Leftist magazine Mother Jones copped massive Twitter heat recently for a profile on white supremacist Richard Spencer that called him “dapper” (the word has since been removed from the headline). The online critics’ argument is that Spencer’s politics ought to preclude any admiration whatsoever — including for his clothing.

Nattily dressed white supremacists are wolves in sheep’s clothing precisely because the liberal left is used to dismissing its opponents as distasteful, as lumpen slobs and vulgarians. Think of George Christensen’s instantly mocked whip-toting, blue-singleted Good Weekend cover shot, or Tony Abbott’s speed-dealer sunnies, or Pauline Hanson’s bright red jackets and animal prints.

Think of the way progressives recoil from Make America Great Again baseball caps, or Southern Cross tattoos on sunburned white skin — not just because they represent a toxic nationalism, but also because it’s an ugly nationalism. “Looking at [Trump], he is a fashion faux pas, but money can’t buy style,” Sydney tailor atin Vengurlekar told The Sydney Morning Herald in October — which alerts us to the role of class in determining political legitimacy.

Taste is the left’s weakness, whether it’s a bourgeois insistence on public civility that rarely troubles its conservative opponents, or a fatal attraction to slick aesthetics. Left-wing heroes have beautiful pedigrees, from fashion icon Jackie Kennedy’s canny framing of her slain husband’s presidency as “Camelot” to the permanently stoked antics of Canada’s second-generation progressive dreamboat Justin Trudeau. Even hardline leftism gets a pass as we liken North Korea’s “Soviet kitsch” to the films of Wes Anderson, or admire the brutalist Ozymandiases of communist Europe.

Someone as trashy as Donald Trump was never “supposed” to triumph over the painstakingly styled Hillary Clinton. There have been plenty of jabs at the copiously gilded rococo fever dream of Trump’s tastes in interior decorating. Expert commentators have recommended in vain how Trump might improve his notorious hairstyle and his rumpled, clownish suits.

And we’re still hoping it’s all a knowing pastiche. “Trump’s politics are bearable only if he does not mean all the awful nonsense he says,” wrote the Financial Times’ Robert Armstrong in May. “His clothes are the opposite: they are admirable only if he means them to be every bit as awful as they are.” But as Russian dissident writer Masha Gessen observes from experience in the New York Review of Books, the first rule of living under autocracy is: “Believe the autocrat. He means what he says.”

As the Hunger Games books and films make explicit, we allow socially corrosive ideologies to permeate the fabric of everyday life in the form of public spectacle, transmuting base mentalities into political gold. And the tipping point of complacency always seems so harmless you will Nazi it coming. One minute you’re facetiously ranking hardline hotties or being charmed by riot police with waxed moustaches … the next you’re looking down at your jackboots and asking, “Are we the baddies?

Dress codes are techniques of controlling people by regulating their bodies. SBS’ recent series Versailles dramatises how Louis XIV of France ultimately dominated his disgruntled aristocracy by forcing them to spend their money on fabulously expensive court dress and transforming his own toilette into political theatre. And as French philosopher Michel Foucault outlines in Discipline and Punish, uniforms not only personify official power and submit individual bodies to disciplined conformity, they also create intricate hierarchies of status among their wearers.

Meanwhile, formality of dress entrenches establishment power. Think of those paradigmatic clubs that require jackets and ties, or the hoo-ha over a Sydney pub that banned hi-vis workwear. Those posh, debaucherous Oxbridge supper clubs where junior Tories consolidate their power — as fictionalised in the 2014 film The Riot Club — hit headlines in 2015 when former UK prime minister David Cameron was alleged to have put his dick in a dead pig, Black Mirror-style, as part of an initiation ritual.

Fascism gravitates to spectacular, prescriptive dress codes that are often explicitly nostalgic, to match the nostalgic rhetoric of fascist ideologies (Mussolini and Hitler also promised to make their respective countries “great again”). Traditional styles are alluring because they represent the respect and privilege that white people believe they’ve “lost” in progressive climate of diversity.

They also police strict social divisions, yearning for an imagined past when women, workers, queers and people of colour “knew their place”. I’ve previously observed this regarding the conservatism of vintage subcultures. And the cultural footprint of Mad Men, Downton Abbey and even the recent Netflix series The Crown is large and deep enough for us to ask if these stories’ popularity is really just “harmless” escapism. After all, those manipulative, sexually entitled pick-up artists favour fedoras and pay lip service to aristocratic ideals.

Of course, sartorial symbols are constantly being contested and reappropriated. The same stylishness that makes repressive regimes appear glamorous and spectacular also glosses over the hypocrisies and contradictions of liberalism. And the politics of aesthetic nostalgia can also be progressive, revolutionary politics that question conservative interpretations of what the past was like. After all, Donald Trump only wears trousers today because of the French Revolutionary “sans-culottes”.

Mussolini’s 1930 observation, quoted in British Vogue, that “any power whatsoever is destined to fail before fashion,” was intended to highlight the need for fascist regimes to capture the fashion system for their own purposes. And because clothing can also express subversive ideas of dissent and solidarity, the fascists will come for your community’s favourite looks, too.

In August, veep-elect Mike Pence got his hair cut at a black barbershop in Pennsylvania, in what was widely interpreted as a cheap stunt to woo voters of colour. But while Richard Spencer’s “dapper” dressing and trendy side-fade haircut are a deliberate attempt to confuse far-right politics with hipster progressivism, so Pence was invading the heart of black identity. Donald Trump’s hair is absurd, but Pence’s neat respectability is straight-up evil. His sartorial message is: “Discipline yourselves or be crushed.”

The respectability politics of African-American dress have been fraught for more than a century. In his autobiography, Malcolm X looked back in anger at having chemically straightened his hair as a teenager, viewing it as a submission to “white” grooming standards. Now, young black men are deliberately dressing up as a defence mechanism: wearing short hair, button-down shirts and polished shoes to avoid being racially profiled and arbitrarily murdered by police.

Normalisation of fascism begins when we internalise fascist aesthetics, either through irony or self-preservation. As Zach Stafford writes in The Guardian, “believing that our lives only matter when we ‘act right’ only fuels the very dangerous ways in which our world operates. It protects the structural racism that no one ever wants to talk about or challenge.”

A lot of the obvious “fashism” was really political pragmatism. Yes, Hugo Boss made the Nazi uniforms — although he didn’t design them. Boss joined the Nazi party two years before it came to power, in order to benefit from business connections. Coco Chanel may have been an anti-Semite, but her Nazi collaboration during World War II also continued a career that was already built on sexual opportunism. Around 60 more European couture houses were happy to dress the wives of the 1930s fascist elite.

Dominic Sebag-Montefiore, creative director at legendary Savile Row tailor Edward Sexton, told Jezebel he would “be more than happy to help Mr. Trump dress better — because at the end of the day, we all have to look at him”.

But as long as Trump looks the way he does now, he reminds us that his ideas are not normal, and should never be. The fight against them won’t be won with beautiful, careful, aspirational aesthetics. It’ll be disrespectful and ugly.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey