Heritage? Whose Heritage? Sourcing the iconography of “heritage”


Authenticity claims seem to pervade the narrative in contemporary branding strategies be it in the fashion industries, in culture or politics. On my hunt for iconographic evidence I delved further into the archives of the early sociopolitical endeavors that tried to create a photographic overview of the actual situation of people living through the times that were a‘ changing. The images taken by the group of photographers for the Farm Security Administration between 1934 and 1943 still shape our perception of the life on the land and in America’s small towns and big cities. Under the directives of Roy Stryker, professional photographers and non were given the task to create a visual archive of rural America on the threshold of the modern age. Early on the outcome of this work influenced writers, photographers and cinematographers. During the writing process to his novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, John Steinbeck drew extensively from the written reports of Tom Collins, the manager at the RA/FSA camp Arvin/Weedpatch, a so called “Migratory Labor Camp” in Kern County SoCal. Tom Collins gave Steinbeck the opportunity to see in person what he later would describe in his novel: the people, the life and the struggles on their perennial fight to move forward in society. In the cinematographic transposition of the novel director John Ford accessed directly the photographic works of the FSA to create and shape the realities in his film.

It’s these two works, one literary and the latter of iconographic importance, that form the basis of the consumer oriented branding and communication on how American Heritage (mostly white anglosaxon protestant) looked like in the “good” old times. Since the early 1980’s these narratives helped create the brands, that filled the niche in the fashion industries for the adult male consumer. When I recently reread John Steinbeck’s novel and in parallel scrolled through a collection of photographs from the new deal era, I was surprised of how many similarities there were between the aesthetics of contemporary revival subcultures, their “heritage” styling, and those images. Tom and Al Joad became this way prototypes for an imagery that went stripped bare from their tragic fate in the post depression era America and transmuted into what we can call a male iconographic myth. In Steinbecks accurate description Tom is a clean looking young men, even though the clothes appear to be cheap and don’t fit him. “His gray cap was so new that the visor was still stiff and the button still on, not shapeless and bulged as it would be when it had served for a while all the various purposes of a cap—carrying sack, towel, handkerchief. His suit was of cheap gray hardcloth and so new that there were creases in the trousers. His blue chambray shirt was stiff and smooth with filler. The coat was too big, the trousers too short, for he was a tall man. The coat shoulder peaks hung down on his arms, and even then the sleeves were too short and the front of the coat flapped loosely over his stomach. He wore a pair of new tan shoes of the kind called “army last,” hob-nailed and with half-circles like horseshoes to protect the edges of the heels from wear.” Steinbeck’s description of the so called “prison suit” reads like the blueprint for the advertisement of contemporary high end “rugged” male fashion. Al Joad, the young sibling, wears the clothes of a teenage rebel with basically just one thing in mind: to impress the young ladies in his rural neighborhood. He therefore has “stiff jeans, with the bottoms turned up eight inches to show his heeled boots, his three inch belt with copper figures on it, even the red arm bands on his blue shirt and the rakish angle of his Stetson hat could not build him up to his brother’s stature;” Here’s maybe the first description of what later would be called the classic cowboy or later motorcycle rebel look. For the latter just replace the Stetson with a tan motorcycle cap with leather visor. When we try to look at the two brothers In the terms of C. G. Jung, founder of analytical psychology, they represent archetypal images. The distinct association between their outfits and their life in absolute penury has been disrupted and transformed into a positive style of a contemporary subculture. As inspiring as their outfits could be seen today, their fate in history surely isn’t. What their archetypal images represent on a more subconscious stage, and why their narrative still works in our society, I can only suppose. One aspect, I am sure, concerns the set of values they lived their lives on and which seem to have vanished in contemporary society.

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