Rumors of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death preceded its truth, and this post has been brewing for a few weeks now. His passing is monumental for Venezuela, South America, and the world. Chavez died of cancer on Tuesday , leaving a legacy of left-wing politics administered with an autocratic air.
Mourning Venezuelans took to the streets by the thousands, many of whom were in head-to-toe red outfits topped with bright red baseball caps embroidered with, “CHAVEZ: Corozon de mi patria” or a red beret like the one he was often photographed in to signify . The national colors of red, blue, and yellow followed him to the Fuerte Tiuna military academy, where he will remain for the seven national days of mourning.
As a leader, Chavez donned the tricolor theme in many variations, from full military dress:
to a jubilant, pastoral outfit after he survived a 2002 coup:
To the track suit that had become ubiquitous in recent years:
In fact, he hardly seemed to go a day without an outfit in red, yellow, blue, or a combination. Even his military uniforms were graced with a tricolor band or sash. Especially true in the recent coverage of the leader’s death, the Venezuelan public supporting Chavez’s reign appear equally patriotic and invested in showing their allegiance through dress. They are called “chavistas,” and have long used bright red clothing and accessories to aggressively associate themselves with the particular form of socialism promoted by President Chavez. The t-shirts worn by his followers are easily available and inexpensive in the twenty-first century global economy–the t-shirt as the ideal socialist garment?
The red is ripe with significance, echoing revolutionaries through the centuries and a color closely associated with nineteenth and twentieth century socialism. The red “bonnet phrygien” is a notorious and iconic symbol of sans culottes of the French Revolution (wearing patriotic red, white, and blue), who borrowed the soft cap and its symbolism of liberty from the Romans.
Chavez’s red beret is not unlike the phrygian cap, soft to the touch but sharply meaningful and unmistakably martial. He used military uniforms to declare himself commander-in-chief, but the beret would also allude to his time as an army paratrooper. The hat as a symbolic means of self-identification, both for the late leader and his followers, is a practical one. It can be worn with any outfit–or taken off in a hurry. Portable but impermanent (unlike, say, a tattoo or hairstyle), it is positioned nearest the face, our outward center of identification.
Another hat went politically viral before the elections and again in February of this year: the tricolor baseball cap. February marked yet another anniversary of Chavez’s failed 1992 coup, which date now seems to warrant an annual national celebration. Having undergone surgery in December 2012, soon after his re-election, the President was not there. But Vice President Nicolás Maduro (thought by many to be favored for succession) was there in red, yellow, and blue.
Some media outlets mark this event as the “launch” of the tricolor baseball cap as a symbol of the president’s movement. Extremely similar to the headgear worn by opposition Henrique Capriles’ party and followers before the October 2012 elections, the origin of the hat is hotly contested. National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello felt threatened enough by Capriles’ use of the cap to call his party rogues and crooks, stealing what Cabello sees as a symbol of the Bolivarian Revolution (another name for Chavez’s movement). Ironically, Chavez’s party attempted to bar Capriles from wearing his version of the baseball hat, citing a violation of regulations that prohibit the use of the national colors in campaigns (please see all above photographs). But Capriles, while acknowledging and benefiting from the high emotions associated with the hat, sought to belittle his rivals’ apparent fixation on a clothing accessory while more pressing political matters were in question (this may be familiar to Americans on both sides of the aisle).
At the February rally, the leading party appeared to have stolen the symbol back, so to speak, and one-upped Capriles’ headgear with a bigger coat of arms and the insignia “4F” (for February 4, the date of Chavez’s failed uprising).
What is this baseball cap, sewn together and embroidered with its stars, coat of arms, and 4F insignias by machine in a nameless factory? Where do these tens of thousands of supporters get their red berets, their tricolor baseball caps? When does this become a commercial (dare we say…capitalist?) exercise? Are these baseball caps available to all who want them, or do some have to make do with cheaper variants? How important are these objects to a revolution, new or sustained? And to a political campaign? What symbols or outfits do you see in American politics that are useful, frivolous, surprising, exciting, inciting?
Let us know what you think below!
Stitziel, Judd. Fashioning Socialism: Clothing, Politics, and Consumer Culture in East Germany. Oxford: Berg, 2005.
Bartlett, Djurdja. FashionEast: The Spectre that Haunted Socialism. MIT Press: 2010.
_________. “Let Them Wear Beige: The Petit-bourgeois World of Official Socialist Dress”. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2006. N 2: 127-164.
See also Heather Vaughan’s Worn Through review of Bartlett’s book and lecture at FIT. If you get a chance to see Bartlett speak in the future, go!
Opening photo credit: Venezuelan national colors, awaiting news of Chavez’s health (or otherwise) last Wednesday. Photo: AP/Ariana Cubillos.