Why the Alt-Right’s Fashion Makeover is their Most Powerful and Underestimated Weapon

Written by Sabrina Maddeaux
Illustration by John Holcroft

Idealists like to believe that politics is all about character, integrity, and mental fortitude – superficial qualities be damned.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. From Reagan, Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton to Thatcher, Trudeau, and Sarkozy, outer appearance has played a significant role in who rises to power and how long they stay there. Thatcher’s pussy bow blouses strategically softened her image, while Clinton’s stuffy pantsuits left voters confused about whether she was part of the patriarchy or fighting against it.

It’s not just politicians that tap into fashion’s unique power to project ideas and gain influence. Over the centuries, political movements have embraced signature styles to aid in their causes.

During the French Revolution, traditionally aristocratic materials such as silks, taffetas, and velvets were eschewed by those seeking equality and liberty for all. The Civil Rights Movement brought afros into pop culture, allowing African Americans to publicly embrace their ethnicity for the first time, while women of the 1960s donned mini skirts as a way to liberate themselves from years of conservative dress and gendered expectations when it came to sexuality. As well, Anti-Thatcherism became the punk movement, which embraced deliberately offensive t-shirts, leather jackets, BDSM-inspired clothing, and body piercings to oppose the status quo and promote anarchy.

Of course, fashion can also be used for evil. Some of the most infamous politically-charged styles in history come courtesy of the Third Reich. An entire style of moustache has remained taboo for over half a century due to its association with Hitler. Fashion was a core part of Nazi propaganda; they knew tailored uniforms would exude power and command respect, while Hitler discouraged women from wearing fancy dresses or excessive makeup so their true “Aryan beauty” could shine through.

After Hitler’s regime fell, it was looked down upon and even illegal to express Nazi sentiments. So white supremacists created a new uniform: the white hood and robe that bolstered their fearsome image while making sure their identities remained hidden.

However, recent events in Charlottesville and across the Western world show Neo-Nazis have ditched the white robes of their fathers for a stark new look. White supremacists today look less like loathsome villains and more like the harmless accountant who lives next door. Clothing items of choice include Fred Perry polos, khakis, and button-up shirts. Their hairstyle of choice? A clean high-and-tight cut.

There was even an incident where Neo-Nazis tried to claim New Balance, purveyor of “dad shoes,” as their own. Things took a dark turn for the brand when a white supremacist blog declared them the “official shoes of white people” and encouraged like-minded readers to buy them. Luckily for the brand, a quick PR response that disavowed the endorsement saved them from becoming the next Fred Perry.

This drastic image makeover didn’t happen by accident. Before the Charlottesville protests, the founder of popular hate site The Daily Stormer unleashed a tirade of fashion advice for the big day. He encouraged supporters to looking “appealing,” “sexy,” and “hip.” He only got more specific from there, sounding more like a GQ columnist than a Neo-Nazi leader: “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.” He also encouraged followers to go to the gym, trim their beards, and cut their hair.

This wasn’t just for the sake of vanity; Neo-Nazi leaders have an agenda and know they need fashion to achieve it. He continued, “We need to be extremely conscious of what we look like, and how we present ourselves. That matters more than our ideas. If that is sad to you, I’m sorry, but that is just human nature.”

The problem is while Neo-Nazis may look more harmless than ever, they’re actually more dangerous. For decades their style choices made it clear they were on the fringe of society. Now, they aim to be the norm. By blending in, they can make their beliefs seem more mainstream than they actually are and lend an air of respectability to their otherwise completely unrespectable ideas.

It also isn’t lost on them that it’s important – especially in America – to be associated with business culture and success. It’s so ingrained in the population that clean-shaven, well-dressed men must also be successful, wealthy, and powerful, that vulnerable people feel inclined to follow in their footsteps based on that image alone. They’re projecting the image of the American Dream.

Now, even mainstream media is calling Neo-Nazis they profile “dapper” (Mother Jones), “trim and athletic,” (The Guardian) and “disarmingly wholesome” (The New Yorker). These are words one uses to describe the sartorially-inclined; not a group of white supremacists. This successful rebranding not only makes members of the Alt-Right look cool, but also attractive. When Neo-Nazis appear desirable and eroticized, lonely and disenfranchised men (their target audience) begin to look up to them. If they join the movement, they too will be attractive and desirable. This sort of coverage is one of the movement’s most subtle, yet powerful, recruiting tools.

As news becomes increasingly visual, it’s never been more important to be not just politically literate, but fashion literate. The leaders of the white supremacist movement certainly are, and are counting on their ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ turned ‘Nazi in rich man’s polo’ strategy to make them seem less scary and more normal– the scariest thing of all.