Hidden hate in clothing: Decoding the symbols and the brands

Investigation discovers popular retailer selling clothing appealing to far right

MAITLAND, Fla. – If there is a singular, universal symbol of hate common to many Americans, it is the hooded uniforms of the Ku Klux Klan. According to the Anti-Defamation League, it was the second founding of the KKK, around 1915, that established the familiar look of flowing robes and pointed hoods. The uniform was chosen because it symbolized both intimidation and secrecy.

Fast-forward to 2017.

During last summer's Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, there were Klansmen along with members of other "alt-right," far-right, Southern nationalists and white nationalist groups, including Vanguard America and the League of the South.

Klansmen, and women, were spotted in hooded robes in Charlottesville, but a majority of the demonstrators wore T-shirts or knit shirts, jeans or khakis. The images were startling, not for their controversy, but instead for their simplicity and their hidden messages.

"That was very deliberate, very much a call to action to look normal, to look kind of respectable," said Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist from American University. "There is an effort to mainstream the aesthetics of the far right and to make it more appealing and more palatable to consumers."

Miller-Idriss is the author of "The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization of Far Right Youth Culture in Germany." The book is a culmination of decades of research originally focused on the identity of German youth. But, about nine years ago, Miller-Idriss noticed a pattern: the clothing of the "alt-right" was moving away from intimidation and more toward inclusion.

By toning down their appearance, instead of drawing attention to it, Miller-Idriss said skinheads "could avoid some of the stigma" in certain places, such as work or school.

Miller-Idriss believes that spotting the new look of the far right comes in degrees. There are a number of categories of clothing in which hate can be represented.

Co-opting, edginess, support and hidden messages

One of the most common adaptations of hate clothing is when groups attempt to take over a look or a brand, but the manufacturers want nothing to do with the group's politics or beliefs.

"Brands can get co-opted because they have coincidental symbolic resonance with the far-right scene," Miller-Idriss said.

Several co-opted brands include:

  • Fred Perry polo shirts: Long worn by rebellious teens in England in the 1960s and 1970s, the shirts were later adopted by skinheads and neo-Nazis. Fred Perry chairman John Flynn told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., "No, we don't support the ideals or the group that you speak of. It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with."
  • Lonsdale clothing company: The British clothing company has the unfortunate luck of being co-opted because of their name. The middle four letters of its name are N-S-D-A. The five letter acronym NSDAP stands for German for Hitler's Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, what Westerners commonly refer to as the Nazi Party. "This 'NSDA' is pure coincidence," Lonsdale Germany press spokesperson Ralf Elfering told the German news agency Deutsche Welle in 2014. "It's important for us to clearly position the brand in opposition to right-wing extremism and racism."
  • New Balance sneakers: Just days after President Trump took office, prominent far-right blogger Andrew Anglin declared New Balance "the official shoes of white people." The post was in response to New Balance's support of Trump's opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. New Balance, which publicly stated that it was "the only major company that still makes athletic shoes in the United States," was forced to issue a second statement that said, in part, that the company "does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form."

A second category of hate clothing is edginess. Miller-Idriss describes this as "brands that have produced products over time that end up being controversial." These include the brands Urban Outfitters (one online article lists 15 controversial items the company has produced) and Boy London.

"Boy brand ... used iconography similar to the Nazi eagle clutching onto a wreath," Miller-Idriss said. "That's kind of a deliberately edgy choice."

The third category for hate clothing is brands that support the far right. At the top of that list is Thor Steinar, a label that has been banned from being worn in some parts of Germany because of its open support of the far right.

On first glance, Thor Steinar clothing looks similar to many other trendy designs. But some of their graphics contain such key words as "brotherhood" and "rebel." One design found online at a popular retailer has an adaptation of the Confederate flag.

Thor Steinar has storefronts in Europe and Russia, but none in the U.S. Some of its products, however, are available online, through Amazon.com.

"I am not surprised that you can find articles of clothing like this on Amazon," said Ben Friedman, the director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando in Maitland. "They have millions of products. So it's not surprising something like this slips in."

WEB EXTRA: Conversation with local leader in Jewish community about far right

Along with Thor Steinar clothing, we found a number of other controversial items listed on Amazon. One T-shirt we found had the words "Support Your Local White Boy" emblazoned across the front. That may sound not very politically correct, but the T-shirt also has the numbers 14 and 88 in the listing description as well as on the shirt.

The number 14 refers to the "14 Words," a popular white supremacist slogan coined by David Lane, a white supremacist serving a 190-year prison sentence for bank robberies and the murder of Jewish talk show host Alan Berg. The number 88 is a widely known abbreviation in the far-right community for "Hail, Hitler" or "Heil, Hitler."

An Amazon.com policy webpage states:

"Listings for items that Amazon deems offensive are prohibited on Amazon.com.

"Amazon reserves the right to determine the appropriateness of listings on its site, and remove any listing at any time."

Amazon wouldn't tell us exactly how it determines what items it deems offensive, but questionable items can slip through the cracks.

Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, put together "Hate on Display," a database of symbols frequently used by white supremacist groups.

Using the ADL database, we found a number of controversial listings on Amazon, including a cardigan in four different colors with a clear image of Hitler on the back. The item was offered by Clifton, a third-party seller.

Another third-party seller, Ye Olde Shirt Shop, had a number of hate T-shirts, including one with the words "Keep Calm and Love Nazi," "It's a Nazi Thing" and "It's an AKIA Thing." AKIA is an acronym commonly used among members of the KKK and stands for "A Klansman I Am."

We also found a costume labeled "Reinhard Heydrich Uniform" listed on the site. Heydrich was the main architect of the Holocaust.

"The reason why an SS uniform is so offensive to the Jewish community is that it carries with it a weight of veneration," Friedman said. "There's really no reason why something like that would be publicly available unless it was in support of that ideology."

When News 6 asked Amazon for comment about the specifics of how the company determines what and what isn't offensive, the listing of the Thor Steinar clothing and other items we discuss in this story, we were told:

"We don't have comment on this beyond our policy."

When we checked several hours before our newscast, listings for the Nazi shirts, the "Support Your Local White Boy" T-shirt and the Hitler cardigans were no longer available on Amazon's website. Thor Steinar clothing and the Reinhard Heydrich uniform, however, were still being offered.

Ye Olde Shirt Shop did not respond to our inquiry about its products.

About the Author:

Donovan is WKMG-TV's executive producer of digital enterprise