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How a Fred Perry Polo Went From Fashion Item to Far-Right Symbol

Despite the British brand's strong cultural legacy, it continues to be picked up by facist groups who oppose the brand's inclusiveness.
October 28, 2020, 9:30am
Fred Perry Proud Boys

The classic Fred Perry polo hasn’t changed much since its debut in the 1950s.

Launching first in white, then in a black-and-gold colour-way intended to subvert the classic Wimbledon white kit, Fred Perry has become part of British cultural history. It’s been worn by everyone from mods and rudeboys to indie kids and icons like Mike Skinner, Amy Winehouse and Skepta.

But for all of its cultural legacy, Fred Perry can’t seem to escape a periodic adoption by violent and/or facist groups, who have worn its leaf laurel polos since the 1960s. This includes the National Front, the EDL and, most recently, the Proud Boys, a men’s only neo-fascist organisation whose members have made the black and yellow polo their uniform, prompting Fred Perry to pull it from stores at the end of September.

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In a statement at the time, the brand said: “It is incredibly frustrating that this group has appropriated our black and yellow twin-tipped shirt and subverted our laurel wreath to their own ends. We are proud of its lineage and what the laurel wreath has represented for over 65 years: inclusivity, diversity and independence.”

Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes – who co-founded VICE, but left in 2008 and has had no affiliation with the company since then – once explained his aim in wearing the polo was to “align his group with the working-class toughness of the late-60s hard mods”.

Since Fred Perry began, its fanbase has been divided between people who love the style, grassroots music and alternative subcultures Fred Perry represents, and knuckleheads who want to boot your head in. How, throughout its 70-year history, has one brand been so vastly and regularly misappropriated?

The starting point is the skinhead culture of the 1960s. Having been a tennis uniform in the 50s, Fred Perry was adopted by early British skinheads, who were firmly anti-establishment.

“We aspired to tough guys on the estate and football hooligans,” says Symond Lawes, an actor and lifelong skinhead. “We were anti-school teachers, police… anyone who told us what to do, really.”

Back then, being a skinhead was about being inclusive and embracing your blue-collar upbringing, rather than kicking anyone’s head in.

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By the 1970s, that had changed. Far-right skinhead splinter groups emerged, making the skinhead term synonymous with neo-Nazism, fascism and xenophobia. The trouble is: both groups of skinheads – racist and anti-racist – had adopted the Fred Perry polo. Shane Meadows captures this tension in his movie and subsequent TV series This Is England, which depicts both far-right and right-on skinhead groups bombing around in Fred Perry clobber.

This 1970s dichotomy well and truly set in throughout the 1980s and 90s, as violent skinhead culture morphed into football terrace culture. On the one hand, you had crews of young, violent, Fred Perry-wearing football casuals, who became known for stamping rival firm members’ teeth into asphalt. On the other, you had artist folk like Damon Albarn, who’s such a huge Fred Perry fan he was asked to design a shirt for the brand’s 60th anniversary.

By the time the 2010s rolled around, Fred Perry had entered new territory: it was worn by the latest generation of indie fans and mod revivalists, and by Amy Winehouse in a number of iconic press shots. But despite this new reach, Fred Perry still couldn’t shake its association with the likes of Islamophobic street teams like the English Defence League or the Football Lads Alliance.

This brings us up to the Proud Boys. Unlike other groups who wore Fred Perry out of choice, the Proud Boys uniform has always specifically focused on the black polo with yellow tips – and there’s a potential reason for this beyond McInnes’ broad intentions of connecting with the working class.

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Jay McCauley Bowstead, a lecturer at London College of Fashion, explains that “black shirts are strongly associated with far-right paramilitarism and fascist violence – for example, Mussolini’s volunteer militia were known as the ‘Blackshirts’ after their uniforms”.

For a 36-year-old self-identified Proud Boy, who owns six black Fred Perry polos with yellow tips, the shirt simply – and somewhat confusingly – “[represents] a rejection of cancel culture”.

“Most American Proud Boys don't know the history of [Fred Perry] and could care less, but the shirt does represent something to us,” he explains.

Of course, it also represents something to anti-racist skinheads, some of whom are upset by Fred Perry’s decision to remove their black and yellow polo from sale. Symond Lawes sees the decision as Fred Perry allowing the Proud Boys to control the narrative of the shirt – a shirt he still owns and wears.

The crux of the issue is that, over time, the brand has come to mean very different things to very different people. “I've seen it worn in so many ways, I'm never surprised when a new group adopts it,” says Charles Athill, a lecturer at University of the Arts, London. “It is such an ideal piece of clothing to adopt.”

The problem, it would seem, is that Fred Perry created the perfect top for subcultural youth. It’s adaptable – casual yet smart, classic yet modern – and available in a ton of different colour-ways. Who wouldn’t want to wear it?

@RhysThomas