The look is decidedly torqued-up Americana. Camouflage, ammo vests, animal pelts, flags and fury signal a tribal patriotism bubbling beneath the surface ready to be unleashed. When rioters dressed to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, they escalated the visual language of Trumpism that has been simmering for years.
By now, we’ve all seen the pictures from the insurrection, as for many normal clothes gave way to costumes. One rioter came dressed as Abraham Lincoln, another as George Washington. Maskless faces were covered in red, white and blue warpaint; shirtless men draped themselves in fur. Then there were the hats. Horned headdresses, cowboy hats aplenty and the ubiquitous red baseball cap. Some wore tactical gear; others, street clothes with an identifying MAGA badge.
The sartorial statement of the rioters was expansive in its palette, but in the end, they all were a part of the same thing.
Fashion pundits like The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman have suggested that the rioters came dressed with a “license for mayhem.” However, their costumes reveal something deeper than chaos ― an American impulse for connection, camaraderie and heroic adventure.
Chloe Chapin, a cultural historian in the American Studies program at Harvard University whose scholarship focuses on fashion and in particular, masculinity and the emergence of the tuxedo, suggested that “as a costume designer, you have to find the humanity in the characters you dress.” She told HuffPost the same principle can be applied here. “That influences how I ask questions about why people wear what they wear.”
The function of clothing to convey an instant and visceral message about identity politics can be explained by a handful of sociological theories, from Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital to Sandra Lee Bartky’s notion of power dressing. Erving Goffman discusses the notion of “sign vehicles” to explain the presentation of the self in everyday life. Michel Foucault frames the body as a locus of power in a social world governed by omniscient surveillance. Emile Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, argues that all social conventions exist because they serve a purpose.
Suffice it to say: the clothes we don, even if we reject the fashion system, are not arbitrary at all.
But what does it all mean? And further, why would paramilitary groups choose garments that make them more identifiable to the opposition rather than less? The answer has a complicated and historical legacy.
Fashion historian Stephanie Sporn told HuffPost, “In centuries past, people were much more clothing and textile literate. They had to be, as fabric and dyes could be extremely expensive and reserved for certain classes.” Indeed, sumptuary laws span centuries and cultures. “Clothing and textiles were often included in peoples’ records and wills, much like fine jewelry today, illustrating clothing’s monetary value and ability to serve as cultural capital,” she said.
For fashion historians like Sporn, there’s tremendous value in unpacking the symbology of dress. “Dress in portraiture tends to be extremely intentional and symbolic,” she said. “Not only can it reveal so much about the sitter to art historians, but details as small as a certain type of pleat or sleeve could also be enough to date an artwork.”
But even an untrained eye can tell the difference between clothing and costume.
“We’re always telling stories with our clothing. You can’t escape it, so you might as well tune into what you’re saying.”
“Costumes and clothing do the same work, but costumes do it in a more conscious and explicit way,” said Fixup founder Sandra Goldmark, an expert in design and the circular economy. “When I get dressed in the morning, I perform my role as a college professor. What I’m trying to convey to the world and myself is that I’m competent and reliable,” she said. “But when I put on a costume, [the message] is so much more deliberate. It’s taking this thing I do unconsciously and turning up the volume to make a point.”
Goldmark, also an associate professor of professional practice at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she teaches design, argued that there’s no such thing as neutral dressing. Every choice communicates something. “We’re always telling stories with our clothing,” she said. “You can’t escape it, so you might as well tune into what you’re saying.”
Costumes communicate myriad things, Goldmark added. “The three big ones are gender, group membership and occupation or task,” she said, and that often these goals intersect.
Since Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016, “the visual language of Trumpism has been so consistent,” she said. “The gender performance by the Trump campaign was about a return to what they were depicting as traditional gender roles. You saw women in high heels, jewel-toned dresses, long wavy hair.”
Goldmark added that “one thing that always struck me as a [fashion] incongruence in terms of a look, was the image of Trump in a suit and baseball cap.” But the message, seemingly a “mixed metaphor,” was actually a purposeful statement on masculinity, embracing a fraternity of sorts, she said.
