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Over the weekend, the country’s attention was focused in horror on Charlottesville, Virginia, where hundreds of young men bearing tiki torches swarmed the “Unite the Right” rally organized by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups. The protest was in response to the city’s plan to take down the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, but the mob spewed both racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, linking Jews and black Americans together when asserting white superiority, a practice that isn’t new.
After the deadly event, much of the bewilderment centered around how these days we are able to get a full, unobstructed look at the faces of racism. While they once hid under the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists now show their faces proudly, to the point where they can be openly identified on social media. As journalist Matt Thompson pointed out, “We used to whisper these thoughts, the new white supremacists suggest. But now we can say them out loud. The ‘Unite the Right’ rally wasn’t intended to be a Klan rally at all. It was a pride march.”
This new crop of white supremacists have chosen a very deliberate uniform. By and large, it is a preppy polo shirt and a pair of khakis. It’s an aesthetic that was popularized by Jews — one of the communities the rally was targeting, where protestors chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
The American prep uniform was first created by Brooks Brothers, founded in 1818. The brand was a favorite of upper-class men who belonged to elite institutions that systematically kept Jews out; exclusive clubs had “no Jew” policies, and Ivy League institutions like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale had quotas on how many Jewish students could be admitted, which lasted well into the 1960s.
Jewish immigrants in the United States often entered the garment trade, and in the late 1800s, Jewish designers in New England began perpetuating the preppy style, as the aesthetic had become sought-after. Soon, as Tablet Magazine reported back in 2012, among the biggest names were New Haven’s Weinreich’s (which opened in 1886 and sold custom suits), Arthur “Rosie” Rosenberg (who became known as the “Jewish King of the Custom Made Suits in New Haven”), and Jacobi Press (who started a suit and prep empire, J. Press, first on Yale University’s campus in 1863).
“By the 1920s, J. Press had become the choice tailor for everyone from Duke Ellington to Cary Grant,” Tablet writes. “Even though F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have shown up to military training wearing a Brooks Brothers suit, [grandson Richard] Press says the man responsible for one of America’s greatest novels was, in fact, a customer of his grandfather in the 1920s, and in a 1936 letter to his then-15-year-old daughter, Scotty, Fitzgerald cautioned the teenager to ‘beware of the wolves in their J. Pressed tweed.’ By the 1950s, the look was inescapable. The Jewish pedigree of this quintessentially American style is undeniable.”
Jewish people were making clothes for the very people discriminating against them. White Anglo-Saxon protestants used Jews to help them maintain their status through clothing while simultaneously shunning them from the schools, organizations, and workplaces that helped them maintain their power.
Following World War II, when the production of French fashion houses like Chanel and Dior was halted, American designers began rising to prominence. By the mid-1960s, Jewish-Americans like Hannah Golofski of Anne Klein and Ralph Lauren were building powerful empires predicated on the preppy look. They helped prep trickle down from the wealthy elites to mainstream consumers. In the decades that followed, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Kenneth Cole followed suit. The Official Preppy Handbook, published in 1980 during a time of prep resurgence, was written by a Jewish woman, Lisa Birnbach; while she wrote it as satire, it was taken as gospel by fans.
Ralph Lauren was, and still is, undoubtedly the most powerful force in preppy fashion. He started his career by making ties and selling them to classmates at New York’s Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy before getting formal training at Brooks Brothers. As fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes in The Atlantic, Lauren succeeded not by mingling with WASPs, but by “studying” them in “their natural habitat.” Born Ralph Lifshitz, the son of poor Jewish immigrants, he was an outsider who knew he could never truly join their world; instead, he had to create one of his own. “People ask how a Jewish kid from the Bronx does preppy clothes,” he has been quoted as saying. “Does it have to do with class and money? It has to do with dreams.” Lauren didn’t invent the polo shirt (that was actually the brainchild of tennis player Rene Lacoste in 1926), but he is largely credited with making it an American staple.
That today’s white supremacists have chosen the polo shirt is strategic. As Vice points out, The Daily Stormer instructed those en route to Charlottesville to dress to impress. “The core of marketing is aesthetic. We need to look appealing," wrote the site, which recently lost its domain host and has since moved to the dark web.
The white supremacists that gathered in Charlottesville shouted chants, as the Washington Post reported, that originated from Nazi Germany, “crafted to cast Jews as foreign interlopers who need to be expunged.” Some wore their respectable-looking polos shirts at the rally, while others wore shirts with Adolf Hitler quotes. Many displayed swastikas. White nationalist leader Chris Cantwell told Vice he was disappointed in Donald Trump for “giving his daughter to a Jew.” This was not an isolated incident. These people belong to groups that target Jewish journalists on Twitter, send hate mail to their homes, and intimidate synagogues.
That the polo shirt has become the uniform of white supremacy is jarring not only because it gives this group a look of polished normalcy, but also because the preppy aesthetic is tied up in the complicated history of what it means to be Jewish in America. There’s a certain irony here in that from pivoting from an anonymous white hood, white supremacists connect themselves to the cultures they seek to oppress. In Charlottesville, we saw this with polos and tiki torches; who knows what they will co-opt next.