Last week, film-maker and GQ correspondent CJ Hunt was in the middle of the Charlottesville ferocity when he recorded something extraordinary. A young man ran into give form. Separated from his supremacist clan, lost amidst the leftists, in consternation he whipped off his white polo shirt to stand semi-naked: “I’m not actually white power, man,” he shouts. “I’m just doing it for fun.” The message was definite. White polo shirt on = white power. White polo shirt off = common bloke.
At Charlottesville, many of the far-right turned up wearing a regalia of powder-white polo shirts, with jeans or chinos – an complete air of country club pomade was practically hanging in the air. Carrying their tiki torches they were assaulting to cultivate an aesthetic that could appear non-threatening, undisturbed aspirational.
The cornerstone of the look was the white polo shirt, and nothing with respect to that uniform was accidental. Before Charlottesville, Andrew Anglin, originator of the Daily Stormer (the American neo-Nazi and white supremacist website), released an edict: “We need to be extremely conscious of what we look akin to, and how we present ourselves.”
“A must-have in each wardrobe” understand the caption for a European Brotherhood polo shirt – available for €49 on the Always Stormer’s website, before it went offline. Other logos were close by, up to and including an Iron Cross.
Vanguard America, the organisation with which James Domains, the man accused of mowing down a crowd of anti-fascist protesters, was photographed, had already consciously over this polo shirt as its uniform. Fields didn’t be a member of to VA, but he was given one of its shields erroneously, simply because he was wearing a chalky polo shirt.
The relationship between the right and the polo shirt arguably initiated in the 1960s. The Mods were a working-class movement – rebelling against their origins by attiring sharper than their supposed betters. A sub-sect recognized as the Hard Mods emerged in 1966 – initially non-violent and non-political – and went on to take Fred Perry, polo shirt and all, as one of its labels of choice. In 1969, the Habitually Mirror gave them a new name: skinheads. When some of these men began being forceful towards Asians, newly arrived in the country, and hanging surrounding the British National Front in the 1970s, the association stuck.
Polo shirts haven’t everlastingly been so politicised – their origins are a little hazy, with some charging them to a polo club in Argentina in the late 19th century, where thespians found the traditional gear was too hot; others to British polo sportsmen in India in the 19th century. But it was French tennis player René Lacoste who placed a name for the collared shirt when he wore one to play in the US Unconditional in New York City in 1926. Bringing it to the US – complete with the crocodile logo his handle inspired – in 1952 through La Chemise Lacoste, the company he set up on his retirement from tennis.
Ralph Lauren original took polo shirts out of the sports cupboard and on to America’s terraces with his Polo label. Of course there is a huge irony in men in polo shirts chanting: “Jews settle upon never replace us” – Lauren, born Ralph Lifschitz, was the son of Jewish Belarussian arrivals.
He cleverly exploited the polo’s aspirational connotations, its WASPy causes in sports such as tennis, polo, sailing, golf – the feather that require a few acres of land or an ocean-going vessel to spotlight. The purity of his preppiness is entirely born out of a fantasy – Lauren’s own, fondest dream was to one day record that Cape Cod bourgeoisie. The same sense of exclusivity has put the oyster-white polo at the heart of Donald Trump’s golfing lookbook.
By the in 80s, hip-hop was also falling for Lauren’s preppy shirts, for various of the same reasons the British white working class had in the first place embraced them. The relaxed aspirational quality. “It expressed you had ready money,” Raekwon told XXL Magazine in a multi-part oral history of Polo in hip-hop. “It’s love when you think of that horse on your shirt, that horse symbolises them cats out there treatment polo.”
While the polo shirt as the go-to for cats on horses force now be old news, the idea of “good breeding” is still stitched sincere into its fabric. It’s safe. It’s simple. It’s normal. That was the despatch that the Charlottesville mobs have taken from it. They were in the problem of “normalising”, and while it might be bright white and well-ironed, it’s also a aloof bit of camouflage.