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The Political Messaging of RNC Fashion

Sometimes nonsense, always meaningful.

A surprising number of fashion statements were made outside the Republican National Convention last week. Aside from the obvious deluge of red, white, and blue, the visual stimulation ranged from buttons and hats to apolitical bodysuits—and one repurposed Captain America outfit.


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Visitors wearing khaki shorts and sneakers mixed with exhibitionists in costumes in a way that recalled Times Square in the summer, or Disney World. Instead of actors in Mickey Mouse and Spiderman suits, there was a man in a "Make America Great Again" hat slumped against a pole, playing a trumpet in dismal, stuttering fits. Another guy, dressed in a blonde wig and smeared lipstick, toted around a guitar and a poster board reading "Kick My Baby 4 Trump."

"I really don't understand that one," a woman said to her companion, eyeing the so-called baby, a tattooed man without a shirt.

"Kick My Baby 4 Trump."

In Cleveland's Public Square, one of the areas around the Quicken Loans Arena open to uncredentialed RNC attendees, Donald Trump supporters commingled with lone protesters, organized groups, journalists, and police officers, some brought in from as far away as Florida to bolster Ohio's own force.

"This is probably the biggest event that the city has seen in a long time, and I'm just out here to have a good time. It's like a party out here," said an upbeat 22-year-old named Kevin, who lives in the neighboring city of Lakewood and was a John Kasich supporter before converting to a Trump fan.

On Wednesday morning, he was dressed in a shirt that read "Someone Love Me in Liberia" and carried a rifle with a little American flag stuck down the barrel.

Kevin, a Trump supporter.

Depending on where you looked, the vibe ranged from cheerful to willfully peaceful or aggressively proud. In the afternoon, a group of men rolled into the square wearing shirts reading "Love God, Hate Sin" and "Muhammed Is In Hell." They assembled on a cement bench holding banners that stated in all caps: "AIDS: Judgment or Cure?" and "Jesus Is Angry With You Sinners."

Nancy Peetru, an older woman from Cleveland, sat on a lawn chair at the edge of the action, wearing a faded American flag shirt and holding up a sign that said "Embrace Diversity." Her sister, Bonnie Liss, sat beside her with a Bernie Sanders sticker adhered discretely to the hip of her blue jeans.

"She won't let me hold a Bernie sign standing here because she really wants everyone to feel welcome, which is great," said Liss, who has backed Hillary Clinton since Sanders dropped out of the race.

"We can all have different opinions and still respect each other as human beings," Peetru explained. "Right now I'm very scared by the hate that seems to be percolating in America."

Bonnie Liss, a former Bernie fan.

Like Peetru, a cartoonist named Vishavjit Singh advocated for tolerance while decked out in red, white, and blue—a sartorial bridge, perhaps, to the star spangled Trump supporters outside the convention. His look was a Captain America suit and turban, a getup that originated as an illustration he did for New York's ComiCon a few years ago.

Singh explained that people tend to make assumptions about him when he's out of costume—that he's from abroad, or Muslim (Singh, who lives in Harlem, is Sikh)—and sometimes call him names like "ISIS" or "Osama bin Laden."

Vishavjit Sing in his Captain America outfit.
But in his Captain America outfit, which he paired with a sign reading "Let's kick some intolerant ass with compassion," people tend to engage with him in a more positive way.

"I've been embraced by people from every walk of life," Singh said of his time at the convention. "Hardcore Republicans and police officers have been taking photographs, getting in conversations—'What are you doing here? Why don't you like Donald Trump?'"

"I'm independent, and my issue really is with a lot of the rise in intolerance and bigotry that's happening, stemming from the Republican party, and really from Donald Trump, so my vote is the anti-Trump vote," he added.

Americana on display at the RNC.

Some Americana-clad Trump fans' styling philosophy seemed to be as simple as gathering as many items printed with stars, stripes, flags, eagles, and fireworks as possible, and putting them on all at once.

Ann-Marie Villicana, a delegate from California, wore a red Trump t-shirt and a navy blue "Make America Great Again" hat decorated with a miniature flag, corkscrew streamers, and buttons ("I Love Capitalism," read one). She'd been updating it every day of the convention.

"I've never seen so much red, white, and blue in my life," said Ted Rall, a left-leaning cartoonist who was selling graphic novels on the sidewalk. "It reminds me what an unhappy color combination it is. After Trump's elected, it'll be white, red, and black."

Rall, for his part, wore sneakers in case any sort of violence broke out and he had to bolt.

Restraint existed among some Trump supporters, though: one woman simply wore a blouse printed with elephants, a fistful of credential tags dangling from her neck.

Doug, in a green suit.

Late in the afternoon on Wednesday, a young guy named Doug hung out with a friend in Public Square, dressed in a bright green body suit with a fake parrot perched on his shoulder. He'd poached the look from the comedian Eric André, who's been known to wear it out on the street for his television show.

"I'm just here to have fun and enjoy the convention," Doug said. "It seems like it's been a zoo out here lately, with people making all these public statements and jokes, so I just thought I would fuck around and see what trouble I could get into. Legal trouble."

When clothing is one way to express your views, what does it mean to spend the afternoon dicking around a major political event in green spandex, or talking to people about tolerance while wearing a skintight superhero suit? Is it nonsense pageantry or does it represent something more serious?

Looking at the full ecosystem of Trump's RNC, it's a clear mix of both.

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