Jul 14, 2017

Fred Perry, Proud Boys, and the Semiotics of Fashion

By Anya Simonian / hamptoninstitution.org
Fred Perry, Proud Boys, and the Semiotics of Fashion
The Fred Perry polo was originally utilized within subcultures as "an appropriation of neat, middle-class style that turned middle-class values on their heads." This tennis shirt, worn by traditional & anti-racist, working-class skinheads, became a symbol of solidarity and a new kind of "class."

Over the past week the Proud Boys, a self-described "Western chauvinist" organization whose members are tired of apologizing for "creating the modern world", have garnered media attention. Along with the disruption of an Aboriginal ceremony in Halifax by Proud Boy servicemen, the group is gaining notoriety for clashes with anti-fascist (Antifa) activists. Additionally, the Proud Boys have been involved with so-called anti-Sharia rallies . In New York, two Proud Boys and one "Proud Boys Girl" recently parted ways with their employers after their involvement with the alt-right group came to light and a social media campaign demanded the businesses take action. Proud Boys have degrees of membership. To become a "Fourth Degree" Proud Boy, aspiring members must attack a leftist. As their founder Gavin McInnes explained : "You...kick the crap out of an antifa and possibly get arrested" to rise through the Proud Boy ranks.

Much Proud Boy media coverage has mentioned, in passing, the group's "uniform": a black Fred Perry polo shirt with bright yellow trim. The Washington Post's recent article, "The alt-right's Proud Boys love Fred Perry polo shirts. The feeling is not mutual" went further in its attempts to explain why Proud Boys have adopted a shirt that, at first glance, seems best suited for white middle-class dads out for a round of golf or game of tennis, quoting Zoë Beery's piece in The Outline, " How Fred Perry Came to Symbolize Hate ". While both articles offer an overview of the shirt's popularity among Mod and traditional Skinhead subculturists and its eventual cooptation by racist skinheads and neo-Nazis, neither emphasizes the degree to which the brand has long served as a site of political contest between the radical left and the far-right. Since the early 1980s, attempts to associate the brand with right-wing politics have been met with resistance from two main camps: 1.) anti-racist skinheads and 2.) "traditional" (non-racist) skinheads -- both of whom refuse to cede the meaning of the Fred Perry brand to the far-right in the same way that one might fight for the liberation of an occupied space.

The word skinhead most often conjures up images of white hooligans, or a particular aesthetic adopted by neo-Nazis. Yet, what it means to be a skinhead has changed over time. Periodizing skinhead culture is challenging but, broadly speaking, it can be broken down into three eras: the middle to late 1960s period of apolitical, multi-racial working class youth; the late 1980s period of White Nationalist cooptation of the skinhead aesthetic and overtly anti-racist and left-wing skinhead political responses to that cooptation; and the period from the late 1980s to the present, in which the meaning of the skinhead culture and aesthetic is continually contested.

Skinhead Origins

In the late 1960s, the first skinhead subculturists were born of multiculturalism: the fusion of Jamaican "rude boy" styles and music brought to England by Jamaican immigrants in the post-war years, and the working class culture of the English Mods (short for Modernists) who decked themselves out in fine Italian suits and shoes, listened to American soul, jazz, and R&B, and rode Vespa scooters. Mod women sported miniskirts, flats, and sometimes men's clothing. Skinhead style emerged in Britain in the late 1960s as a simplified version of the Mod aesthetic that placed greater emphasis on projecting working class masculinity and a love of Jamaican reggae and ska.


Social scientists took note of these subcultures and worked to explain their meaning in relation to a changing post-war Britain. The seminal work on subculture studies to which all later studies pay homage, or attempt to refute, is Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain,edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. Published in 1976, Resistance Through Rituals, as well as the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) from which the work emerged, understood youth subculture in Marxian terms as a manifestation of social, political, and economic change. The historical context for the CCCS interpretation was the post-war period of the 1950s that saw the rise of commercial television, age specific schools, and extended education that brought youth together for longer, more isolated periods of time. Adding to these challenges were the recent violence of war and more fatherless children as a result of war deaths. These factors contributed to the making of an isolated, and later unique subculture of resistance.

