians, drop their cozy Los Angeles lifestyles to become full-time demonstrators. (To stay in march-ready shape, Fonda says she works out with a trainer, sleeps nine hours a night, and meditates.) When asked what first ignited her inner revolutionary, Fonda cites the filmography of her father, actor Henry Fonda—12 Angry Men, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wrong Man. “They were films about justice, about fairness, about anti-racism,” she recalls. “I think they fertilized the soil of my soul, if you will.” And what inspires her now? “The young student climate strikers”—particularly 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Time’s 2019 Person of the Year Greta Thunberg (whose name Fonda reverently mentions half a dozen times over the course of our conversation).
“One of the reasons I’ve moved to Washington, D.C., for four months was to get out of my comfort zone and put my body on the line, as Greta Thunberg calls us to do,” Fonda explains. “I want to help wake people up. I want to try to role model with my own body.” According to Fonda, the willingness to kill a night or two behind bars for a cause as pressing as the end of the world should be nothing special. “It needs to become the new norm,” she says. “So I’m very encouraged when I have people coming from Washington, California, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, and Ohio to join me in civil disobedience, people who’ve never done it before.”
Ted Danson, Sam Waterston, Catherine Keener, and Rosanna Arquette are among the big names Fonda has brought out to protest alongside her in D.C. Of course, not everybody is comfortable with such public and physical displays of vulnerability. When posed to consider the potential perils of her style of political resistance, Fonda answers bluntly, “I don’t see any risks. But, I’m white, and I’m famous.”
During our interview in mid-December, Fonda was particularly excited for her Grace and Frankie co-star Lily Tomlin to become her next Fire Drill Friday attendee. “She is joining me on December 27 to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested,” she trumpeted. The on-screen comedy duo, who’ve been pals and colleagues ever since their 9 to 5 days in the ’80s, have an off-screen best friendship you rarely find in Hollywood. “Lily Tomlin is a unique human being with the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met in my whole life,” Fonda gushes earnestly. “I feel so blessed that I am able to work with her every day, and when Grace and Frankie comes to an end, I am going to be so sad that I don’t have an excuse to be with her every day.”
Before her big transcontinental move, Fonda wrapped filming season six, which premieres on Netflix this month. (For those unfamiliar with the show, Fonda and Tomlin play two unlikely friends whose 70-something husbands suddenly declare that they are gay, in love, and planning to get married. Hijinks, hijinks.) “I’m not supposed to talk about it,” she responds when I beg her for next-season spoilers. “But it’s funny. I’ll tell you that. It involves another aspect of women’s bodies and aging. That’s all I’ll say.” Even after so many years, she and Tomlin are still astonished that the series resonates so well, especially with young people. “I think it’s because it’s funny and, secondly, because it doesn’t cause anxiety, which I think we all need right now,” Fonda theorizes. “I also think young people get a kick out of seeing people their grandmother’s age behaving in unexpected ways. And then women love it because it gives them hope. You can come through a terrible, painful, life-altering crisis and not only survive but thrive and grow.”
If Fonda had any advice for how her character, Grace, should overcome a major life calamity, surely it would be to join her on Capitol Hill. “Activism is a great antidote to depression and despair,” she tells me, sagely. “I think a lot of us are carrying despair in our bodies, consciously or unconsciously, because we know what’s happening to the climate.” It’s true: A 2019 Gallup poll reported that 54% of participants ages 18 to 34 worry a “great deal” about global warming—a phenomenon some psychologists have nicknamed “climate grief.” “It’s an existential sadness,” says Fonda, who believes taking action is a form of anxiety-reduction therapy.
Photo:Tiffany Nicholson; Fashion: Stella McCartney Double Breasted Jacket ($1535) and Lizette Pants ($795); Beck Jewels Arcilla Mismatched Swarovski Imitation Pearl Hoop Earrings ($195; Jennifer Fisher Single Gothic Letter Cigar Band ($7595); Everlane The Editor Boots ($225) in Bone; Talent’s own rings.
This action doesn’t have to involve piling into the back of a squad car. Fonda, who has become a scholar of the effective measures one can take to reduce their carbon footprint, recommends everyone start their New Year by committing to the following four steps: get involved with a local environmental organization, renounce single-use plastic, limit driving and air travel, and cut back on or even eliminate meat. “I mean, it takes more than a football field of water to make one steak,” she exhales. “Water is becoming the new gold.”
This is why Fonda is no longer interested in entertaining questions about clothes. “I’m not going to shop anymore,” she proclaims. “I’m old enough to remember a time when shopping didn’t provide people an identity, but consumerism has become all-encompassing. We need to stop it.” Who among us has not run out and bought an entirely new outfit to wear to a wedding, party, or even just an Instagram post so no one would see you in the same thing twice? Once Greta Thunberg announced her personal ban on new clothes, Fonda followed suit. “I’ve never been a big shopper, to tell you the truth,” she admits. “If I need something new, I’ll either borrow it or buy it secondhand. I still have clothes from 30 and 40 years ago, so I’m going to wear what I already have.”
Fonda is walking the walk: In November, she wore the same black sequin suit to Glamour’s Women of the Year Awards and again three days later to the GCAPP Empower Party in Atlanta. Perhaps if the #nonewclothes trend catches on, wearing the same ensemble to two back-to-back events will become a fashion statement in itself—a simultaneous protest against celebrity- and social media–driven flex culture and an invitation to pause and appreciate the things we already have for longer than it takes to snap a picture and post.
Photo:Tiffany Nicholson; Fashion: GirlBoy trench; Misha Nonoo The Husband Shirt With Silver Studs ($185); Everlane The Pima Micro Rib Turtleneck ($35) and The Day Glove ReKnit Flats ($98) in White/Oatmeal; Sally LaPointe pants; Jennifer Fisher Single Gothic Letter Cigar Band ($7595); Talent's own rings.
When asked how she remains optimistic, Fonda doesn’t mince words: “I don’t like the alternative.” Addressing the climate crisis is a monumental task, no doubt, and we only have a decade or so to get our act together. But as grim as researchers’ predictions are, solutions are at our fingertips—we simply need to push the government to grasp them. Fonda breaks it down in simple terms: “Scientists tell us that we have the ability, the technology, and the wherewithal to make the transition off of fossil fuels, 50% in the next decade, 100% by the middle of the century.” The money to do it exists, she contends—in the subsidies we reward the fossil fuel industry and in our military budget bloat. “We’ve done enormous, expensive things in the past, but the actions have to take place to force the money,” Fonda says. “None of this is going to happen unless we demand it.”
If, at 82, Fonda has the fiery energy to make those demands—to wear the same red coat every wintry Friday in Washington, to sleep on a jail cell’s concrete floor, to check her lifetime of experience at the revolution’s door, and look to the next generation for guidance—then what’s stopping the rest of us? “Yes, there’s hope,” she concludes. “We can do it.” Even over the phone, I’ve never believed anyone more.
Editorial Note: Although Who What Wear is a fashion and shopping site, we encourage our readers to be mindful of their consumption habits through regular coverage of sustainable brands (see our sustainable winter shopping guide) and vintage shopping (see our story on the vintage versions of this season's It items).