In the wake of the carnage in the US Capitol left by the mob of Trump supporters, America is having to contend with its large ideological chasm and centuries of unresolved racial issues – but also: what in the hell were they wearing?
The white rioters came in star-spangled superhero outfits, confederate flag capes, war paint. Some were dressed as bald eagles, others as Captain America, Abraham Lincoln, and Trump Superman – the costumes, just like the terror and fascism perpetrated, were as American as it gets.
As perplexing as it was disturbing, for a moment it was hard to tell the difference between racist politics and a Halloween parade. But there's a very fine line between comedy and horror. While we might want to poke fun at this misguided band of fascists for their erroneous fashion choices, these costumes were a vital part of their message.
Disguise has a decisive place in protest and different ideological groups have their very specific ways of weaponizing fashion. Wednesday's white terrorists' pageantry of hate was just the latest – and most chaotic – in a long list of political fashion codes. So let's decode the language of protest clothing because it's more important than ever.
Black Lives Matter protesters
When I wrote our protest guide last spring in the tumult of global Black Lives Matter protests, there was one resounding message about what to wear: conceal your identity.
Wear nondescript clothing, conceal tattoos or any identifying marks, wear a mask at all times. Pandemic aside, masks are crucial to avoid being found and targetted by law enforcement – the Antifa has been doing it for decades. Like an episode of Black Mirror this summer US police forces famously identified protestors based on photos of their faces, clothes, and hair, or on the fact that they posted while at the protests.
Mid-pandemic, the choice to not wear face masks is a telling costume in and of itself – virtually none of the insurrectionists at Capitol hill wore one. It says: I'm not afraid to be identified, what are you gonna do?
For the protesters demanding an end to racist police violence, activism is dangerous. Parading past law enforcement face on display in full costume is a luxury usually awarded to white supremacists. And Wednesday's insurrection at the Capitol highlights the stark differences between how authorities interact with non-violent Black Lives Matter versus armed pro-Trump supporters. Notably, anti-racism protests in Minneapolis after George Floyd's death resulted in 570 arrests. Meanwhile, only 52 arrests were made in the Capitol – and 47 of these were simply because rioters violated DC's 6 p.m. curfew.
While Black Lives Matter protesters were encouraged to wear nondescript black clothing to avoid identification, the audacity of white terrorism is demonstrated in their costumes.
From the Klan to Hitler's brown shirts, the far-right has long held a fascination with playing racist dress up. And it wasn't more apparent until 2017's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The controversial-turned-tragic rally saw a mob of neo-nazis descend on the college town with a clear dress code: the polo shirt.
The point was to make Nazism appear more "approachable." According to Nylon, ahead of the rally, one of the alt-right’s high profile members, Andrew Anglin, "told his followers to look ‘hip,’ ‘sexy,’ ‘dangerous,’ ‘appealing,’ adding: ‘that means you have to go to the gym.’ He told those reading what kind of shirts to wear: ‘The worst look ever is a baggy T-shirt. Wear fitted T-shirts, where the sleeve goes to the middle of your bicep. It should not hang lower than the base of your member.’ ‘We must have Chad Nationalism,’ he noted, referencing a term for bro culture. ‘That is what will make guys want to join us, that is what will make girls want to be our groupies. That will make us look like bad boys and heroes. That is what we are going for here.’"
The nazis' preferred style even sent ripples through the fashion industry when famed polo shirt brand Fred Perry denounced its association with the far-right political groups who adopted the brand's shirt as their unofficial uniform and appropriated the laurel wreath into their logo.
In Charlottesville, white nationalists' and neo-nazis' embrace of the polo speaks to the fact that that they were trying to appear mainstream, organized, well-to-do, and attractive even.
Clean, preppy, and polished. This is how the alt-right tried to legitimize themselves.
So how did we get from polo shirts to Vikings on the Senate floor?
Viking regalia speaks to the same kind of white power imaginations that neo-nazis were screaming in Charlottesville. The roots of Viking cosplay go much deeper than just a couple of idiots wanting to stand out from the sea of MAGA hats. Unsurprisingly, horned helmets and fur pelts have become something of a uniform for white supremacists. Truth is, nazis have always had a bit of an obsession with Norsemen and white-skinned Aryans.
This perverted obsession with a golden age of Nordic racial purity has led many white supremacists to misappropriate Norse mythology. We all saw the photo of the man with his face painted with stars and stripes, a horned helmet made of fur pelts on his head, and his bare chest and arms displaying Norse-symbol tattoos.
So then what about the other losers in MAGA hats, superhero costumes, or confederate flag attire? The thing about Trump is his presidency has managed to unite an amalgamation of racist characters into one giant mob. MAGA America ranges from preppy neo-nazis to fratty proud boys, shameless rednecks, and everything in between.
While the Charlottesville nazis and proud boys' embrace of the polo shirt was relatively subtle and approachable, Trump's mob this week shows that white supremacists have been emboldened to make absolutely shameless fashion choices. Post-Trump, racism is loud and it's not hiding anymore.