In the alt-right’s murky ecosystem of players and affiliations, the Proud Boys are one of the more offbeat outfits to set up shop on conservatism’s right flank in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and election.
The self-described “Western chauvinist” men’s club brings a fratboy spin to the culture war: cooked up by right-wing provocateur and former Vice Media founder Gavin McInnes, Proud Boys espouse an “anti-political correctness, anti-racial guilt” agenda in “an age of globalism and multiculturalism,” according to the group’s Facebook page.
In practice, this has meant head-on street clashes with anti-fascist — antifa — protesters and other public confrontations, all the more visible because the Proud Boys sport a common uniform: black polo shirts trimmed in yellow stripes from the Fred Perry fashion label.
But the Proud Boys’ favorite clothing line isn’t returning the love. Last week, as the Proud Boys were mired in a controversy involving an incident in Canada, the British company’s chairman pushed back against the association. “No, we don’t support the ideals or the group that you speak of,” John Flynn told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in a statement. “It is counter to our beliefs and the people we work with.”
Fred Perry is far from the first company or brand to helplessly watch as its product is shoehorned into an extreme ideology. Earlier this year, neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin decided New Balance sneakers were the “Official Shoes of White People.” Eighties rockers Depeche Mode recoiled when white supremacist Richard Spencer dubbed them the “official band of the alt-right.” Dr. Martens’ boots have long been associated with the British skinhead movement, an underground that also first championed the Fred Perry polos.
Perry, a three-time Wimbledon champion tennis player who died in 1995, started his fashion brand in 1952. Beginning in the 1960s, the shirt was a centerpiece of mod fashion, the stylish counterculture-inspired dress of the 1960s and 1970s Britain. According to the Outline’s Zoe Beery, the popularity of Perry’s polo shirts in the British underground a decade later was tied to working-class provocation. Writes Beery: “Paired with work boots and tight jeans, Perry’s designs for the tennis court became a subversive dig at English elitism.”
Parts of the “hard mods” subculture were eventually were co-opted by the wave of white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups that sprung up in England following the election of Margaret Thatcher, according to Beery. The Perry polo also made the shift into these extremist skinheads groups, eventually arriving in America with the rest of the hate ideology. Today, the shirt is so heavily identified with the skinhead movement the Southern Poverty Law Center includes an entry on the Perry shirt in its racist skinhead glossary.
McInnes seems to recognize the symbolism bleeding through the Proud Boy uniform. It would fit with the larger Proud Boys playbook of tiptoeing down the line between free speech and extremism, provocation and insult. McInnes’s public career has been marked by controversial statements that have been blasted as both racist (calling Jada Pinkett Smith a “monkey actress”) and anti-Semitic (posting a video called “10 Things I Hate About Israel”).
The Proud Boys hold an equally incendiary worldview. In an introductory post about the group in September 2016, McInnes, wrote the basic tenet of the outfit was “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.” Initiation into the group is a process. The first degree is announcing you’re a Proud Boy. “This means you make your Western chauvinism public and you don’t care who knows it,” McInnes wrote.
The second degree involves taking a beating from five other Proud Boys until you can say the name of five breakfast cereal brands. This level also requires the initiate to give up masturbation. The third degree means you must get a “Proud Boy” tattoo. The fourth and final level requires the would-be Proud Boy to engage in “a major fight for the cause.” McInnes has explained: “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa.”
The Proud Boys are quick to slug back at any assertion their ideology is linked to white supremacy or neo-Nazi belief. McInnes points out gay and nonwhite men are welcome as long as they believe in the “The West is the Best” mantra. McInnes told the Outline’s Beery the Proud Boy Fred Perry uniform is not a nod to skinhead culture; rather, McInnes “wants to align his group with the working-class toughness of the late ’60s hard mods.”
But provocatively scrambling symbols is the whole Proud Boy modus operandi — as illustrated in the recent controversy in Canada. On Canada Day, five young men in the Proud Boy Perry polos disrupted an indigenous protest ceremony in Halifax. The men — who were later identified as members of the Canadian military, according to CBC News — left after a short exchange with protesters. The service members have since been taken off duty pending an investigation.
McInnes, wearing the Perry polo, defended the five Canadians in an interview with the CBC, where he offered misinformation about Canadian history and argued the Halifax incident was largely the work of “antifa and the alt-left.”
In the ensuring controversy, Fred Perry chairman Flynn commented on the group’s fixation with the company’s polo. Not only did the company head lay distance between his brand and far-right politics, he pointed out the very legacy of the line’s namesake is in opposition to Proud Boys ideology.
“Fred was born the son of a socialist MP [and] became world tennis champion at the time when tennis was an elitist sport,” Flynn told the CBC. “He started a business with a Jewish businessman from Eastern Europe. The brand was adopted by the mod movement and systematically has been associated with a diverse group of subcultures from reggae to punk to Brit pop.”
“It is a shame that we have to even answer the question.”
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