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The Patriot Games: Ralph Lauren, Captain America, and the Fashioning of American Identity

The Patriot Games: Ralph Lauren, Captain America, and the Fashioning of American Identity

When you look back at it, the whole comic book industry seems to stem from the clothing business. (Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America) [1]

Last year, fashion designer Ralph Lauren dressed Americans for the most widely watched spectacles of the year: the 2016 Summer Olympics and the United States presidential election. At the opening ceremony to the Rio Games, Team USA wore a recognizably "Ralph Lauren-style" ensemble of white denim trousers, striped crew neck shirt, red-white-and-blue boat shoes, and blue blazer embroidered with a giant white Polo logo. Ralph Lauren also dressed the first female nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, at every major televised event of the campaign: Clinton’s DNC acceptance speech, all three debates against Trump, and her concession speech on November 9th. It’s worthy to note that Clinton wore a red suit, a blue suit, and white suit for each debate in that order. She chose white for her nomination acceptance and black for her concession. In the past, Clinton has relied upon a number of designers in growing her famous wardrobe of pantsuits, but the nominee chose to wear Ralph Lauren exclusively for the most historic moments of her campaign for president.

While Hillary Clinton and Team USA were staging the performances of their careers, the movie Captain America: Civil War was becoming the highest grossing movie of the year, making $1 billion worldwide.[2]  In Marvel Studio’s second film headlined by Captain America since his introduction in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, the Captain (played by Chris Evans) battles foes with his super hero powers and trusty indestructible shield.

To say 2016 was a big year for America would be a drastic understatement. The events of the year pushed our nation into an intense period of self-reflection and re-evaluation. With the shocking success of a businessman’s run for president, our culture was obsessed with exploring what America stands for and who gets to define contemporary patriotism. The images and colors of America were everywhere, including Team USA, Hillary Clinton, and Captain America. These memorable moments of the last year were defined by a 50-year-old fashion business and a 75-year-old superhero created by Jewish sons of New York City immigrants.

I’m a descendent of Russian Jews, Swedes, and Scots who traveled to the US by boat and built lives in their new country. They raised children who would attend college, open their own businesses and achieve the American dream—rise to the middle class through entrepreneurship and hard work. I’ve experienced traces of these cultures through traditions that stuck around such as Swedish meatballs and hearing Yiddish. Although my families have names originating from other countries, they consider themselves authentic Americans. After all, who defines what it means to be “American?” Not many are aware of the parallels between two of our most famous patriots: Ralph Lauren and Captain America.

The American fashion industry was cradled in New York City’s garment district and was the backbone of the city’s economic development in the first half of the twentieth century. The giants of American fashion still dominate our underwear and perfume counters—Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren. Like great mythologies, you recognize their symbols and you know their names. Klein and Lauren are Bronx natives, while Karan hails from Queens. All three are Jewish children or grandchildren of immigrants. Like fashion, the characters from comic books are inextricable from our pop culture (and underwear). From Superman to Captain America, you don’t have to read comic books to know their origin stories. These larger than life characters are woven into our American narrative. They live and breathe New York City and they come from the same group of immigrants as our icons of fashion. As consumers of American culture, we don’t often question who and where it comes from. If we want to define what it means to be "American" and who should represent our nationality then we should examine who created our most widely consumed ideas of America. I’ll start with these two.

Like great mythologies, you recognize their symbols and you know their names.

Captain America made his debut in Captain America Comics #1 in 1941.[3] Steve Rogers, his civilian alias, grew up in Depression era New York City. Like many of our favorite national narratives, the Captain America story is a narrative of transformation. Compelled to join the Armed Forces to fight the evils of Nazi Germany, Rogers is rejected due to his “sickly and frail” physicality. A chance encounter affords him the opportunity to satisfy his dream. Placed in a “top-secret biological experiment, Operation: Rebirth,” Rogers is injected with “Super-Soldier Serum and exposed to low-level radiation” for effectiveness. Rogers emerges from the program in super-human shape. Captain America becomes “the Army’s ultimate weapon—and the single-minded embodiment of America’s fighting spirit.”[4]

