advertisement
advertisement

Why the far right Proud Boys co-opted these polo shirts

It’s not the first time Fred Perry’s clothes have been embraced by skinheads.

Why the far right Proud Boys co-opted these polo shirts
[Source Photos: Fred Perry, Gerardo Mora/Getty Images, Virginia Turbett/Redferns]

Right-wing groups aren’t exactly known for sartorial subtlety. But recently, their uniform of choice is an understated black polo with yellow stripes, made by the British label Fred Perry.

advertisement
advertisement

Fred Perry, a brand known for preppy streetwear, has been associated with far-right groups since shortly after it was founded in 1952, as many historians have pointed out. Most recently, its $95 polo shirts have been adopted by the Proud Boys, a group of self-described “western chauvinists” who espouse far-right rhetoric. While group leaders deny being white supremacists, they have nonetheless appeared alongside other hate groups at extremist gatherings such as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The group made headlines last week when President Trump refused to disavow them at the presidential debate, instead telling them to “stand by.” That night, Google searches for the Proud Boys spiked, as did searches for Fred Perry, which has become the group’s de facto uniform. Last week, the brand said it would stop selling this particular shirt in North America as a way of distancing itself from the group.

Fred Perry ca. 1953. [Photo: S&G/PA Images via Getty Images]

The company was founded by Fred Perry, the son of a working-class socialist member of parliament, who became a Wimbledon tennis champion at a time when tennis was an elitist sport. At the start, the brand was a symbol of pride and solidarity among the working class in England. Fred Perry’s polo shirts were particularly popular because they were affordable but also conveyed a clean-cut, preppy look that had previously been associated with the upper classes. Young people at the time put their own spin on these shirts, wearing them with skinny jeans and closely cropped hair. The look first took off in multicultural immigrant neighborhoods in London and was connected to a new wave of West Indian music, including reggae and ska. “They were the original ‘skinheads’ because of their buzzed haircuts,” says fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, author of Worn on This Day. “It wasn’t until later that an overtly racist wing splintered off and ‘skinhead’ became synonymous with white supremacy.”

Two skinheads in Southend, UK, in 1979. [Photo: Virginia Turbett/Redferns]

This splinter began to happen in the late 1960s, according to Chrisman-Campbell. Skinhead culture spread to the north of England, where Fred Perry shirts became popular among football fans, partly because the broad range of colors allowed them to show which team they supported. In 1967, a white nationalist party called the British National Front was founded, and it stationed recruiters outside football stadiums, trying to convince fans that new immigrants from South Asia and the West Indies would take their jobs. The party also opened social clubs that hosted live music, which laid the groundwork for the racist skinhead punk culture that spread around the world. In the United States, the first skinhead gangs emerged in Texas and the Midwest in the 1980s and were heavily influenced by their British counterparts.

The Proud Boys appear to be tipping their hat to this history when they wear the shirt. But they may also be drawn to Fred Perry’s logo. “The appeal for the Proud Boys seems to be in its laurel wreath logo—a sports reference inconveniently reminiscent of Nazi imagery—and specific color combinations,” Chrisman-Campbell speculates. Adolf Hitler’s ceremonial flag, for instance, featured a black swastika in the center of a yellow wreath.

Chrisman-Campbell also says that in a modern American context, the polo shirt isn’t a particularly conspicuous look, since it’s associated with preppy middle-class culture. She notes that this fashion choice was apparent at the Unite the Right rally in 2017, where many white supremacists and neo-Nazis wearing polos gathered in an effort to unify the American white nationalist movement. But Chrisman-Campbell says the strategy goes all the way back to the heyday of Klan leader David Duke, who frequently wore polos. “[This] is a conscious attempt to normalize hate,” she says. “Rather than wearing white hoods or aggressive skinhead gear—think: buzzcuts, tattoos, swastikas—the modern far right strives to look as bland, inoffensive, and middle class as possible.”

advertisement
Proud Boys in Orlando, Florida, in 2019. [Photo: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images]

Fred Perry is now actively trying to distance itself from the Proud Boys. A week before the presidential debate, the brand posted a statement on its website saying that it doesn’t support the Proud Boys, nor is it affiliated with the group. “It is incredibly frustrating this group has appropriated our . . . shirt and subverted our Laurel Wreath to their own ends,” it reads. It also said it’s working with lawyers to pursue any unlawful use of its brand. We reached out to Fred Perry several times to provide more insight, but the brand had not responded by the time of publication.

Julie Zerbo, a lawyer who specializes in fashion and is the founder of the popular Fashion Law blog, says it will be hard for Fred Perry to pursue legal action. If members of the Proud Boys are legally buying shirts with the brand’s trademark, there’s nothing they can do about it. “A brand owner can’t sell a shirt, generate revenue and profit, then sue for trademark infringement from legitimate consumers of their product,” she says. “That’s not to say that Fred Perry’s counsel may not come up with a creative cause of action. But sometimes the threat of litigation is just a way for brands to be very clear about where they stand and what their values are.”

In the end, Fred Perry has taken a more straightforward approach to dealing with the problem, by halting the sale of yellow and black shirts in the United States and Canada. But it’s unclear whether this will be enough to stop the Proud Boys from wearing them. For one thing, it’s relatively easy to buy them in Europe or on eBay.

But it’s also true that Fred Perry hasn’t been as aggressive as other fashion brands that have been co-opted by the far right. Sports brand Lonsdale, for instance, became associated with neo-Nazis who half-zipped a jacket over the logo, leaving only the letters NSDA, the acronym for the German Nazi party. But since the mid-2000s, Lonsdale has focused on diversity in its advertising and sponsored charitable campaigns supporting immigrant and LGBTQ rights. This approached worked: The brand is no longer a darling of the far right.

While Fred Perry has spoken out against racism, it hasn’t undertaken a concerted effort to rebrand itself as an inclusive, progressive label. Until that happens, the company’s shirts may continue to be co-opted by white supremacists in their efforts to normalize hate, says Chrisman-Campbell. “These polos make [the Proud Boys] look like preppy Young Republicans, rather than scary bikers . . . in order to win converts and blend into mainstream society.”

advertisement
advertisement

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

More