The Politics of Style: Uniformity and the rise of white supremacist fashion

Eve Brown analyses how fashion has become intrinsic to the re-branding of the alt-right movement in 2017, and explains why resurgent white supremacist groups like the KKK have looked to re-shape their media image in the wake of Trump’s election win in 2016.

By Andrea Ganoczy

“Fashion provides one of the most ready means through which individuals can make expressive visual statements about their identities”. Bennett, A. (2005)

When the French tennis player René Lacoste entered the court in 1933 wearing a white polo shirt for the first time, no one could have anticipated that the same white polo style he coined would later be used as part of the uniform of the resurgent alt-right in 2017. This example of the importance of fashion in the shaping and the branding of ideas is perhaps the most recent, with the far right’s latest protest in America on August 11th of this year, in which they were all encouraged to wear a combination of the white polo and khaki trousers to create a more “appealing” (orders from the Daily Stormer) and identifiable image. However, the use of fashion to create visual homogeneity behind a cause is not new.

The re-branding of some ‘far right’ groups in America from socially negated styles to more acceptable images may in part be due to the current political atmosphere with the election of Trump in November of 2016. Perhaps the most infamous group, the Ku Klux Klan is the best example, with their move from the use of the white regalia to hide their identity and intimidate, to wearing the more socially acceptable white polo and khaki trouser duo with a new emphasis on showing off their identity and owning their membership within the KKK.

This rebranding is seen at its most extreme in a sub-group of the KKK, called the ‘Rocky Mountain Knights’. The leader John Abarr was reported to have stated (in an interview with ABC News):

“White supremacy is the old Klan. This is the new Klan”, in an effort to try remove the racial stigma associated with groups such as the KKK.

The movement as a whole – which consists of an estimated 190 variant groups– has seen a general dip in membership since the 1920s where it was estimated to have between two and five million members to having “no more than 6,000 members nationally” (New York Post, June 2016). This then, may reflect the groups need to rebrand as a whole, and only time will tell if the change in image will help boost membership, but one thing we can be sure of is that fashion is now being considered a serious political tool.

The effect fashion can have on the success of groups (such as the KKK) and individuals is not new and is reflected best in the 1975 bestseller Dress for Success in which John T. Molloy claimed to have the perfect formula for success based solely on appearance. Although Molloy was a teacher, and his book was based on government-funded research into the effect of a teacher’s clothes on learning, it was immediately adopted by the business community, particularly by New York law firms who were the first to take an interest. It can be argued that this book no longer reflects the views of society through its sexist undertones – “It is a stark reality that men dominate the power structure, in business and in government and education […] your clothes should move you up socially and in business” – but his work is still influential in politics today.

This may explain why there is such emphasis on appearance in politics today. Within the context of US politics, the American fashion newsfeed ‘Popsugar’ was recorded to have said that the winner of the popular vote in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s outfits throughout her 2016 campaign showed:

“She knew how to command a room” with particular emphasis on the “bolder” styles such as the hot pink Ralf Lauren gown she wore to the Al Smith Dinner in New York (October 2016).

Within a world increasingly revolved around media image, one thing we can be sure of is that fashion matters. So how do you want to be viewed?