why white supremacists are co-opting khaki pants
Fashion’s blandest trousers are a staple of the new alt-right.
Photography The Washington Post/Getty Images
Khakis have always been marketed as everyman pants. In pop culture, they are dad pants. When the clothing brand Haggar launched a line of "wrinkle-free" khaki pants in the 1990s, to try and break Dockers's stronghold on the business-casual trouser market, it enlisted America's then-favorite TV dad, John Goodman, to voice its TV spots.
"I'm just a guy, and I don't have time to think about what I wear, because I've got a lot of important guy things to do," Goodman intones, semi-ironically, over a visual of a 30-something white man putting on khakis in his middle-class home.
"The concept was 'Make it approachable,'" Richard Silverstein, a partner in the advertising agency behind the Haggar commercials told The New Yorker in 1997. But if the campaign's surface-level message was that khaki pants are the pants of everyday guys, its subtext could easily be interpreted as khaki pants are the pants of heterosexual, stereotypically masculine white guys. Goodman's voice-over also supplies this definition of the average Haggar khaki wearer: "I am not in touch with my inner child. I don't read poetry, and I'm not politically correct."
While the line may have felt irreverent in the 1990s, it feels eerily prescient in the summer of 2017, after white supremacists marched across a college campus in Charlottesville shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans in polo shirts and khaki pants.
In the leadup to the Unite the Right rally on August 11, neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, who runs the hate site the Daily Stormer, put out a call for white supremacists attending the march to look "appealing" in an effort to attract "normal" people. "Do not look scraggly," he emphasized, after providing a detailed dress code that recommended button-up shirts and well-cut pants (strictly no shorts). He ended his PSA:
"I cannot stress the point hard enough – I'm hitting italics again – we need to be extremely conscious of what we look like, and how we present ourselves. That matters more than our ideas. If that is sad to you, I'm sorry, but that is just human nature. If people see a bunch of mismatched overweight slobs, they are not going to care what they are saying."
Many marchers interpreted this brief by wearing polo shirts and khakis, the most notoriously "appealing" and "normal" pants that $25 can buy. (Dockers even famously once advertised their khakis with a campaign called "Nice Pants.") Reporting on the rally often emphasized white supremacists' clothing, pointing out that they seemed to have swapped out hoods and cloaks for frat boy staples.
Historian Kelly Baker, author of the book Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK's Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, points out that dressing to look respectable is not a new tactic for white supremacist groups.
"The alt-right now, you see them in khakis and polo shirts and it's very much a strategy that white nationalists started to adopt around the 90s," she explains. "David Duke realized that white supremacists weren't going to be taken seriously if they looked like stereotypical neo-Nazis with buzzcuts and visible tattoos. Part of what he called for was an attempt to make them look like young Republicans in nice clothes. The rhetoric would stay the same, the ideas would stay the same, but the package would be different."
She points out, too, that this tactic goes even further back: in photographs of Klansmen from the 1920s, smart-casual pants and shoes are visible beneath their robes. "The White Citizens' Council in the 50s and 60s were also white men in suits who were very purposefully trying to distance themselves from what they consider other forms of white supremacy," she adds. "They were trying to make themselves respectable."
What could be more "respectable" than the pants nearly every president since JFK has golfed in?
The white supremacist movement that began getting mainstream media coverage in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election embodies a new wave of what Baker calls "suit-and-tie racism, as opposed to hood-and-robe racism." In several major magazine profiles from 2016, journalists seemed surprised by the "chic" styling and "hipster haircut" of Richard Spencer, one of the movement's most prominent leaders.
"The way clothes coded respectability was kind of confusing to reporters, I guess," suggests Baker, who wrote an op-ed on the subject for the New York Times. "As if the journalists involved kind of expected white supremacists to not be wearing suits, and khakis, and polos — and that they'd be wearing hoods and robes, or would look like neo-Nazis. I think part of it is this stereotype we have of white supremacists that if they're wearing clothing it's a uniform. People were used to looking at them and looking for a uniform."
The portrayal of neo-Nazis in Hollywood movies has not helped. In real life, white supremacists are less likely to advertise themselves with "SKINHEAD" neck tattoos, as Russell Crowe does in Romper Stomper. "They're working against an image from something like American History X," says Baker of the new alt-right, alluding to Edward Norton's swastika-emblazoned chest (something that would perhaps embarrass members of the new alt-right). "The conscious choice to perform middle-class respectability is, I think, key to this movement," Baker concludes.
Khakis serve a secondary purpose, too. Wearing clothes that many other American men wear makes it more difficult to identify who is, and who is not part of the movement. See: the young white supremacist in Charlottesville who removed his polo shirt — but kept on his khaki shorts — in an attempt to blend in with the counter-protest crowds. He probably would have been successful if a reporter hadn't caught him mid-shirt-removal. Khakis' blandness and ubiquity make them a powerful camouflage.
Khakis are clothing of the mainstream, not of skinhead separatism: they project a legitimacy that Trump indirectly endorsed in his comments after Charlottesville, when he attempted to make this formerly fringe movement sound palatable. He spoke of "very fine" people on both sides of the violence in Charlottesville, and endorsed white supremacists' right to protect their "heritage" in the form of Confederate monuments.
Khaki pants themselves have politically charged origins. And the fabric's military associations help lend some semblance of order and rigor to the new alt-tight.
Khaki, strictly speaking, is a color. The word means "soil-colored" in Hindustani and was first used to describe the tan twill fabric adopted by the Corps of Guides, a regiment of the British Indian Army, in 1846. The British Army later prescribed khaki uniforms for troops on all of its colonial campaigns. Including the notoriously brutal Second Boer War, during which British troops became known as "khakis" because of their gear. Since that war, a UK election held during wartime is often referred to as a "khaki election." Khaki's ties to colonialism and the military run deep. (Khaki pants became popular among US civilians after World War II.)
In May of this year, Nigel Farage, former leader of the British nationalist UKIP party, vowed that if Britain's exit from the European Union didn't happen promptly, he would "don khaki, pick up a rifle, and head for the front lines."
Even pre-Charlottesville, khaki had some "politically incorrect" chapters in its history — as that John Goodman commercial inadvertently underlined.
Most chillingly though, as a GQ article about white supremacy's new uniform pointed out, Nazi propaganda posters from the 1930s also showed men wearing polo shirts and khaki pants. The clothes' goal seems the same: to project an aura of wholesomeness and legitimate industry. The khaki pants don't hide the fact, though, that in one poster a man is using a pitchfork to push aside what appear to be Jewish and black people.
The clothes and their purpose in these posters are a frightening echo of those seen at Charlottesville. Unlike Klan robes or Nazi uniforms, khakis seem to be a symbol of assimilation not necessarily of extremism, which is even more concerning.
Kelly Baker says she gets nervous when coverage gushes about white supremacists' clothing, "Like, 'Oh, he's wearing Ray-Bans and a pea coat.' I'm like, 'Yes, but he also wants a white ethno-state.'"
"We really should focus on the things they're saying," she continues, "The idea that they want to create an all-white state, and the inferiority that they claim non-white people have. There's a way in which the packaging really does distract us from the really scary stuff."
But now, white supremacists are wearing the same pants as your dad. "We are you," is the message marchers were trying to send. Even Obama plays golf in tan pants. Khakis have been weaponized by the alt-right in an effort to amplify Trump's message that there are "very fine people on both sides."