Captain America’s humble beginnings resemble that of his creators’ Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Like many working in the comic book industry at the time, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were sons of Jewish immigrants working in New York’s clothing industry. When describing his father’s work, Simon notes, “Jack Kirby, Will Eisner [creator of The Spirit], and I—all of our fathers were tailors. Even Jerry Siegel’s [co-creator of Superman] father was a haberdasher. When you look back at it, the whole comic book industry seems to stem from the clothing business.”[5] Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were already a prolific team, with a handful of characters and stories created by the time of Captain America’s birth. A competitive business, Simon and Kirby were always looking for their next character. Simon notes in his autobiography, "The comics that were doing really well at the time were ones with clever villains in them...I realized that we had the perfect guy right in front of us...Adolf Hitler would be the perfect foil for our next character, what with his hair and that stupid-looking moustache and his goose-stepping. He was like a cartoon anyway."[6] The Captain was created to defend America against a great evil, a villain who hated freedom and hated Jews. 

Forty years after Captain America slugged Adolf Hitler on the cover of his introductory issue, American greatness was the creative impetus once again by another Jewish New Yorker. Ralph Lauren (originally Ralph Lifshitz) pioneered a new breed of lifestyle fashion and eventually became America’s first fashion billionaire, using America itself as his brand. Like Simon and Kirby, Ralph grew up absorbing movies and pop culture. He was entrenched in the fantasy of movies and their stars, an inspiration visible in his advertisements. Lauren’s biographer, Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote, “Ralph didn’t fantasize about becoming a fashion designer, he became a designer to fulfill his fantasies.”[7] Ralph Lauren is a man of invention and imagination. Lauren re-envisioned himself as the epitome of wealthy Anglo-Saxon American style. Lauren’s brand strategy was rooted in capitalizing on Americana such as the American flag, blue jeans, the great West, and Native American imagery. In Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara, Mark Tungate writes, “Almost subconsciously, Lauren realized that, in the USA, history was irrelevant. This was the land of Hollywood, of fantasy for sale. Lauren created a world of aristocratic good taste, but it was pure invention.”[8]

Lauren, Simon, and Kirby employed patriotism in their inventions because of deep, personal affections for their country. Despite experiences with anti-Semitism, Joe Simon wrote, “[I] had tremendous respect for patriotism, and pride in my country. I think that was a big part of me when I went into comics. In my mind this was the greatest country ever, these were the greatest people ever.”[9] In his autobiography, Simon recalls an encounter with a Civil War veteran from his childhood. He describes the experience as one of “many incidents that inspired my search for the great American hero.” After displaying an antique American flag to the class, the veteran shook the hand of every student saying, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!” Simon notes that the experience was “iconic.” He continues, “I would always remember the odd little fighting man as I continued in my life-long quest for the great American Hero. Eventually I would find him...and more.”[10] The uniformed soldier also influenced Ralph Lauren. He writes in Ralph Lauren, “The uniform a soldier wears is designed for durability, but it also provides the person wearing it with a heroic platform. When I was growing up officers in uniform were very impressive to me...they were heroes. Aspiration for me wasn’t about money, it was about being somebody, standing for something, being an individual.”[11]

Using America as his mood board, Ralph Lauren tapped into cultural sentiment to sell products.

Using America as his mood board, Ralph Lauren tapped into cultural sentiment to sell products. Joe Simon used the same techniques while conceiving Captain America. Positioned as the positive force in antithesis to Hitler’s evil regime, Captain America served as a release for the frustration and anger of Americans during and post war. Ralph Lauren’s imagery is based on his own fantasies of an upper class life style, while the image of Captain America comes from Simon and Kirby’s wishes for a Nazi defeat. Speaking about his motivations, Kirby has said, “I loved doing Captain America because it gave me the chance to be aggressive and powerful...the same reason fictional weakling Steve Rogers became Captain America!”[12]

Comic illustrators and fashion designers are both architects of the body. Like fashion, the look of superheroes must convey a potent amount of identifying information quickly. Sociologist Erving Goffman describes this exchange of information through visual language in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, calling carriers of visual identity representation "sign-vehicles"’[13] Captain America and Ralph Lauren both utilize the American flag as an instant indicator of patriotism. The flag expresses the desire to mark the body as “American.” Captain America’s body is coated in red, white, and blue with a single white star emblazoned on his chest and shield.

