Image Credit: Charles Roffey (Flickr)
Over the past few weeks, Portland has seen violent demonstrations across the city from a group known as the Proud Boys. The alt-right organisation, classified as an extremist group by the FBI in 2018, have assembled like a bigoted version of the Avengers to unite against the ‘Antifa threat’ and supposed erosion of American values. Donning body armour and carrying baseball bats, assaulting journalists and abusing bystanders, this organisation has descended on Portland like a small militia, holding rallies, marching the streets and preaching their hateful ideologies of racism, misogyny and white supremacy to a devout group of followers.
The uniform that unites them? The humble British Fred Perry polo. Launched in the early 50s, the iconic Fred Perry polo has seen many iterations and endured many trends and movements, not all positive. Sure, the shirt may be a staple of diverse British culture, having been worn by mods, Jamaican rude boys, NorthernSoul clubbers, first wave punks, Brit-pop kids and Amy Winehouse, but it’s almost 70 year run has also seen it become the uniform of fascists, hooligans and now the Proud Boys. This isn’t the only brand to have seen this appropriation. Brands like Burberry and Stone Island have seen their image adopted by hooligans and far-right movements since the 1990s. Even Lonsdale became a favourite of German neo-nazis who would scratch off the logo to read ‘NSDA’ - a contraction of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the Nazi party for short. Admittedly, their response of sponsoring dozens of gay pride events across Europe to cut facist ties, was a stroke of genius.
In a similar effort to combat these associations, Fred Perry have discontinued the sale of their iconic black and gold tipped polo in the US and vocally come out against the ProudBoys. A statement from the brand argues that what the group stands for ‘is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with’ and that in the 65 years it’s been around, the laurel wreath has come to represent ‘inclusivity, diversity and independence’.
There’s a lot of truth to that.The beauty of the Fred Perry shirt is that it’s always been for everyone, regardless of race, class or gender, and has been adopted by subcultures across the world. It’s always been the uniform of a diverse collection of people and, particularly in the UK, has strong connections to the reggae, two tone and ska movements of the 60s and 70s. By championing the outsiders, the subcultures and the fringe movements, Fred Perry built up a reputation of being a proudly diverse and inclusive brand. Promoting black models and black designers, collaborating with LGBTQ artists and retaining a proudly working class aesthetic, the brand has never been scared to push for diversity and for change, even using their platform to promote and give voice to thousands of musicians and artists from a wide range of backgrounds. The Proud Boys are disregarding all of that heritage and all of those values, co-opting the image for their own militia uniforms.
The past few years have seen alt-right groups co-opt whole swathes of popular culture for their own ideologies, from memes to The Matrix, and adopt various symbols and media as part of their hateful messages. This appropriation of Fred Perry’s laurel wreath is the latest example of this- subverting all the inclusive values the brand stands for, and turning into the uniform of reactionary, disenfranchised fascists.
As a man with far too much Fred Perry in his wardrobe, this whole situation has thrown up a few questions and anxieties. Over the past week I’ve found myself moving polo shirts to the back of my cupboard because I didn’t want to see any association between myself and the Proud Boys. I became overly conscious of what people would now see when they see that logo. But then I realised that I was missing the point.
I’ve grown up seeing Fred Perry sported by black British music legends, queer icons and the first time I ever went to a Pride event, I wore a lavender Fred Perry polo (with matching nails of course). From photo shoots with exclusively black models, collaborations with LGBTQ and BAME artists and designers and strong working class roots, Fred Perry have always championed diversity, individuality and unity. To bin all those laurel wreaths, all those legacies associated with them, because a small group of neo-fascists like the look of a polo shirt is missing the point of what the shirt, the company and the culture stand for.
By taking this symbol, something as simple as an embroidered laurel, and subverting it for their militia style uniforms, the Proud Boys are rejecting everything that Fred Perry represents, and forging dangerous new connotations. To some people, arguing over a polo shirt might seem a little trivial and insane. But for what this company, legacy and logo means to me and many others, it’s something worth fighting for.
The alt-right have co-opted enough of our culture, let's not let them take our polo shirts.