From tradwife dresses to racist polo shirts: What happens when your clothes become political weapons?

Oliver Keens has always liked wearing retro duds. But in an age in which certain items of clothing can convey grim political mindsets, would we be smart to abandon them entirely?

Tuesday 10 October 2023 06:30 BST
<p>'The impeccable make-up, floral dresses and blonde Marilyn bobs of the tradwife are meant to evoke a woman’s true place in society – at home, as a housewife’ </p>

'The impeccable make-up, floral dresses and blonde Marilyn bobs of the tradwife are meant to evoke a woman’s true place in society – at home, as a housewife’

I feel like it’s the duty of any dad to own some mortifyingly embarrassing pictures of themselves in the silly clothes of their youth. My own dad had some corkers: from the velvet bow tie the size of a kite he wore on his wedding day, to the most eye-wateringly tight Seventies jeans imaginable. These were so compact in the crotch it’s a miracle he was subsequently able to conceive.

My own young children have hit the jackpot with me. They will one day have a field day mocking their dad’s many crap attempts at looking cool. But perhaps confusingly for them, old pictures of me feature fashions from a disparate blur of bygone eras, for I have had a lifelong love for retro and vintage clothes: cheap, right-on in a recycling way, but most of all silly and adventurous in equal measure.

There was my mod period, my disco period, my tweedy Fifties year. I volunteered in an Oxfam as a teenager and got first dibs on waistcoats. I was even featured (completely coincidentally) in a one-page fashion feature in The Independent way back in 2007. The journalist who put the page together called my style “young fogey”. In my defence, it was all the rage to go to parties in thin braces, a Fifties cravat and even a jaunty trilby back then. Now, though, after seeing how people in 2023 are using vintage clothes, I find that the whole idea of wearing vintage makes me shudder.

When you love fashions from the past, you tend to notice when they pop up unexpectedly in the mainstream. Some, like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s huge Victorian top hat at the Queen’s funeral, are comically easy to spot. More subtle, though, has been watching the whole of the UK – across age, class and location – adopt retro fashion in a way that used to be the preserve of hipsters and eccentrics and frequently both.

I’ve enjoyed, for example, the rise of what I call “mod dad” as a fashion demographic – clothes with a sense of the Italian-inspired Sixties subculture finding their way onto the high street, as championed by role models like softly-softly, middle-aged style icons such as Martin Freeman and Bradley Wiggins. Similarly, the cult status of Peaky Blinders brought in styles hitherto seen on most average men since the 1920’s – fierce undercuts, rounded shirt collars and a rugged suavity that’s defiantly non-dandyish.

Retro styles in the mainstream even signal an outlook to life that goes beyond sartorial trends. Furniture restorer Jay Blades, one of the stars of Channel 4’s The Repair Shop, is a great example of this – his smart, utilitarian and strikingly retro clothes work in tandem with his place as a repairer of once great things. It’s a neat riposte to our disposable, fast-fashion culture. To like old clothes is to like old things. But does that include old social values too?

Nothing has made me more dejected and grossed-out about the fashion choices of my youth than the growth in a movement known as “tradwives”. Just as me and my friends did years ago, this is a group of people who like to studiously dress in clothes of a bygone era – namely the Fifties. Yet, tradwives have a deep and some might suggest dark ideology motivating the dressing-up. It is a movement that yearns to return to the social mores of a “simpler” time, when men were men and women stayed at home and didn’t work.

To be a tradwife (or to promote the synonymous “trad life”) is to reject the mainstream notion of feminism and claim instead that it has actually disadvantaged women. The impeccable make-up, floral dresses and blonde Marilyn bobs of the tradwife are meant to evoke a woman’s true place in society – at home, as a housewife. There’s also an air of patriarchal subservience to it all that seems to go beyond merely identifying the male in the household as the breadwinner. In both Britain and America – the two hotbeds of the movement globally – it’s maybe not a surprise that it can also be a haven for anti-vax sentiment and other conspiracy beliefs. As Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness neatly categorised on a recent episode of his Getting Curious podcast, they are almost a “female version of [an] incel”.

Introducing ‘The Young Fogey’: Oliver Keens in a 2007 edition of ‘The Independent’

There’s an unabashed political agenda to this, too. Many followers of trad life identify with the far right, from being ardent Trump supporters to nakedly linking their lifestyle to white supremacy, such as trad life influencer and retro fan Ayla Stewart, who launched a “White Baby Challenge” to persuade her followers to stop “black ghetto culture” by having as many white babies as possible.

This same linking of retro fashion and extreme ideology also happened to a couple of fashion brands that previously had a cult following among mods and punks in the UK – namely Lonsdale and Fred Perry. Their polo shirts had been a mainstay of the alternative British guitar scene, as worn by The Jam to Blur among hundreds of others. Yet their adoption by the so-called “alt-right” in America became problematic for both the brands themselves (Fred Perry eventually withdrew their black and yellow polos, which had been adopted by the neo-fascist group Proud Boys) and for the far greater numbers of music fans who owned clothes suddenly synonymous with extreme right-wing ideology.

It’s ironic that the tradwife phenomenon is believed to have originated on a subreddit called Red Pill Women, because like the red pill in The Matrix, there’s something profound and permanently altering when you see a tribe of hateful humans wearing the same T-shirt or retro party dress as you. It can’t be unseen. Many in the vintage community have tried to combat this incursion into their realm by using the hashtag banner of “Vintage Style, Not Vintage Values”. It’s a laudable aim, but one that I think downplays the fact that – unlike museum pieces or gallery art – all clothes are judged in the time, era and context in which they’re worn. If the society they appear in has changed, so too – I’m afraid – have the clothes and their meaning, no matter how inadvertent this might be.

When I was young and carefree, people used to evoke the idea of “a woman’s place being in the kitchen” as a fiercely ironic joke, aimed at previous generations, aimed at the idiocy of the whole concept. The fact that it’s both being revived in 2023, and by people dressed in the clothes of my past is too much to even try and dance around. If people are wearing old clothes to promote old ideologies, then you have to respond to it by dissociating yourself as strongly as possible. I know that future generations in my household will be having a look at my past fashion sins. I just hope we get to laugh it off, without them thinking something more sinister.

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