This week’s Fashion Don’t is awarded to our edgy friends at Urban Outfitters, who offered on their web catalogue a grungy pullover (“Get it or regret it!”) for the uber-grungy price of $129. This was no ordinary sweatshirt, however: On the front was imprinted the name and seal of Ohio’s Kent State University, surrounded by random holes in the fabric and splotches of red that could easily be mistaken for blood spatter.
To readers of a certain age, of course, the meaning was obvious: an allusion to the shooting deaths of four Kent State undergraduates, and the wounding of nine, by nervous National Guardsmen during a 1970 campus demonstration against the invasion of Cambodia.
The Scrapbook would be the first to acknowledge—ruefully, of course—that 1970 was 44 long years ago, and that the majority of Urban Outfitters’ customers were neither alive at the time nor are likely to be aware of the connotations of Kent State and a bloodstained sweatshirt. Indeed, this astonishing garment got us thinking about the point at which such historical incidents become fit subjects for humor or (in this case) exploitation.
Everyone agrees that, by any measure, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was a tragedy; but who has not laughed at the famous question: “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” The Second World War was a horror from beginning to end, but from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to the BBC’s Dad’s Army, it has not always been treated with solemnity.
Of course, the problem for Urban Outfitters is not just that the Kent State shootings remain indelible in many minds, but that the product in question is neither humorous nor respectful nor even quaint, but just unseemly. This is an industry, after all, that has tried to make heroin addiction, even female starvation, seem glamorous for profit. When the bloodstained Kent State sweatshirt became known, there was not much of a reservoir of understanding for Urban Outfitters.
Nor were things much improved when Urban Outfitters, after quickly yanking the sweatshirt from its website, plainly dissembled about it: The red stains are “discoloration” and the holes are “natural wear and fray,” said a company spokesman. “It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such.”
Oh, sure. Out of the 4,000 or so colleges and universities in America, the name of Kent State just happened to bubble to the surface at Urban Outfitters. To one colossal lapse in corporate taste may now be added an insult to our intelligence. Yet another reason to lament the death, earlier this month, of Joan Rivers, the public scourge of such nonsense.