The Symbol Of The MAGA Hat Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan tells NPR's Michel Martin that the MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat is not a fashion statement as much as a statement of identity.

The Symbol Of The MAGA Hat

The Symbol Of The MAGA Hat

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Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan tells NPR's Michel Martin that the MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat is not a fashion statement as much as a statement of identity.


OK. Let's talk some more about the hat. You know which one I'm talking about - the red Make America Great Again hat, the MAGA hat. Why is the hat such a big deal? Washington Post fashion and culture critic Robin Givhan has been thinking about that. And she's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Thank you.

MARTIN: You wrote a whole column about the MAGA hat. You said that the Make America Great Again hat is not a statement of policy anymore. It's a declaration of identity. So, first of all, why do you say that? And what is that identity?

GIVHAN: Well, I mean, I think the MAGA hat, you know, did start out as a - you know, as sort of innocuous political swag. And then it came to represent, you know, the Trump administration, the Trump campaign. And people who were wearing it I think were, at that point, focused on various policy ideas, whether it was tax cuts or a point of view when it comes to foreign policy or immigration. But I think what happened is that the hat was essentially kidnapped, weaponized by Charlottesville and by white supremacists and by the violence that went on in some of those rallies by a minority of people at those rallies.

But that hat came to I think, in the broader culture, start to represent a lot of really dark forces. And it has come to represent, also, this idea of making America great again as in, oh, it once was great in some distant past. And things happened to make it less great.

MARTIN: So political figures have used fashion to make statements before, like Hillary Clinton had the blue pantsuits that then became the white pantsuits because that's something that the suffragists wore. And even though Barack Obama wasn't really known for his fashion, I mean, there were symbols associated with him that people made into fashion. Like, the Shepard Fairey "Hope" poster was a thing for a while...

GIVHAN: Right.

MARTIN: Is it your contention that this is at a different level, it has some broader cultural meaning apart from the political figure itself?

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, I do think it's different from those things because - the groups and attitudes and sensibilities and moods that it's associated with. And I think, you know, there is this notion that simply because you put on the hat means that, you know, you are all these terrible things. And I don't necessarily think that is the case. And I don't think most people presume that to be the case. But I do think that there's this sense that if you put on that hat, you are knowingly shrouding yourself in something that has all of these dark connotations and, in knowingly doing that, that implies that you're OK with it.

MARTIN: Is that symbolism, in your view, equally understood by those who wear it and by those who receive it or see it?

GIVHAN: Sometimes not, sometimes it does. I mean, you know, I think, you know, you can look back in - at much darker periods in history, you know? And there are those who might argue that, oh, I'm wearing this because I'm a history buff. But the broader culture at large knows what it means, historically.

MARTIN: Well, you draw the analogy to the Confederate flag.

GIVHAN: Right.

MARTIN: I mean, you say that - in your column, you say that to wear a MAGA hat is to wrap oneself in a Confederate flag, which you also see as a provocation. Now, along those same lines, there are plenty of people who will say, no, it's not. It's a reflection of history. It's a reflection of Southern heritage. It's not meant to be provocative or racist. And to that, would you say, are these people just not willing to be honest about what they're trying to say?

GIVHAN: Yeah, I would say that. I mean, I think that if you are making this argument that it is purely a matter of celebrating history, then you have to I believe also recognize the full breadth of that history. And so you can't wear something like a Confederate flag or wave a Confederate flag and say that it only represents this tiny sliver of history when, in fact, there is this really broad history, the bulk of which is pretty negative, at least for a pretty large group of people of color, that, you know - you have to recognize that that is part of the story that you're telling.

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about what reaction you're getting to the column.

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, I would say that the reaction is as polarizing as the hat is. The people who agreed with the column are very vocal in expressing that. And then there are people who simply say that, oh, you're reading way too much into the hat, or you, in fact, are a racist because this is what you see in that hat. But I would say that the ones who are perhaps most eloquent in their - the defense of the hat really are the ones who are saying the dark terrible things that you described, do not reflect what's in my heart, do not reflect how I feel about immigrants or how I feel about women, you know?

They still feel that the hat is representative of something that goes directly to how they think their government should be run. And, you know, and I say to them that, yes, I understand what your intent is. My argument is that that benign intent has been drowned out, overwhelmed, eradicated by quite a malignant intent.

MARTIN: Well, it proves your point, once again, that fashion isn't just fashion. Fashion is communication and culture, right?

GIVHAN: Yeah. And it's not simply what you are trying to communicate. It's also - you know, fashion is connected to the broader culture, and all of those outside forces change the meaning of what you wear.

MARTIN: That's Washington Post fashion and culture critic Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winner joining us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

GIVHAN: Pleasure.

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