In The End of Fashion, Teri Agins notes, “Lauren will go down in fashion history for introducing the concept of ‘lifestyle merchandising’ in department stores, where each fashion brand was segregated in its own appetizing ambiance.”[14] Lauren’s marketing innovation was part of a wider shift in fashion during the 1980’s. Tungate describes Lauren as “the perfect brand for the 1980s, when fashion became less important than ‘lifestyle.”[15] The Ralph Lauren lifestyle is intentionally distinct. Referencing the timeless features of American mythology, Lauren connects with his consumer on a level of nostalgia and desire. His namesake book, Ralph Lauren, begins with an excerpt from Audrey Hepburn’s remarks on Lauren at the CFDA awards ceremony in 1992:

As a designer, Ralph conjures up all the things I most care about: the country, misty mornings, summer afternoons, great open spaces, cornfields, vegetable gardens, fireplaces, and Jack Russell terriers.... He has given us the romance of the West, the glamour of Hollywood, the adventure of a safari, the purity of England, the ease of a modern beach house, the richness of an English manor, only better than we imagined them.[16]

Through rigorously constructed imagery, the name"‘Ralph Lauren" became synonymous with patriotism, hetero-normativity, and upper class American style. As stated earlier, Ralph Lauren is the first fashion billionaire. After all, fashion is a business and despite what these narratives work to mystify, fashion designers are business owners. But as the story of Ralph Lauren illustrates, it’s through this elaborate manufacturing of myth and what’s called "lifestyle" that gives value to a pair of $13 white socks. Ralph Lauren lifestyle marketing illustrates Goffman’s notion of ‘performance.’ Goffman writes, “ most stratified societies there is an idealization of the higher strata and some aspiration on the part of those in low places to move to higher ones.... Perhaps the most important piece of sign-equipment associated with social class consists of status symbols through which material wealth is expressed." [17]

Superheroes and celebrity fashion designers are elusive characters with larger-than-life powers and dedicated fans.

Superheroes and celebrity fashion designers are elusive characters with larger-than-life powers and dedicated fans. Both are characters created for consumption, relying on imagery and myth to construct their narratives. Although superheroes are entirely fictitious characters, fashion designers play with fiction when constructing their brands, enabling their identity to transcend reality.  Ralph Lauren built his companies and his own identity by reprocessing fantasies of American culture. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby constructed Captain America from a combination of symbols and stories powerful at the time.

In “The Definition of the Superhero,” Peter Coogan references the 1952 court case, which ruled that Wonder Man “copied and infringed upon Superman.” He pulls the definition that Judge Learned Hand provided as part of his ruling, "Superhero. A heroic character…who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically expressed his biography, character, powers or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero…. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a close guarded secret."[18]

Lauren’s super powers are his influence and financial power. As Yuniya Kawamura describes in Fashion-ology, the role of the fashion designer extends greatly beyond the product and design process.[19] Ralph Lauren’s identity is masterfully crafted, along with his products, to convey a specific narrative as well as to provide him with a distinct look among the class of celebrity fashion designers. By placing himself in his brand marketing, Lauren has manifested a character of himself. Appropriately, Ralph Lauren pulls from the same mythology as his other advertising, creating a seamless narrative. In brand imagery, Lauren is depicted as a cowboy riding a white horse through the prairie. He is shown standing in a humble kitchen setting, taking one last breathe of his cigarette in iconic black and white photography. Ralph is also pictured casually leaning against a pile of cut wood (a nod to the frontier and Lincoln’s wood cabin), dressed in blue denim and knit sweater with a Western style belt. Like Captain America, he uses the flag placed on his chest as way to embody patriotism.

