The Daily Heller: A Laundry List of Hate Shirts
With "Federal Agents" wearing military-style khaki camo field uniforms riding roughshod over demonstrators and "anarchists" on the streets of Portland (and who knows where they will be deployed next), this is an apt moment to reflect upon the practical and symbolic use of colored uniforms worn by paramilitary organizations. Khaki is not the only shade associated with political militias but it has been used often. The militarized forces now making arrests in Portland (police? militia? marshals? deputies? mercenaries? ICE?) are an ominous presence at best, and illegal force at worst.
Uniforms are designed to clearly distinguish the roles and, therefore, the behaviors of those who wear them. They combine branding, identity and information design; they distinguish friend from foe, protector from harasser. The color of a uniform (as well as emblems and insignia) is fraught with meaning and often belief.
Various colors of paramilitary uniforms—and especially shirts—have played a major role in hate-branding. The spectrum of military colors has a long, rich heritage; the color of uniforms also represents contemporary racism.
Take the Ku Klux Klan’s unmistakable “Glory Suit,” the white robe and sharply pointed hood with two ghostly cut-out eye holes that is the basic attire for self-proclaimed American racism. It is not known who originally designed it, but the conical hat, mask and robe appear to have drawn inspiration from Christian rituals in Spain, having been worn by such brotherhoods as the Nazarenos (the hat or capirote—which is similar to the dunce cap that was inspired by John Dun Scotus, a 14th-century Scottish theologian who used it as a sign of those who believed in outmoded doctrine—is also the symbol of the Catholic penitent). If you accept that white is the color of purity, then it fits the Klan’s protocols, but the KKK's whiteness is not the only color of racist ideology in the Americas.
In the early 20th century, a splinter group called the Black Legion (see the 1927 film Black Legion starring Humphrey Bogart) was founded as a security force called Black Guard (think of Hitler’s SS and their black uniforms) to provide protection for KKK leaders. The Michigan Legion was organized in the 1930s as a military hierarchy, purportedly with as many as 30,000 members in that state alone. Historically, there have been numerous styles of uniforms for violent fringe groups, sects and cults. Black was adopted for its metaphoric associations: the black death, the black hand, the black hat. Pirates used black for their flags. Black connotes power, death, mystery and secrecy (e.g., black ops, black hole).
Other colors signified similar insidious ideologies. Take the Redshirts, a white supremacist paramilitary group that originated in Mississippi in 1875 to violently oppose Reconstruction and operated in the South during the late 19th century as the fighting arm of the White League, which was determined to help white Democrats regain political power in the South. The red mockingly symbolized a bloody shirt that was waved in the U.S. Congress as a sign of resistance to Republican rule in the South. The red shirt also played a role in Europe where, known as the “Garibaldi jacket” or “Camicia Rossa,” it was the brand of Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, whose Redshirts were nationalists but not racists, and fought against Austrian rule of Italy. Obviously red had (and has) both positive and negative implications depending on who is wearing it.
Later in Italy, in 1923 Benito Mussolini formed the Voluntary Militia for National Security, or Blackshirts, the militia of the paramilitary National Fascist Party, which was comprised of nationalist intellectuals, former army officers and eventually violent rabble. The black shirt was also adopted by the Union of Fascists in the U.K., formed in 1932 by Sir Oswald Mosely. In Ireland during this time a nationalist/fascist group called The Army Comrades Association (also named Young Ireland) were known as the Blueshirts. They believed that their freedom of speech was being suppressed by the Republic, and began to provide security for their leaders. Another group known as Blueshirts was the paramilitary gang of Spain’s Fascist Falanage party that formed the resistance in Franco’s anti-democratic civil war. Blue was chosen for the uniforms because it was the same color as that of workers’ coveralls.
Back in the USA, the Silver Legion of America, commonly known as the Silver Shirts, was an American fascist movement based in Asheville, NC, and founded in 1933 by the supremacist William Dudley Pelley. That same year, as Hitler and his uniformed gang of thugs, the Brownshirts (the SA), assumed parliamentary power in Germany, the German American Bund marched through the streets of New York City in their brown shirts and grey jackets. That same year, a revolutionary right-wing Mexican gang, Accion Revolucionarira Mexicanista, adopted the name The Gold Shirts. It was founded by Nicolas Rodriquez Carrasco and named after Pancho Villa’s “golden” band of elite fighters. Their agenda was to deport Jews and Chinese from Mexico.
Color covers all shades on the political spectrum—left, right and center. But the ultra nationalist, white supremacist racist organizations, while not holding the monopoly on symbolic color, are most commonly referred by the color of their uniforms. So potent is this symbolic power of color that in Weimar Germany, in the early 1930s, the public display of Nazi Brownshirts—adopted because of an excessively inexpensive surplus from the Great War intended for colonial troops in Africa—was temporarily banned. In retaliation the Nazi stormtroopers opted not to wear shirts at all or wore white shirts at rallies and demonstrations until the official ban was eventually lifted. Never underestimate the power of color to send a clear or deliberately ambiguous (as with "Federal Agents" in Portland) signal.