Selling Extremism: Nationalist Streetwear and the Rise of the Far Right

*This is an excerpt from an essay originally published by CNN Style on January 10, 2019. The full essay can be read here.

A member of the National Radical Camp (ONR) demonstrates against immigration in Warsaw, Poland wearing a hoodie from the brand Red is Bad. Credit: NurPhoto via Getty Images

The enduring image of the racist skinhead, with his signature shaved head, black combat boots and bomber jacket, has all but disappeared.

In its place is a fragmented set of mainstream styles and streetwear brands that use coded symbols and messages to market extremist politics, turning T-shirts and hoodies into walking billboards to communicate with insiders and outsiders alike. Especially popular across Eastern Europe and Russia, the clothing is often high-quality, with T-shirts alone costing upwards of $35.

In my interviews with 51 youth in and around far-right scenes in Germany (all of whom were apprentices in construction trades), I found that this clothing is far from just a reflection of youth identity. It also helps mobilize the far-right.

One way this happens is by opening access to certain far-right environments. One 16-year-old self-identified right-wing nationalist told me that clothing can act as a ticket to underground concerts and events where youth aren’t already known. The coded messages of their dress send signals to insiders.

Sometimes, alphanumeric sequences of numbers and letters stand in for racist or nationalist phrases. (“2YT4U,” for example, means “too white for you.”) Other coding deliberately plays on what’s called the “gray zone,” offering plausible deniability to law enforcement, teachers, parents and other authorities.

Nationalist streetwear is not the sole driver of radicalization, of course. But along with far-right music lyrics, internet forums, YouTube videos and political rhetoric from far-right leaders, clothing can intensify exposure to ideological claims. These brands encourage consumers to accept an ideology that positions us against them in a war to the end, valorizes violence as the moral solution and calls on individuals to join the righteous fight to restore the nation or white heritage.

T-shirts are more than just T-shirts, in other words. As part of a broader youth subculture, they can strengthen racist and nationalist identification and mobilize extremist action and violence.

Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a Senior Career Fellow and Head of Outreach at CARR. She is also the Professor of Education and Sociology at American University at Washington, D.C. Her profile can be found here.

© Cynthia Miller-Idriss. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

Click here to read the full essay on CNN Style.