Drawing from Italian Marxist theorist Antionio Gramsci, a driving foundational assumption of Resistance Through Rituals is that one or more dominant groups in society hold "cultural capital" and subordinate groups or classes find ways to express or challenge their subordinate experience in their own culture. This dominant culture, according to the CCCS, exists solely within the framework of capitalism, whereas the struggle for "cultural capital" becomes a struggle between those with capital versus those who labor. The dominant culture acts as a hegemon and attempts to define and contain all other cultures, giving birth to opposition from less dominant cultures against this cultural hegemony. Although the less dominant culture (i.e. the subculture) enters into resistance against the dominant culture, the subculture is in fact derived from the "parent," or hegemonic culture, and will inevitably share many of its attributes. For example, working-class culture is considered by the editors of Resistance Through Rituals to be a "parent culture," yet the youth subcultures that arose from it have their own values, uses of material culture (which are often derived from the parent culture but are re-appropriated and given new meaning), as well as territorial spaces. The Fred Perry represents both an appropriation of the parent culture and a territorial "space" where politics play out.

The editors of Resistance Through Rituals write:

Sub-cultures, then, must first be related to the 'parent cultures' of which they are a sub-set. But, subcultures must also be analysed in terms of their relation to the dominant culture - the overall disposition of cultural power in the society as a whole. Thus, we may distinguish respectable, 'rough', delinquent and the criminal subcultures within working class culture: but we may also say that, though they differ amongst themselves, they all derive in the first instance from a 'working class parent culture': hence, they are all subordinate subcultures, in relation to the dominant middle-class or bourgeois culture. [1]


From this angle, Resistance Through Ritual examines the predecessors of the skinheads -- the Mod subculture of the 1960s which, in its most basic terms, consisted of dressing sharp in the latest high fashion (but only wearing particular high fashion brands, often stemming from styles of those involved in organized crime in 1950s and 60s Britain), hairstyles, soul and rock n' roll music, all-night clubs, riding Vespa scooters, and taking amphetamines. The Mod was all about style, and this sharp style, combined with the "uppers" they took, were cast by the CCCS in terms of opposition to the hippie culture of the day that to many Mods seemed to spell a slow, do-nothing death. This seemingly odd combination of interests was explained in terms of working-class resistance by Dick Hebdige in his contribution to Resistance Through Rituals, "The Meaning of Mod":

The importance of style to the mods can never be overstressed - Mod was pure, unadulterated STYLE, the essence of style. In order to project style it became necessary first to appropriate the commodity, then to redefine its use and value and finally to relocate its meaning within a totally different context. This pattern, which amounted to the semantic rearrangement of those components of the objective world which the mod style required, was repeated at every level of the mod experience and served to preserve a part at least of the mod's private dimension against the passive consumer role it seemed in its later phases ready to adopt...

Thus the scooter, a formerly ultra-respectable means of transport was appropriated and converted into a weapon and a symbol of solidarity. Thus pills, medically diagnosed for the treatment of neuroses, were appropriated and used as an end-in-themselves, and the negative evaluations of their capabilities imposed by school and work were substituted by a positive assessment of their personal credentials in the world of play (i.e. the same qualities which were assessed negatively by their daytime controllers - e.g. laziness, arrogance, vanity etc. - were positively defined by themselves and their peers in leisure time). [2]

As mentioned above, the skinheads were born from a combination of Jamaican immigrant "rude boy" culture and Mod subculture. Originating in the middle to late 1960s, the skinheads were of solidly working-class origin and resented authority and social pretensions. The skinhead community developed at a time of worsening conditions for working-class youth, and the CCCS interpreted this subculture as an attempt to recreate a traditional working-class community. Although the skinheads came from the working class, fewer opportunities meant that they almost acted out or performed working-class values rather than lived them. The early skinheads were intensely aware of their self-image and played up their exaggerated working-class style. They wore Doc Marten work boots, suspenders and blue jeans or Levis Sta-Prest jeans as a way to identify with this style and lifestyle in decline. Yet, they coupled this look with Ben Sherman button down dress shirts and Fred Perry tennis shirts -- a scaled down Mod look -- in an appropriation of neat middle-class style that turned middle-class values on their heads. This tennis shirt, worn by working-class skinheads, became a symbol of solidarity and a new kind of "class."

