Cynthia Miller-Idriss is a sociologist at American University who became an accidental expert on the far right. It all started when she was studying vocational schools in Germany in the late 90s and early 00s. Initially, her intention was to explore how young Germans constructed their identity. The Berlin Wall had just fallen, unifying the country. But the nation was also on the verge of joining the European Union. During this time of cultural change, the far right was incredibly active. Due to the construction industry's high level of overlap with extreme politics, Miller-Idriss ended up spending an entire year watching teachers at one such vocational school try to save their pupils from becoming involved in right-wing crime.
Then, around 2009, when searching for a cover photo for what would later become her book Blood and Culture: Youth, Right-Wing Extremism, and National Belonging in Contemporary Germany, she fell in with a group of photographers who had been tracking the far right at public events. In studying their work, she noticed a pattern—something that she says constituted a huge aesthetic shift from the way these groups have operated since at least the 80s. Basically, she realized that somewhere along the line, skinheads had ceased to exist.
What's come to replace them is the subject of a new book by Miller-Idriss that hits shelves on February 12. The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization of Far Right Youth Culture in Germany is an exploration of the ways that fashion can serve as a gateway for young people who are flirting with racist ideology. And as its author explained to me, as those fashions come to the States, the book is also a roadmap for educators and others here who want to stop teens from falling in with hate groups. Here's what she and I talked about:
VICE: With the re-emergence of the far right, why don’t we see the classic skinhead aesthetic becoming popular again?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: The skinhead aesthetic originally emerged in the UK, and then it was adapted in the 80s and 90s. So it became kind of the dominant subcultural style for about two and a half decades. That’s kind of all you saw. It was a completely uniform style that was basically like an admission to the scene. Everyone knew you got a bomber jacket, and you got these combat boots, and you shaved your head. That was the entry point.
What we’ve seen over the past ten years or so in Europe and in the US is the complete breakdown of that aesthetic to what I call a fragmentation of the scene and of the aesthetic style. That just means there’s a lot of different subcultural styles that are reflective of far-right ideology and are deployed as part of the scene. Basically you don’t see the skinheads at all any longer. It’s dead, and it’s gone. I think there are lots of different reasons for that. Part of it is generational. You see that with lots of different subcultures. They adapt over time.
Why did the right-wing youth subculture adapt?
I think some of it also has to do with stigma and this younger generation wanting to blend in with the mainstream more both in terms of kind of asserting their place in the mainstream. This generation is more likely to have multiple kinds of identities and ways they enter in and out of scenes, and the thing about skinheads and other subcultures is that they kind of stamped you as one thing all the time. So I think that’s part of what we’re seeing is people wanting to blend in and move in and out of these scenes more than was the case for their parents’ generation.
Has there ever been a far-right subculture that didn’t have a common fashion or music scene or cultural touchstone?
I don’t think so. The skinhead scene really only emerged in the 80s. There was a kind of gap between the end of World War II and the 1980s when the skinhead scene emerged during which I don’t know if there was a coherent far right. I think when you’re talking about youth subculture it really started then. What people are saying about Germany at least is that it was sort of old Fascists, like old Nazis in the 60s and 70s, and then this new generation came along and co-opted this British working-class aesthetic and reclaimed it. That was it for two decades.
In Germany, it’s not that there isn’t a style anymore—it’s that it’s multiple styles. You can’t identify anyone visually anymore or automatically by what they’re wearing, which for me, as an educator, creates a bunch of pedagogical problems. People have relied on that for years to know with whom they need to have conservations with or intervention.
So they’re doing this to escape confrontation from authority figures. There’s a kind of plausible deniability to it.
Exactly. I think it’s a way of blending in, of evading notice, of not being as obvious. And that allows you to not have stigma at a workplace or wherever in a public setting. I’m sure that is a big part of the appeal.
On the flip side, are there benefits to a subculture having an easily recognizable aesthetic? Isn't the main appeal of joining one having a group to fit in with?
What I study is the deliberately coded signals that are on clothing brands deliberately manufactured to appeal to the far right. So what you’re seeing in Germany are codes and signals that are recognizable to people in the scene but not always to outsiders. I’m not sure we’re seeing that in the states yet. There may be subtle signals, but they’re not really coded signals. The German youths talk a lot about if you go into a bar or a soccer stadium that it helps a lot to be able to find what they call “like-minded individuals.” I think for sure that the skinhead aesthetic was a pretty easy way of finding other people. In the US, I’m not sure we have the same kind of scenario.
Can you talk a little bit about what's replacing the aesthetic we've come to associate with the far right?
