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The Far Right’s Secret Weapon: Fascist Fashion

Europe's flourishing niche industry is spreading to the U.S., offering shirts and paraphernalia featuring neo-Nazi symbols in less overt forms.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much out of the ordinary about them. A t-shirt showing a mountain and deer and the slogan “Respect Nature.” A black polo shirt with black, white, and red piping and a small circular logo. A sweater showing a child on a parent’s shoulders at a soccer match, holding up a supporter’s scarf, with “Keep the Tradition” underneath.

But look a bit closer. That symbol behind the deer? It’s a black sun, a common neo-Nazi symbol adapted from a floor mosaic in Heinrich Himmler’s SS Generals’ Hall. That logo on the polo shirt? It looks like a broken sun cross-style swastika. And the child on his parent’s back? He’s got the number 88 on their back—neo-Nazi code for “Heil Hitler.”

And there’s more where these came from. Far-right fashion in Europe has become a niche industry over the past decade. Brands big and small have given everyone from hardened neo-Nazis to young men flirting with the far-right subcultures a way to express themselves that doesn’t fit neatly into what many think a far-right extremist is supposed to look like.

But it’s hardly just about looking cool or tough, or playing coy little games with adults who aren’t well-versed in the subtleties of fascist symbolism; far-right fashion can help extremist devotees, especially young men, build a stronger sense of belonging and brotherhood, and even act as a gateway to radicalization. And those who have their eyes on the far-right fashion scene in Europe think the U.S. is next.

The examples described above are hardly one-offs. The French brand with the “Respect Nature” shirt also sells shirts with “HTLR” in block letters with the official SS motto underneath. The Italian creators of the black-white-red polo shirt also sell sweaters bearing the letters “WPWW,” for “White Pride World Wide.” And a Ukrainian store that sells the “Keep the Tradition” sweater is selling tickets for a neo-Nazi concert this summer featuring a band whose former guitar player murdered six people in a hate crime at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in 2012.

The last decade has seen a number of far-right fashion brands make a name for themselves among Europe’s far-right extremists. The most well-known of them, Germany’s Thor Steinar, has been marketing itself to the far right for years. The multimillion-dollar company, now based in Dubai, has shops across Germany and online that sell t-shirts, sweaters and jackets bearing Nordic-themed imagery popular among devotees of the far-right, but also slogans like “Save the White Continent.” Thor Steinar’s logo resembles a combination of two Nazi-era symbols, the T-rune and the Wolfsangel, that are themselves banned in Germany. The brand’s clothing is also banned in a number of German schools, soccer stadiums, and even in Germany’s lower house of parliament.

Wearing Thor Steinar or other far-right brands isn’t just about looking cool. Fashion, says New School sociologist Virag Molnar, is an important way for individuals in far-right groups, especially young men, to form their identities and make a statement to each other and to those outside the group.

“Using style to express and conspicuously display group identity and to make a political statement is integral to subcultures,” Molnar told me by email. What’s more, she adds, because members of far-right groups are often only infrequently connected face-to-face, with much of their interaction online, “their like-mindedness and shared values can be (visibly) expressed and experienced through consumption.”

There’s no shortage of relatively new far-right brands across Europe that cater to extremists. This is more than just an aesthetic issue, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist at American University, argues: The images and language on the far-right clothing Miller-Idriss has catalogued, including “desensitization to violence, valorization of violence, a dehumanization of victims…making fun of victims or playing on words,” actually “has the potential to socialize young people towards extremist ways of thinking,” she told me.

This “valorization of violence” is something that’s targeted specifically at young men. Even the way clothes are displayed on far-right fashion websites, she says, promotes a hyper-masculine, violent image, with often heavily-tattooed, overly muscular men modeling the clothes. Miller-Idriss found that many of the young men she interviewed used a uniquely German word to describe the brands and the kinds of young men who wore them—gewaltbereit, meaning ready for violence.

One way that the clothing socializes young men towards extremist thinking, according to Miller-Idriss, is through constant “playfulness” and game-playing with symbols. Even in countries with lax or no laws against wearing Nazi imagery in public, it’s still not the most socially acceptable thing to stroll around in public with a swastika t-shirt. But the same can’t be said for lesser-known symbols commonly used by white nationalists and neo-Nazis, for example the runic insignia once used by the SS.