Chapin called the red baseball cap Trump’s “Joe the Plumber move,” and a “prop,” or “bogus” statement about class to diffuse the elitism signaled by his suit.
Goldmark said, “At the rallies you’d look out and see a sea of red MAGA hats, and it became very clear that the caps were a tool of the group associating.” In sum, the gender uniform of Trumpism is, according to Goldmark, “very binary, leaving little room for ambiguity.”
The Capitol riot continued this theme of binary gendered dressing but, she added, “in terms of masculinity, it was like someone stuck their finger in the socket. The fur, the horns, the spears — things with straps and buckles and camouflage — those are big statements about masculinity.”
Indeed, the transition from the suit and red baseball cap seemed to explode into a more primal expression of masculinity. Goldmark explained this by pointing to the group’s goal: “The task at hand was to reclaim liberty. Might makes right.”
“Something that all human beings do is reassure themselves that they’re part of a group by wearing some sort of a uniform. ... [The wearers] are calling out to their brothers in arms.”
If that message sounds like familiar alt-right speak, it’s because it is. Costumes are a potent vehicle for group identification. The idea is simple enough. Art historian Anne Higonnet told HuffPost, “Something that all human beings do is reassure themselves that they’re part of a group by wearing some sort of a uniform.”
The mark that it’s a uniform can be really small, she said, like a badge, a visor or cap, but it’s explicitly identifiable. Chapin added that once something has been “adopted as a uniform, [the wearers] are calling out to their brothers in arms.”
Here’s where things get tricky. The siege of the Capitol, which resulted in the deaths of five people, “reminded me that all paramilitary groups are keen on establishing a visual group identity,” Higonnet said. “Even though in the end, it can work against them because it makes them so easy to identify.”
Higonnet, who teaches a course called “Clothing” at Barnard College, went on to explain: “In Renaissance Italy, the different lords had retinues, or entourages of violent followers who loved to wear identifying emblems and badges. In the French Revolution, there were a number of political groups who became known by pieces of clothing.” Such a group with notable sartorial acclaim was the Sans-Culottes, who wore particularly long pants, rejecting traditional breeches.
Daniel Benkendorf, associate professor of psychology at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology whose scholarship is concentrated on the intersection of social and consumer psychology, told HuffPost that he was reminded of enclothed cognition theory by how the rioters dressed to storm the Capitol. Benkendorf explained the idea as twofold: “When we put on clothes, we are affected by the way the clothing feels, but also by its symbolic meaning.”
He added that this meaning offers context for how we should behave. In other words, the style of dress provides a prescription for the behavior that follows.
To further explain this social impulse, Higonnet brought up the work of Georg Simmel, the German sociologist who published the paper “Fashion” in 1895. Simmel noted that when it comes to dressing, humans are controlled by two impulses. The first binds us to a group we admire, and the second is to distinguish us from a group we detest.
“There are two ideas of his that are key here,” Higonnet said. “Clothing is about abstracting us in ways that make us alike. When you all wear the same badge or cap, you’re letting yourself be abstracted into a part of the group. You want that.”
The second idea speaks to explaining the impulse to identify themselves at risk to their personal safety. “When the rioters took selfies,” she said, “what they were taking photos of is not their faces that would get them caught by the FBI, but rather the exceptional adventure identity of the moment of history they were participating in.”
“We long for a heroic escape from the ordinary. We dress the part to show ourselves that we’re doing something heroic and brave that’s going to change our lives.”
The idea of group adventure, for better or worse, is so palpable it overrides the rational. “We long for a heroic escape from the ordinary,” Higonnet said. Subsequently, “We dress the part to show ourselves that we’re doing something heroic and brave that’s going to change our lives.”
But the drive to unpack style of dress is ultimately one that seeks cultural understanding. As Chapin suggested, “It’s a deeply human quest.”
Benkendorf reiterated that the lesson to take is that “people reveal a lot about themselves and who they are” through dress, and that clothing can be an important predictor of behavior. “The general sense that fashion is trivial is deeply misguided,” he said.