At clubs in the evenings the skinheads would often wear suits like those of the Jamaica "rude boys" and dance alongside Jamaicans to Rock Steady and ska music. Anti-racist and traditional skinheads -- sometimes dubbed Trojan Skinheads for their love of Trojan Records, producers of Jamaican music -- look back on this period as a golden age for their subculture. The phrase "Spirit of 69'" which originated in the 1980s is used by traditional/Trojan skinheads as a reference point for what skinhead culture can and should be about: inclusion, racial harmony, and a multicultural celebration of working class culture. Naturally, the CCCS interpreted skinhead solidarity as an act of resistance to a hegemonic order and its particular characteristics felt by working-class kids coming of age in the post-war years. By the 1970s, however, this variety of the skinhead subculture had largely faded away, but elements of it would be revived, in bastardized form, in the following decade.

Within the early skinhead subculture there had always existed a focus on masculinity, or acting "hard" in order project an "authentic" working-class ethos. This masculinity was expressed in the skinhead interest in soccer and the joining of "firms," or soccer clubs that rooted for their favorite teams and often used violence against opposing firms. The "firm" was also an expression of the desire to protect territory and, most importantly, an expression of collective solidarity. With the introduction and quick commodification of punk rock in the late 1970s, a second wave of skinheads was born. These skinheads, connected to the punk scene rather than the ska, Rock Steady, or reggae scenes of their predecessors, still aped working-class style while sporting the Fred Perry brand, yet their music was Oi -- a more aggressive, simplified version of punk that could never go mainstream. Non-racist bands like Cock Sparrer, The 4-Skins, The Last Resort, Sham69, and The Cockney Rejects led the way.

While this second wave of skinheads was at first largely apolitical, their penchant for soccer hooliganism made them prime recruits for England's far-right National Front. The Young National Front (YNF) began to recruit second wave skinheads at soccer matches, appealing to skinhead working-class sensibilities by scapegoating immigrants for the decline of the white working class. By 1979, the YNF had established Rock Against Communism, a music festival featuring white nationalist bands. In subsequent years neo-Nazi bands like Skrewdriver would bring hundreds of disaffected youth into the National Front. Along with this came the adoption of a new skinhead aesthetic that included the traditional Fred Perry or Ben Sherman shirt and Doc Marten boots, but added to it a paramilitary edge that included flight jackets, larger boots, more closely cropped hair, and symbols of white nationalism. This bastardization of the aesthetic and its coupling with far-right politics made its way to the United States in the 1980s.

Anti-racist and traditionalist responses to the aesthetic and political hijacking of the original "Spirit of 69'" skinhead subculture were swift. As historian Timothy S. Brown put it:

Reacting against this trend-which they considered a bastardization of the original skinhead style-numbers of skins began to stress the cultivation of the "original" look, making fashion, like music, a litmus test for authenticity. Violators of the proper codes were not skinheads, but "bald punks," a category to which racists-who, in the eyes of purists, failed completely to understand what the subculture was about-were likely to belong. The connection between right-wing politics and "inauthentic" modes of dress was personified in the figure of the "bone head," a glue-sniffing, bald-headed supporter of the extreme right, sporting facial tattoos, a union-jack T-shirt, and "the highest boots possible." Although the emphasis on correct style was not explicitly political, it grew-like insistence on the subculture's black musical roots-out of a concern with the authentic sources of skinhead identity. As such, it was heavily associated with the attempts of left-wing and so-called "unpolitical" skins to "take back" the subculture from the radical right in the early 1980s. [3]