This game is on full display if you browse some of these brands’ websites. One popular Ukrainian brand, Svastone—owned by a musician in a neo-Nazi band—features a logo that could be an oddly drawn diamond, or could be a truncated swastika. A popular Russian brand, White Rex—founded by a notorious Russian neo-Nazi soccer hooligan—sells a shirt with an array of bombs that, when you look more closely, form the number 88.

“You can’t see any swastikas or runes,” White Rex founder Denis Nikitin told a Norwegian newspaper in 2017. “They should be clothes that people are comfortable wearing around town and so that they can recognize each other.”

This kind of deliberate ambiguity—a “playfulness of potential interpretations,” Miller-Idriss calls it—isn’t just about skirting the lines between what’s socially acceptable or legal. “It gives them a sense of power,” says Miller-Idriss. “It’s important to understand emotionally, that it’s ‘getting one over on the adults.’”

It’s also, she said, “one of multiple access points or gateways into far-right extremist scenes.”

Fashion bleeds into many other activities of the far right. The Italian neo-fascist CasaPound movement has a clothing label that’s been called the “commercial rib of CasaPound,” helping finance some of its activities. Kiev-based Militant Zone not only sells t-shirts and CDs in a small shop just off the city’s main square, but organized a neo-Nazi concert in December 2018 that featured “Sieg Heil” chants and Hitler salutes.

Far-right fashion can also cross over into far-right violence. White Rex owner Denis Nikitin—also based in Kiev and working with the Azov movement—hosts far-right-linked mixed martial arts events across Europe where he promotes his White Rex brand and its openly white supremacist message; he also reportedly uses income from the brand to fund far-right groups. Nikitin has also met with members of the California-based white supremacist gang Rise Above Movement, whose leaders were arrested in 2018, and allegedly helped train far-right extremists in the UK.

Will far-right fashion catch on in the U.S. like it has in Europe? To go by the photos from some far-right rallies, it already has, at least to a limited extent. It’s certainly not hard for an American to order clothing from many of these European brands or shops online. Nor is the American far-right lacking for any sense of uniform fashion, as the Proud Boysco-opting of Fred Perry shirts make clear. And there’s surely no doubt that the United States could be a huge untapped market for European far-right brands.

U.S. far-right fashion culture, however, could prove both less subtle and harder to regulate.

American culture doesn’t have the closetful of native extremist symbols that European far-right fashionistas have at their disposal. A number of symbols employed by Europe far-right fashion brands, Molnar explained, “have been alternately used, embraced, tolerated, banned, later reconfigured and recycled by different regimes and have accumulated multiple layers of meaning.” It gives them an ability to play coy with symbols, like runes appropriated by the SS. Aside from symbols like the Confederate flag or the Gadsden “Don’t tread on me” flag, Molnar pointed out, there’s no well the American far-right can reach into to pull out similarly ambiguous or repurposed icons. In short, American symbols are more explicit, requiring less “decoding” to understand. The Klan hood is not exactly subtle. Instead, in the U.S., according to Miller-Idriss, most existing fashion that could be dubbed far right focuses on pro-veteran, pro-2nd-amendment and overtly Islamophobic themes.

The option often tried in Germany—banning far-right clothing brands—won’t work in most public places due to American free speech protections. Insofar as U.S. schools want to try it, though, there’s a pretty clear lesson from abroad: The bans on their own aren’t effective. “They can even backfire and increase the appeal of the far-right by making clothing and symbols a space for easy rebellion and anti-authoritarian expression,” Miller-Idriss said. What matters is the discussion: Many of the youth in Germany she interviewed where far-right brands like Thor Steinar were banned “did not understand why certain brands are banned”; to them “it just seemed like one more arbitrary rule to follow.” U.S. educators, she said, “need to be clear with students and parents about what their thinking is about banning, what values are being defended and why.”

Failing to have that conversation cedes ground to the far right by default. For, whether it’s a Ukrainian store selling a shirt with the SS’s Totenkopf (death’s head) and the logo of British neo-Nazi terror group Combat 18, or an Italian brand with a picture of a motorcycle and the words “BORN TO WIN: WHITE RACE,” or a Hungarian shirt with the words “Rise above democracy,” the brains behind Europe’s far-right fashion brands are perfectly clear about the kind of values they’re defending.