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10 of the Most Offensive Clothing Items Ever Created

The Gap is the latest in a string of major companies to produce an offensive item of clothing.
 
 
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Big clothing stores are similar to other large companies in at least one major way: they’re all about the bottom line. Some stores try to boost sales by occasionally (or frequently) putting out products that ruffle people’s feathers. Controversy can be a lucrative business plan!

Others stores have, on occasion, released products that are unwittingly offensive, but even those generate a ton of attention for the brand (there’s no such thing as bad attention, right?), and if handled properly by the company’s PR team, the offensive item usually fades from shoppers minds within no time.

The Gap is the latest major clothing chain to make headlines for an offensive clothing item. What follows is a recap of that controversy, plus several other major clothing disasters through the years.

1. The Gap’s “Manifest Destiny” t-shirt

The Gap is more known for selling sensible jeans and khakis than anything vaguely “edgy,” making the chain’s new “Manifest Destiny” t-shirt a real head-scratcher.

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James Mackey explains the history of Manifest Destiny at The Guardianand writes:

America has never really come to terms with the contradiction between this bloody origin and its rhetoric of exceptionalism, and American popular history thus remains dependent on a now largely unarticulated form of manifest destiny logic. That said, it seems astonishing that nobody during the product launch process said "Hang on … doesn't this basically mean 'white pride'?" Artist Gregg Deal suggests the Gap should now launch "AMERICAN IMPERIALISM" or "FORCED ASSIMILATION" lines.

Even more disturbing, the designer of the shirt, Mark McNairy, may have known exactly what he was doing:

When activists contacted him to ask for the line's removal, he responded...by tweeting "MANIFEST DESTINY. SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST" (the tweet has been removed, but a screengrab is archived here). This seems to show that he is quite comfortable with a social Darwinist explanation for the destruction of indigenous nations.

2. Adidas’ racist shackle shoes

It sounds like some sort of terrible joke, but Adidas did in fact unveil a pair of sneakers with shackles attached to them earlier this year.

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Adidas eventually had to cancel its plans to sell the $350 sneakers after everyone from Jesse Jackson to thousands of internet commenters protested the slavery-evoking shoes. But the company stood by the shoes’ designer, Jeremy Scott, who said the shoes were inspired by a toy from his childhood.

We can’t be too surprised about Scott’s bone-headedness, since he sent a model wearing an animal-print burqa and a minisirt down the runway just last month as part of a collection supposedly inspired by the Arab Spring. Ugh.

3-5. Urban Outfitters’ “pro-ana” and anti-Semitic shirts, and appropriated Native imagery

As I pointed out in a piece earlier this year, Urban Outfitters has a long history of producing all kinds of offensive merchandise. Here are just a few examples.

This “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) t-shirt:

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A shirt that evokes the Holocaust:

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And soooo much Native appropriation:

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6. Abercrombie’s thongs and push-up bikinis for 7-year-olds

Abercrombie & Fitch has come under fire for a number of offensive items, but perhaps the most infamous dust-up involved a 2002 line of thong panties featuring sayings like “wink wink,” “eye candy,” and “kiss me.” The kicker is that the underwear was released through the chain’s Abercrombie Kids line, which is marketed to children ages 7 to 14.

Clearly Abercrombie didn’t learn its lesson about sexualizing young girls, because last year the store found itself in hot water once again when it started selling push-up bikini tops to children.

Stores selling overly sexualized clothing to children is nothing new; in fact, it’s become practically normal in our society. But Abercrombie’s envelope-pushing items earn it a Creepy Award, for sure.

7. American Apparel’s “Teenagers Do It Better” shirt

American Apparel is another one of those companies that’s always skirting controversy, largely because of its porn-like billboards and its skeezy founder and CEO, Dov Charney, who’s been sued for sexual harassment by more than a dozen employees and models.

One example of Charney’s sleazy influence on the company is this t-shirt:

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On its own, the short could go either way on the gross scale. But this is pretty incontrovertible evidence that the shirt is at least toeing the line of perverted (via the Huffington Post):

The shirt was made in collaboration with a publication called Ey! Magateen (potentially NSFW or LIFE at the link), a mag that celebrates "the magnificent vitality, energy and power of young male adulthood" and features sexy pics of boys ages 16-21.

The magazine features the tee on its Tumblr, modeled by a young teen boy in his underwear.

Yeah, no.

8. Forever 21’s sexist “Allergic to Algebra” tee

If there’s anything we don’t need in this world, it’s yet another message to girls that they aren’t good at or aren’t supposed to like math.

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Reddit user mikgyver rather perfectly summed up why the shirt is so offensive (via ABC News): “It’s a big deal because there is still this childish perception -- among females AND males -- that girls can’t do math. I can’t tell you how many times, as a girl who’s good at math, that I’ve been accused of ‘trying to be a guy’ when I get good grades in math.”

So thanks for nothing, Forever 21.

9. Abercrombie’s Asian stereotype shirts

Abercrombie & Fitch makes the list again, this time for producing a line of t-shirts featuring Asian stereotypes.

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According to Snopes, critics panned the shirts for portraying “Asian Americans doing work they have been historically forced to do,” depicting Asian people as “kung-fu fighting, fortune-cookie-speaking, slanty-eyed, bucktooth servants,” and “trivializ[ing] an entire religion and philosophy.”

Amid a deluge of complaints, Abercrombie did eventually pull the shirts from its shelves.

10. Wal-Mart’s accidental Nazi skull shirt

A firestorm erupted several years back when this blogger went into his local Wal-Mart and realized the store was selling t-shirts emblazoned with a Nazi SS symbol.

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He writes:

The Death’s Head symbol was worn by the members of the German Nazi SS. The Totenkopf on the Wal-Mart t-shirt looks very similar to the divisional insignia of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf. As you can see, It’s almost an exact copy.

Neo-Nazi’s sometimes use the Totenkopf image because it is not as easily identifiable as other Nazi symbols such as the swastika. You might see one of these tattooed on someone’s arm while standing in line at Burger King and think it’s just a poorly done pirate skull. It’s not.

He goes on to note that he doubts Wal-Mart was selling Nazi propaganda on purpose, but “Whoever designed this shirt had to know where the skull image came from.”

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.
 
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