When white nationalists and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Virginia during the “Unite the Right” rally that resulted in widespread violence, three deaths and dozens of injuries, they drew back a curtain of deep-rooted hate while appearing to be dressed for a casual high school dance.
In her latest piece for The Washington Post, Robin Givhan dissected the group’s outfits, noteworthy for their sheer un-noteworthiness. The marchers wore “white polo shirts and khakis,” or “neat jeans, button-down shirts, cargo shorts” to march through Charlottesville the evening before the rally. “They are wearing jeans and striped pullovers that look like they could have come from the sale rack at a local Gap.”
In other words, she said, they are “clothes that do not inspire a double-take. Clothes that are acceptable and appropriate. Clothes that make them look like they belong.”
The things we typically revere about fashion ― its ability to transform and provoke thought ― have been adopted by neo-Nazis to instead distract us from what they stand for. They have “bought into fashion’s ability to camouflage, distract, embolden, reassure, flatter and, quite simply, lie,” she wrote.
Their uniforms, of course, are no accident. Vice reported ahead of the Aug. 12 event that Andrew Anglin, who runs the now removed-from-the-internet Daily Stormer website, called on attendees to dress well and stressed the importance of looking good.
“We need to be extremely conscious of what we look like, and how we present ourselves,” he wrote. “That matters more than our ideas. If that is sad to you, I’m sorry, but that is just human nature. If people see a bunch of mismatched overweight slobs, they are not going to care what they are saying.”
The notion of dressing in a certain uniform to appear put together goes far beyond the United States. In India, members of Hindu nationalistic group RSS have worn an iteration of a white shirt and brown bottoms for nearly 100 years. Last year, the group introduced pants instead of shorts in an effort to, The Hindu reports, “attract youth ‘who do not feel so comfortable with the traditional knickers.’”
Back in the U.S., brands like Fred Perry and New Balance have taken active stances against the white nationalists and neo-Nazis using their brands as uniform. But as Givhan points out, there has been largely radio silence from the industry.
If the imagery of these people in “normal” clothing is jarring, it’s worth noting how easily they are also able to disappear into a crowd. GQ captured a protestor who, in a terrifying video, said he just “came here for the fun” before disappearing into the crowd of protestors.
The movement by neo-Nazis and white supremacists toward a more normalized image, one that gets them the title of “very fine people” by the president of the United States, is much more deeply rooted in clothing than meets the eye.