One thing we’re seeing in Europe is the co-opting of Antifa style by the far right. I would say the entire splintering of the subcultural style started with that. These groups called the autonomous nationalists who try to wear the leftist all-black style with a scarf across the bottom half of their face, and sometimes mirrored sunglasses. It’s called the Black Bloc. All dress the same. Move in a group. You’d see that for years in protests in Europe on the left side, and then all of a sudden, you’d see protests where dozens of right-wing protesters were wearing the same aesthetic and style. It was super confusing for journalists and intelligence officers, for everybody. They didn’t know who was who. It was a way to disrupt, also to move in a group and evade authorities. It’s really hard to see who was responsible for throwing a bottle or whatever.
What you’re seeing now is that these brands of clothing have appeared that kind of sell clothing laced with far-right codes. Some of them are sportier or preppy, and some are a bit more alternative, which you can see in the way the models appear in the catalog pages. In the more alternative ones, they have tattoos and piercings and ear plugs. They have bigger muscles. Some are a little more crossover in the martial arts scene or use brighter colors to appear a bit hipper and not as fixated on camouflage type of colors. So that’s kind of the range we’re seeing right now in the brands.
How would a kid who wants to flirt with the far right find out what to wear if there are so many options?
There are lots of different ways. Some schools and stadiums or even the Parliament building has banned some of the brands. So kids know because they’ve signed something at school saying they will not wear any of those brands. One of the kids I interviewed found out about a numeric code that was banned because he asked for it to be on his license plate, because it’s also in his birthday, but then was told it’s a Nazi symbol. Some of them talked about being at protest marches and seeing the brands that everyone’s wearing. Some are reported in the media and talked about in classroom settings. Some of the kids are super informed about what’s allowed in different clubs and how they get in and around bouncers who look the other way. They were remarkably well-informed. They say this is what you pick up in their neighborhood.
In your book, you argue that the existence of these brands desensitize far-right consumers to extremist ideas, but how does that happen if the average observer isn't picking up on their messaging?
Academic reviewers have said a few times, “Isn’t this just clothing? How can it be important?” You do get people who think fashion doesn’t matter. I have tried to argue that it matters in a lot of important ways. It can be a gateway into the scene. Kids talk about when they got their first Lonsdale jacket or their first Alpha Industries jacket or whatever the brand is.
But also there’s a shirt right now that’s really contemporary referencing the migration crisis that has an anchor that says, “Raise the borders, batton down the hatches.” There’s nothing on the shirt, but then on the website there’s this whole lengthy tirade. So there’s kind of a whole socialization aspect to the clothing. There’s like a guy dangling from a noose, or one that says, “We know where you live” which has the number 88 on it. The messaging is playful and it seems fun to manipulate the codes that way. There was another one that referenced ten murders and a right-wing terrorist cell that was responsible for these murders. They’re trying to be flippant or funny or amusing or thinking that threats to an individual is funny. That’s the kind of desensitization that I talk about as being a way to making light of atrocities.
I didn’t realize that there were far-right clothing companies.
We have that in the states, too, but what’s unusual in Germany is they have these screen-printed T-shirts that are really high-quality like a J Crew or an Abercrombie and Fitch, and they lace the clothing with these codes and symbols. It’s complicated. They’re not always far-right ideologically, but they’ll market to a far-right consumer base.
How is this any different from when people adopted Fred Perry and Doc Martens?
I think that it started for a bunch of reasons. Essentially because the brand’s logos in some way resonated with the far-right. In the German context, where it’s illegal to display a swastika, you can zip up your Lonsdale jacket, which displays the letters NSDA [the acronym for National Socialist German Worker's Party in German]. But if a police officer stops you, you can unzip it, and it’s just "Lonsdale." So they initially co-opted these brands for whatever symbolic representation they determined was connected from this logo, and then somebody figured out there was a market to create their own brands and sell to their own market.
Do you think this a uniquely European thing because they don’t have the First Amendment, and have laws against overt hate speech?
I think it started off that way because of more restrictive laws around free speech, but I think what we’re seeing is that with the alt-right, the normalization and mainstreaming also appeals to them. So one of the brands called Thor Steinar has already trademarked in the US. They don’t have their own stores or website here, but they’re selling through a distributor. So there are brands that are trying to expand. But whether it will catch on in the US I think depends a lot on whether they’re selling these codes that are referencing the European situation or whether they adapt these codes to American issues.
So what I’m getting out of this conversation is that trying to describing the aesthetic of the alt-right is a bit of a fool’s errand because the whole purpose now is to not have an easily recognizable "look." Right?
I think that’s probably a fair assessment. But we just came to associate the skinhead aesthetic with the alt right when that too was also just a random collection of signals.
I guess the question then is will it make it easier for them to grow as they become more mainstream and make it easier for people to flirt with the ideas, or do these wayward youths looking for direction see the lack of cohesion and uniformity as a turn off?
I suspect it’s the former. I hope it’s the latter, but I fear it’s the former. I believe that this does make it more palatable and more appealing to youths who might have been a little reluctant to take the big steps of shaving their head. You’re making a full-time commitment to that look when you do that. But with this, you’re not committed in any kind of way.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.