You’re Wearing That?

You’re Wearing That?

In February of this year, Urban Outfitters began selling a tapestry covered with faded gray stripes and adorned with pink triangles. It didn’t take long for customers to notice that the tapestry looked “eerily reminiscent” of the uniforms and badges that the Nazis required gay men wear during the Holocaust.

This is not the first time that Urban Outfitters has caused outrage with its offensive, history-themed items. In September 2014, the retailer advertised a “vintage find” in the form of a Kent State University sweatshirt that looked as if it was stained with blood. (The company denied, of course, that the shirt had anything to do with the 1970 shooting at Kent State, which resulted in the deaths of four students and injuries to nine others.) In 2012, Urban Outfitters was blasted for selling a yellow t-shirt that featured what appeared to be a Star of David on the breast. And then there’s the 2012 “Navajo” merchandise line, featuring everything from women’s underwear to flasks decorated in patterns that were knocked off from Navajo tribal art. This line also included the tastefully named “Peace Treaty Feather Necklace.

And of course, let’s not forget that Urban Outfitters is not alone in its history of selling clothing that is both history-themed and offensive. Gap famously advertised a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “MANIFEST DESTINY” across the chest in the fall of 2012. Just in January of this year, Reddit users discovered t-shirts being sold on Etsy and eBay that featured the complete text of Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. Even Kanye West got in on the action, selling t-shirts and other memorabilia adorned with the Confederate battle flag as well as skeletons wearing Native American war bonnets and jewelry.

Detail of an advertisement for the Gap-GQ clothing line including the "Manifest Destiny" t-shirt. Learn more about "Manifest Destiny" at the National History Education Clearinghouse. (Gap)
Detail of an advertisement for the Gap-GQ clothing line including the “Manifest Destiny” t-shirt. Learn more about “Manifest Destiny” at the National History Education Clearinghouse. (Gap)

How is it possible that these clothing items make it through dozens of design and marketing meetings without a single person saying, “Hey, folks, does this seem, I don’t know, problematic to anyone?” Were they, as many have suggested, simply attempts to be provocative for free PR? Or is it possible that these clothing items are a real reflection of how ignorant many Americans are of history, and the lasting implications of the visual reminders of that history? The answer is probably a complex combination of explanations. I also think that it betrays an insidious truth about privilege among young white Americans. These garments reveal how young whites believe their liberal politics somehow make them incapable of being racist or offensive – even when they use items that are unmistakably inappropriate – because they are wearing them out of irony. The reality is a young white liberal wearing a “MANIFEST DESTINY” t-shirt and a war bonnet is just as racist as anyone else wearing it.

Another thing that bothers me about all these problematic history-themed items — why is it so hard to get some really great history t-shirts? Why can’t Gap sell comfy yet cute t-shirts celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment, or maybe one with a stylized Frederick Douglass on the front? Maybe Urban Outfitters pajamas decorated with historically accurate highlights of Lewis & Clark’s journey through the American West? What awesome history merchandise would you like to see?

Sarah Handley-Cousins is an Assistant Teaching Professor at the University at Buffalo. She is author of Bodies in Blue: Disability in the Civil War North (UGA, 2019) and a producer of Dig: A History Podcast.