A curious situation concerning Donald Trump’s beloved Proud Boys highlights several novel trends in US culture. A clothing supplier has expressed its consternation because of the public behavior by some of its paying customers. The story demonstrates how the quintessentially American science of branding has reached a new level of sophistication.
In an article with the title, “LGBT-owned kilt maker denounces kilt-clad Proud Boys,” the BBC reports the disgust of a Virginia kilt company with the fact “that their yellow kilts were worn by the far-right Proud Boys.” Most people would be surprised to learn that there are companies producing kilts in Virginia, but globalization and identity politics have produced all kinds of fascinating examples of what some might indignantly call cultural appropriation. So far, the Scots have not reacted to this incident, possibly because the American idea of cultural appropriation hasn’t yet penetrated their psyches.
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Allister Greenbrier, the owner of Verillas, proudly claims that his kilt company is “LGBTQ owned.” It has obviously become important to establish the sexual preferences of the owners of American enterprises. Greenbrier doesn’t require that his customers be LGBTQ, but he objects to the idea that paying customers might wear items from his collection in public while displaying views contrary to the values of his brand.
The BBC article explains an important feature of contemporary US culture that may not be evident to anyone not immersed in the culture, including the BBC’s British audience: “Extremist groups in the US often adopt or appropriate items of clothing as quasi-uniforms that indicate their allegiance and make them recognisable to others.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
Articles of clothing that, when worn by more than one person at a public event, identify the wearers as belonging to a particular cultural or ideological grouping, thereby creating the impression that the article has become the group’s, and not the manufacturer’s, brand.
For ages, the proverb existed in the English language that clothes don’t make the man. Apart from the fact that if anyone were to cite the proverb today, they would be obliged to make it gender-neutral, the idea behind the proverb appears to have disappeared and been replaced by its opposite. Today, clothes identify. If, in former times, the choice of apparel demonstrated class origins, in our evolved post-sexist society, a person wears the clothes (and body art) that advertise that individual’s social identity.
The owner of Verillas complained when he realized the Proud Boys were all wearing exactly the same kilts. The fact that it was the same kilt made it a quasi-uniform: “I was appalled, angry and frustrated because they are the opposite of everything our brand stands for.” Had each Proud Boy been wearing a different style kilt, Greenbrier probably would have thought more highly of them, respecting each individual as someone who displayed his personal “values.” It became an existential problem for Greenbrier when the entire group wore the same kilt. In the age of conspiracy theories, people might suspect collusion.
The reigning ideology is built on a basic premise of the consumer society, that what an individual does is meant to be an expression of personality and individuality. What a group does expresses allegiance to a worldview.
The borderline between a personal statement and wearing a uniform has become so vague that we can now categorize clothes as belonging to one of three categories: personal style, uniform (imposed by an institution) or quasi-uniform (adopted by members with shared identity). Clothing has always sent messages about social status, but now it has become an active vector of meaning in personal strategies of advertising. Behind the idea of quasi-uniform lies the conviction that all people belong to separate and possibly multiple categories of identity, which they are required to display in public. Whether it’s a kilt, a medieval tunic or tattoos, people increasingly feel impelled to wear their brands.
Like everything else in US culture, at some point, this cultural distinction becomes not just a political or ideological problem, but also an economic one. Greenbrier explains: “I can’t control who buys my product, but if they’re buying our product, they’re putting their money towards a good cause and I think they won’t be too happy when they find out they accidentally bought from a company that’s really fighting for the opposite of what they believe in.” Spending and the way one spends have become central to defining one’s relationships with others.
When, at the beginning of the 16th century, Renaissance princes and their courtiers rivaled amongst themselves to put on display their most expensive and sophisticated finery, England’s Lord Chancellor and humanist philosopher Thomas More offered his critique of the role of fashion in his famous work, “Utopia”: “Throughout the island they wear the same sort of clothes without any other distinction except what is necessary to distinguish the two sexes and the married and unmarried. The fashion never alters, and as it is neither disagreeable nor uneasy, so it is suited to the climate, and calculated both for their summers and winters. Every family makes their own clothes.”
More’s idea of dressing, not to impress, but to carry on one’s life as pragmatically as possible, was actually a sophisticated attempt to reconcile simplicity and the rejection of ostentation with freedom of personal expression. The latter would be the consequence of every family making its own clothes. Clothing would be neither a tool of self-advertising, as it was at the English court, nor a standardized uniform imposed by authority.
For the following five centuries, the ruling classes and the commercial classes that emerged subsequently in Europe blissfully ignored More’s advice. French King Louis XIV’s court pushed extravagance to an unparalleled extreme, partly as a strategic move to ensure that other aristocrats would follow rather than try to lead, but also to put pressure on their budgets, forcing them to invest in fashion rather than military capacity that might serve to overthrow royal authority. The uprising of La Fronde had made Louis fearful of revolt.
The bourgeois society that emerged in Europe in the 19th century discovered the value of permanently evolving fashions that stimulated demand over time from the same customers. Fashions themselves, combined with the new capacity for mass industrial production, induced entire populations to adopt conformist behaviors serving to affirm one’s status as a respectable consumer as well as advertise the emerging cultural notion of “being with it” or keeping up with the trends.
In America’s highly conformist consumer culture of the 1950s, the Beatniks initiated the counter-cultural movement and touted the theme of anti-conformism. But when most male beatniks grew long hair and beards, they were sometimes accused of being conformist themselves. With the hippies a decade later, the idea of personal expression based on chosen cultural signs — borrowed from cowboys, Native Americans, Asian religions and other exotic sources — came to dominate people’s ideas about the purpose of clothing as an expression of cultural values and identity.
The controversy about the kilts demonstrates how deeply ingrained all these contradictory instincts have become. Verillas appears willing to sacrifice revenue to defend the integrity of the brand’s association with one set of social values. That paradoxically appears to contradict the spirit of capitalism, where companies offer the same goods to all comers as they seek to exploit the full potential of the marketplace. But perhaps another principle is at work here, the factor of earned media. A story that can both make the news and serve to define a company’s social or moral identity is far more valuable than paid advertising.
The Verillas story includes an emotionally charged dramatic component: betrayal by one’s customers. But Verillas’ marketers undoubtedly realize that it serves very effectively to stir curiosity for its products from its targeted market segment. The company designed its image to appeal to proponents of the current vogue of identity culture associated with the left. Using an incident that highlights their opposition to a notorious right-wing movement is well worth sacrificing the income from the sale to bolster their brand identity. That kind of reasoning has become a quasi-uniform bit of marketing wisdom.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.