The current year is already proving to be momentous for American culture, including Ralph Lauren and Captain America. After the inauguration of President Trump, white supremacist leader Richard Spencer was punched in the face on camera during an interview. The footage has been interpreted into countless memes and raising questions about this use of violence. Many have responded with the image of Captain America punching Hitler from the cover of that 1941 issue. The image defends the choice to use violence as a form of patriotism in the battle against hate.

Ralph Lauren has also been in the news. Our newly-crowned first lady Melania Trump wore a powder blue suit and matching suede gloves by the designer to the inauguration. Many journalists have drawn parallels to Jackie Kennedy’s ensemble that she wore to John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. Melania is herself an immigrant, born in Yugoslavia and becoming a citizen in 2006. Wearing Ralph Lauren and channeling Jackie Kennedy was a deliberate choice to align Melania closer to a symbol of patriotism. Using Lauren’s strategy of pulling from our American imagination, Melania chose to model herself after a popular First Lady and style icon. 

Was it a betrayal for Ralph Lauren to dress Melania after his noteworthy sartorial contributions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign?

Only days following the election, designer Sophie Theallet vowed against dressing Melania Trump in her new role as First Lady. Theallet is one of a select group of American designers who dressed First Lady Michelle Obama, a career-defining feat. In her open letter, she requests that other designers follow her lead, “As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom and respect for all lifestyles, I will not participate in dressing or associating in any way with the next First Lady. The rhetoric of racism, sexism and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by.”[20]

Was it a betrayal for Ralph Lauren to dress Melania after his noteworthy sartorial contributions to Hillary Clinton’s campaign? Is it possible that the brand transcends politics? Despite the fact that the designer’s son is married to the granddaughter of former President George H.W. Bush, it’s hard to find any political allegiances. The designer has dressed Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama. Ethics and morality aren’t a recognizable part of the Ralph Lauren brand. Shocking many, Ralph Lauren was caught manufacturing the 2012 USA Olympic uniforms in China.[21] It was a badly timed decision considering the steep loss of clothing manufacturing jobs to overseas manufacturing. The designer doesn’t even seem to have loyalty for the country that’s so integral to his identity. The companies’ strongest loyalty seems to be to itself and it’s bottom line.

Considering the parallels between fashion and national mythologies, it will be important to note which designers become associated with the first family in the next four years. And how our symbols of patriotism are used in both the resistance to Trump and the continued campaigns of the President. Any creative mind can construct an image of patriotism and contribute to our national mythology. Some fantasies embody a resistance to evil and protection of democracy. Others rely on a false narrative to sell a romantic history and socks. Now more than ever, we need to pay close attention to our national mythology. 



[1] Joe Simon, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics (London: Titan Books, 2011), 9.

[2] Dave McNary, Captain America: Civil War’ Becomes Biggest Movie of the Year Worldwide’, Variety:

[3] Mike Conroy, 500 Great Comic Book Action Heroes (New York : Barron's, 2003), 68.

[4] Marvel Comics Group, Marvel Encyclopedia (New York, NY: Marvel Comics, 2002), 13.

[5] Simon, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, 9.

[6] Ibid., 87.

[7] Teri Agins, The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), 87.

[8] Mark Tungate, Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara (London: Kogan Page Publishers, 2008), 18.

[9] Simon,  My Life in Comics, 16.

[10] Ibid., 7-8.

[11] Ralph Lauren, Ralph Lauren (Rizzoli, 2007), 29.

[12] Arlen Schumer, The Silver Age of Comic Book Art. (Portland: Collectors Press, 2003), 86.

[13] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1973), 1.

[14] Agins, The End of Fashion, 2007, 87.

[15] Tungate, Fashion Brands, 2008, 18.

[16] Lauren, Ralph Lauren, 10.

[17] Goffman, The Presentation, 36.

[18] Peter Coogan, “The Definition of the Superhero.” A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer, 77-93.( JacksonUniversity Press of Mississippi, 2009) 77.

[19] Yuniya Kawamura, “Designers: The Personification of Fashion.” Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies, 57-72. (Oxford: New York: Berg, 2005), 57.

[20] Rosemary Feitelber, Women’s Wear Daily, November 17, 2016.

[21] ABC News, July 11, 2012.

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