In an effort to "take back" the subculture and its symbols from the radical right, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) was founded in New York City in 1987. Although anti-racist skinheads and left-wing anti-racist skinhead bands like England's The Oppressed had challenged the far right through song and protest, SHARP represented the first attempt to organize skinheads as a multiracial movement against racist, right-wing "boneheads." SHARP's logo was, in part, the logo for Trojan Records, producers of the Rock Steady and ska music so beloved by those first wave British skinheads. In fashion, SHARP emphasized a return to the early styles of skinhead dress, and sought to reclaim the Fred Perry brand (among others) as a symbol of multiculturalism, working-class pride, and the early skinhead subculture in general. As SHARP spread throughout Europe its growth, at times, led to violent clashes with white nationalist skinheads. The Oppressed led the charge in Great Britain, performing confrontational Oi music that pitted the group and its followers firmly against their racist opposition. For example, in their simple four chord song "I Don't Wanna," singer Roddy Moreno belts:

I don't need no bigotry

I know where I'm from

I don't need no racial hate

To help me sing my song

I don't wanna make a stand

But what else can I do?

I don't wanna be like you

Don't wanna fight your race war

Don't wanna bang your drum

I don't wanna be like you

Don't wanna live like scum

The Oppressed associated themselves with groups like Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) and wrote anthems like "The AFA Song" meant to inspire the skinhead left in its fight against the right -- a fight that often resulted in street battles between rival skinhead factions in Europe:

We don't carry shotguns

We don't carry chains

We only carry hatchets

To bury in your brains

So come on

Let's go

So come on

Let's go


In addition to overtly anti-racist organizations like SHARP, "traditional" or "Trojan" skinheads in the 1980s and 1990s avoided the political question altogether and instead simply decided to live the inclusive values found in the first wave skinhead movement while celebrating working-class pride coupled, at times, with an occasional soft patriotism. Other smaller groups like Red and Anarchist Skinheads (RASH) formed alongside SHARP that added a heavier dose of left-wing politics to SHARP's anti-racist stance.

Both groups have worn the Fred Perry and both have incorporated the laurel wreath symbol associated with the brand into album covers and traditional and anti-racist skinhead tattoos. The Fred Perry polo then, for them, is an object reclaimed, re-sanctified, and restored to its original meaning.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, echoes of these conflicts between left, traditional, and right-wing skinheads continued, though never quite reached the fever pitch the conflict had reached in the 1980s.

As we move further into this period of political and ideological polarization, brought on by capitalist crisis, we are seeing old partisan battles reignite. It is no surprise then that the Proud Boys have adopted such a politically-charged piece of clothing for their unofficial uniform. For those with an insiders' view of this decades-old culture war, the Proud Boys' adoption of the Fred Perry polo makes an unequivocal statement: we identify with the far-right uses of this brand. The adoption of the Fred Perry is not lost on Antifa, the Proud Boys' primary political opponents. Fashion, as one variety of symbol system, projects a clear political orientation for those able to "read" the language of what is signified by the brand. As anthropologist Edward Sapir pointed out: "The chief difficulty of understanding fashion in its apparent vagaries is the lack of exact knowledge of the … symbolisms attaching to forms, colors, textures, postures, and other expressive elements of a given cultures. The difficulty is appreciably increased by the fact that some of the expressive elements tend to have quite different symbolic references in different areas."

For those who have adopted or who understand the skinhead subculture in all its variegated forms, the Fred Perry, viewed in certain contexts, sends one of three messages: that one espouses white nationalist politics, far-left politics, or that one is a traditional skinhead who celebrates multiculturalism. For those in the latter two camps there has been a long-standing contest to wrest the symbols of the "Spirit of 69'" from the hands of those who would corrupt them. While "ownership" of a brand may seem trivial or ill conceived, this "ownership" embodies a struggle for agency, space, and the dominance of an ideology through appropriation of contested material culture.



[1] John Clarke, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts, "Subcultures, Class and Culture," inResistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, ed. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (London: Routledge, 1993), 7.

[2] Ibid, 76.

[3] Timothy S. Brown, "Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and "Nazi Rock" in England and Germany." Journal of Social History 38, no. 1 (2004): 157-78.

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