On August 11 this year, thousands of Nazis, white supremacists and every other form of bigot representative of the so-called “Alt-right” descended upon Charlottesville in the U.S. state of Virginia to protest the removal of Confederate-era statutes.
Nearly a year into the Trump era, nobody is surprised by emboldened racists anymore, but what did raise a few questions was their choice of outfit: it quickly became apparent that these slavery enthusiasts had picked out a uniform for themselves that consisted of white polo shirts, khakis and tiki torches – although that last one might not be a permanent fixture of the look.
For those of who had only ever really encountered neo-Nazis via American History X, these alt-right stormtroopers caught us completely unaware because they looked nothing like Edward Norton’s character from the aforementioned movie. The shaved heads, tattoos and Doc Martens that we so often associate with modern day fascism have been replaced with golf course wear for suburban dads. The original Nazis had strict dress codes and meticulous uniforms. Members of the alt-right, meanwhile, look like they shop exclusively at Walmart.
Oddly enough, that’s kinda the point: just like the term “alt-right” itself, this polo-and-khakis uniform is an attempt to cloak racism in a thin veneer of mainstream acceptability. The word “Nazi” conjures up images of gas chambers and the most horrifying acts of inhumanity imaginable. Over the past 72 years, it has become the ultimate barometer for evil. “Alt-right”, on the other hand, sounds like a keyboard shortcut.
It’s vague, jargonistic and allows its devotees to disassociate from the genocidal elements of rightwing ideology and present an alternative form of racism that’s somehow supposed to be less repugnant. The unfashionable uniform spotted in Charlottesville serves a similar purpose: prior to August’s “Unite the Right” gathering, prominent neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin instructed his followers to dress presentably in an attempt to win over those so-called “average Americans” that every political movement needs to build up any sort of momentum.
“Wear fitted T-shirts…I would not wear pants that loose-fitting. And that's another thing: don't ever wear shorts. Serious men in serious situations are not wearing shorts,” Anglin dictated via The Daily Stormer, the far-right propaganda site he runs. “We need to be extremely conscious of what we look like, and how we present ourselves. That matters more than our ideas...if people see a bunch of mismatched overweight slobs, they are not going to care what they are saying.”
Although he doesn’t specifically mention white polo shirts and khakis, that’s what became the default look. The precise reasons for this are difficult to pinpoint without actually surveying white supremacists directly, but the subconscious urges are pretty clear: unless you’re seriously into fashion or intentionally dress like a weirdo, you’re not likely to find polo shirts or khakis offensive. They’re utilitarian wardrobe staples designed to be bland to the point of invisibility, which is perfect for those looking to infiltrate the mainstream. Subliminally, it represents tradition and order, which are instinctively appealing to the conservative mind. It’s distinctly anti-modern, and the sort of clothing that your grandma would approve of. It’s uptight, stuffy clothing, reminiscent of what people wore in the ’50s, the period that American conservatives would most like to return to.
What’s interesting is that both items have been worn by right-wingers in the past. Khaki slacks paired with a navy blue blazer and some form of white button-up shirt is the go-to outfit for off-duty Republicans – a look derived from the uniforms of prestigious prep schools that serve as a conveyor belt of conservative politicos. Countless GOP figureheads ranging from Lee Atwater to Roger Stone to Donald Trump and just about anybody that has ever joined the College Republicans has been seen sporting the blazer-and-khakis look over the years.
Meanwhile, Fred Perry polo shirts are an age-old skinhead staple. The original skins, although not racist, had a strong conservative impulse: the subculture emerged in the ‘60s as a counter-reaction to the flower power movement. Where hippies were work-shy, shower-dodging layabouts, the skinheads were working class youth who took pride in their proletariat obligations. Their clean-cut, formalistic image, which was reminiscent of a uniform, represented that feeling of constraint and responsibility that comes with having to work for a living. This has led to it being adopted by the Proud Boys, an alt-right subgroup of “Western chauvinists” led by VICE co-founder Gavin McInnes – much to the frustration of the Fred Perry brand, which has tried to distance itself from the Proud Boys.
Unlike the hippies or punks, they weren’t actually rebelling against social norms but rather those who rebelled against them: while the hippies advocated free love and dropping out of society, the skins propagated the dignity of work, which is the most default position you can take. Despite being a counter-culture, the skinheads were in many ways thoroughly normative and if you were to take away their boots they really wouldn’t look very strange at all. This is probably why so many racists were drawn to the look later on in the ‘70s and ‘80s – also a period of economic hardship where the British far-right used widespread social discord to fan the flames of ethnic tension, just like today.
It should also be noted that collared shirts and slacks are integral components to just about every uniform on the planet, and are worn by everybody from army generals to naval officers to cops and even McDonald’s employees. When paired together, they carry connotations of authority, duty, force and submission, all of which are highly-admired qualities on the rightward fringes of the political spectrum. Because these sorts of jobs are typically associated with men (as most jobs are, since fascists tend to see women are little more than housekeeping baby machines), collars-and-slacks are imbued with masculine undertones.
These factors probably weren’t at the forefront of alt-right minds when they picked out their Unite the Right wardrobe, but these subconscious influences can’t be ignored because they’re present in all of us. As I mentioned above, the choice of polos and khakis represents an attempt at feigning normality. But we should remember that, despite the change in appearances and labelling, their ideas are the same as they were back in the 1930s.
Now find out how Gavin McInnes went from VICE co-founder to Fox News troll.