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In a post-election fashion landscape teeming with exaggerated, expressive, dementedly outre and purposefully ugly shapes and patterns, a wholesome, cleanly drawn American icon has made a surprising comeback over the past few seasons.
Behold: The Snoopyssaince.
Thanks to A Charlie Brown Christmas and the characters’ perpetual presence on Hallmark cards, Charles Schulz and his Peanuts crew have never quite evaporated from the American conscious since the cartoon’s creation in 1950, but Snoopy is having an undeniable moment in designer fashion and streetwear right now. The character — as well as Charlie Brown, Pig-Pen, Lucy, and others from the larger Peanuts universe — has been prominently featured in recent high fashion and streetwear campaigns from Gucci, KAWS, Huf, Supreme, and others. Vans has maintained a relationship with Peanuts since a 1983 sneaker collaboration celebrating the opening of Camp Snoopy at Knott’s Berry Farm, and the skatewear brand also released a well-received and well-publicized collection over the summer, with plans for another drop in October.
To be sure, the Peanuts brand has done hundreds of collaborations in the last few decades — a roving exhibit called “Snoopy and Belle in Fashion,” featuring dozens of miniature commissions from some of the most popular and high-end designers in the world, has been ongoing since 1984. But the sheer density of Snoopy in 2017 — which, as of 2016, also includes a Snoopy-centric Schulz Museum in Tokyo — feels meaningful, almost at odds with the other darker currents of contemporary pop culture in 2017.
So why Snoopy? And why now?
A few small factors point to a wider, more existential explanation. In a sense, the whole wave began with one particular trend — the increased demand for workwear, bomber jackets, and other military-style apparel. This trend elevated a certain niche of Snoopy-decorated, Vietnam War-seasoned vintage gear — military jackets with bootleg, anti-war Flying Ace patches, for instance — that would have never have gotten the green light from Schulz or his family. (For a collaboration to see the light of day, it must be approved by Creative Associates, the LLC formed by Schulz’ family trust).
While one of the staples of the British streetwear brand TSPTR’s line is tasteful updates to the coveted, Peanuts-plastered Spruce sportswear sweats of the 1960s (a line also notably updated by the Japanese brand Ware-House), TSPTR’s most striking and fashion-forward pieces draw inspiration from Snoopy’s unexpected role in the Vietnam War and the modified military apparel it inspired.
“The grunts on the ground of course identified with the underdog Charlie Brown most of all,” writes TSPTR head designer Russ Gater via email from London. “Both he and Snoopy appeared on many unofficial unit insignia, in-country made patches, helmet art, and Zippo lighters, often exclaiming their vehement disapproval on being shipped halfway around the world to fight someone else’s war.” Disgruntled recreations of Snoopy became something like a proto-meme, and Gater capitalizes on this tension. Many of Gater’s jackets feature Snoopy’s Flying Ace persona, which soldiers utilized and adapted throughout the war as an anti-war icon.
To Gater, pushing the Vietnam War element in his designs served a couple of important purposes: first, to push Western brands toward what he thought were important hallmarks of the Peanuts franchise while building off of the franchise’s face-value fame in Japan. But Gater’s line also pays tribute to Schulz’ decades-long rendering of Charlie Brown and Snoopy as emotional figures, relatable anti-heroes who had to appeal to the widest range possible through the lens of his strip.
“What something like The Simpsons learned from Peanuts is that the narrative must work on numerous levels,” writes Gater. “It must be as engaging to a child as an adult, [and] Peanuts is filled with double entendre and subversive messages. The onus is really on the reader to bring enough to the table to understand.”
Though the bomber and military jacket trend has accelerated the recent prominence and prevalence of Peanuts, the trend — even an incarnation with as much to unpack as this one — only begins to shed light on the massiveness of the monolithic Snoopy and how he’s deployed in apparel.
“I'm always surprised how the Peanuts characters, Snoopy in particular, can adapt to any trend,” says Liz Brinkley, the executive brand director at Peanuts Worldwide. “We can translate any trend, if it's camo, if it's neon... our style guide is broken into ‘classic’ and ‘vintage,’ and most of the high fashion brands tend to lean toward the vintage. What's interesting is that we can tap into the trends and it never feels contrived.”
The novelty of what Snoopy is, fundamentally, plays a role in how a collaborator will utilize a Peanuts character in a design. Though Peanuts Worldwide does the initial outreach to a potential collaborator, Peanuts employees working on a collaboration often find that designers, even at the biggest houses, don’t really want to change the characters’ appearances much, if at all. (Gucci’s recent line, notably, features straightforward depictions of Snoopy and Woodstock.) While some memorable collections have occurred featuring more minor characters featured in Peanuts — my favorite being a particularly saucy Huf line built around Snoopy’s rail-thin loner brother, Spike, the Hunter S. Thompson of the Peanuts universe — most brands stick to the layered and charismatic Snoopy, who Gater likens to “the cocky annoying guy you know that’s great at everything.”
Everyone who works on or around the Peanuts brand cites Snoopy’s singular appeal and chameleonic nature for the success of any collaboration. “Even though [Snoopy] is a widely licensed character, people don’t look at Snoopy the same as a Disney character. They don’t feel like they’re wearing an advertisement,” says Melissa Menta, director of marketing at Peanuts Worldwide. The thing that has amazed Menta in decades of work with the brand is the emotional connection to Peanuts all the corporate partners always seem to have — one high-ranking PR executive at 20th Century Fox openly sobbed during The Peanuts Movie credits at the world premiere, dismayed that her work with the brand had come to an end.
“That’s why Sparky [Charles Schulz’ nickname] was ahead of his time. Peanuts is a little like social media. There’s 18,000 strips. It’s very unusual for only one person to have created, and it’s a body of work that speaks on every human emotion that has ever existed for humanity.”
Throughout the strip’s life, Schulz worked his best to remain as neutral, and as audience-inclusive, as possible. While Schulz eventually developed an anti-war stance on Vietnam, partially owing to his own history in the Army as a staff sergeant serving in Germany in WWII, the cartoon’s wholesomeness and connection to un-politicized human stories has been central to Peanuts’ enduring appeal. However, the American political climate — and how the political climate has informed the more “going-for-it,” outre looks of 2017 — is the very tide that has led to Snoopy’s resurgence.
“We did a content survey of social media, because we thought the true test of a brand was, ‘Do people use it to express themselves online in various ways?’” says Paige Braddock, the executive VP/creative director at Creative Associates, as well as a lead on the Schulz family’s approval team. “What they found was that the only brand used more was Star Wars.” (Star Wars is about fascism). “They said that the reason behind that was Peanuts expresses angst, frustration, and anger.”
As most diagnoses of American pop culture and fashion in 2017, the conversation turned to the American political climate.
“While Melissa and Liz [from Peanuts Worldwide] might not agree, there was a period of time, the ’90s and the early 2000s, where everything was politically correct,” says Braddock. “Mothers didn’t want their kids calling each other ‘blockhead’ or ‘stupid,’ so Peanuts fell out of fashion a little bit.
“Now that the era of political correctness is over, people are drawn back to the honesty of Peanuts and how the characters express themselves.”
The characters of Snoopy and Peanuts will never truly leave the global imagination — the brand has built up too much value, over 60 years of near-ubiquity, to ever truly go away. But the latest surge of popularity in the fashion world illustrates Peanuts’ true lasting appeal. As fashion brands strive to illuminate more emotionally charged looks, the characters of Peanuts have achieved a status few brands ever do by becoming go-to avatars of human expression.