The rise of fascist fashion: Clothing helps the far right sell their violent message

T-shirts and other garb that promote white supremacy should be taken seriously as an entry point into hate

Published April 21, 2018 3:30PM (EDT)

White nationalists and neo-Nazis at the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.  (Getty Images)
White nationalists and neo-Nazis at the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Getty Images)

In the months since white supremacist blogger Andrew Anglin urged his followers to dress in “hip” and “cool” ways at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., far-right fashion has rapidly evolved. The clean-cut aesthetic of the white polo shirts and khakis that drew national attention last August has been supplanted by new brands marketing to and for the far right, using messages and symbols embedded in the clothing to convey white supremacist ideology.

There was the Arizona woman indicted for burglary and other crimes at a mosque — while coaching her children to use anti-Muslim slurs — wearing a T-shirt with the phrase “you can’t coexist with people who want to kill you” written across the chest. In Northwest Washington, D.C., I glanced out of my office window and saw a young man with the Nazi imperial eagle emblazoned across his jacket — part of a British fashion brand’s controversial logo. One of the torch-bearing Charlottesville marchers’ polo shirt bore a logo from the white nationalist group Identity Evropa.

The idea that the humble cotton T-shirt — long deployed as a walking billboard to advertise anything from the local auto shop to children’s summer camps — could be used to market extremism may seem absurd. But it turns out the T-shirt is an ideal channel for racist and nationalist messaging. What I’ve learned through nearly two decades of research in Germany, where clothing brands marketing far-right ideology are carefully monitored by authorities and educators, suggests that ignoring this clothing here in the United States would be a mistake. Fashion has increasingly become part and parcel of the far right’s outreach.

More than a dozen brands in Europe sell high-quality, well-made, expensive clothing with embedded far-right symbols and messages, most of which appear across the chests and backs of T-shirts and sweatshirts. U.S. consumers can buy these brands through U.S. distributors, or directly from the brands’ websites, which are complete with translation and currency converters. Americans can also choose from a growing array of products marketed directly to radical and extreme right consumers in the U.S.

These brands directly and indirectly market hatred, sometimes couched within iconography that is pro-veteran, pro-military or pro-gun rights. There are T-shirts that market and sell white supremacist ideology, espouse violence against immigrants, Muslims and Jews, and encourage consumers to rise up in revolution against liberal ideals. One T-shirt tells consumers to “celebrate the real diversity” by wearing a T-shirt that displays nine different kinds of headgear, including a World War II gas mask and a Christian Crusader helmet.

Hate clothing celebrates violence in the name of a cause, often using patriotic images and phrases and calls to act like an American along with Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and white supremacist messages. In this way, far-right clothing links being a patriot with being violent and xenophobic.

Studies of hate music have shown how hateful lyrics can spread intolerance and prejudice against minorities. In the same way, hate clothing can expose consumers to extremist opinions, shaping ideological views on immigration, religion, violence and gun control toward the extremist fringe and opening the door to further engagement and more dangerous actions. In Germany, I found that brands marketing hate offer legitimacy, signal membership and ideology to far-right insiders, and act as an entry ticket to concerts and underground events where dressing normally would raise a red flag. Far-right clothing also acts as an icebreaker for youth to strike up conversations in school, at stadiums, in bars, and at parties.

Clothing messages also call consumers to action in ways that have been shown to be effective in recruiting followers, whether in populist campaign promises to make a nation great “again” or in extremist calls to restore a caliphate. In the U.S., calls to action in clothing iconography include messages that express anti-government sentiments, valorize violence, describe a "new revolution," and call on consumers to defend the Second Amendment. Such calls to action need to be understood in light of T-shirts sold on the same websites that tell consumers “It’s OK to be white” and that “you can’t co-exist with someone who wants to kill you” – the T-shirt worn by the woman in Arizona.

Let me be clear: Free speech is an important American value, protected by the First Amendment. I would not recommend government monitoring or legal censorship of clothing. But in the face of ever-more retail that traffics in far-right ideology, there are steps we can take.

For decades, journalists, civil society and watchdog groups have monitored white power and hate music in the U.S. and Europe, documenting the music’s production, sale and distribution and its impact on recruitment to white supremacist scenes. The same groups can put pressure on clothing manufacturers and distributors not to produce or sell these items. This strategy worked after Charlottesville, when Spotify removed white power music from its platform, and other tech companies — including YouTube, GoDaddy and Twitter — pledged to monitor and remove accounts linked to white supremacists.

Can a T-shirt cause extremist violence? Of course not. But like other gateways to far-right extremism — secret Facebook groups, racist music lyrics, alt-right conferences and campus speaker confrontations — clothing should be taken seriously as an entry point. If we are going to find ways to disrupt radicalization toward hate, we need to identify — and intervene in — as many of these gateways as we can.

By Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Cynthia Miller-Idriss is professor of education and sociology at American University, where she runs the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL). Her new book is "Hate In The Homeland," from Princeton University Press.

MORE FROM Cynthia Miller-Idriss

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alt-right Charlottesville Clothing Editor's Picks Far Right Fashion White Supremacy