E: An Improbable Safari

February 23rd, 2011 § 39 comments

Unsuitable Safari Wear

A few of you have expressed interest in an exploration of what Banana Republic’s name references. Ask, and you shall receive a nerdy exposition with a bibliography. If you didn’t ask, just skip down to the bottom.

Although the phrase “banana republic” may, for many of us, call to mind the retail brand, the term actually has a very different historical usage. Merriam-Webster defines a “banana republic” as “a small dependent country usually of the tropics; especially one run despotically,” with the term dating back to 1904. The name references dictatorships that supported the exploitation of large-scale plantation agriculture (historically bananas) for economic gain.

So how in the world did a clothing retailer end up with that as a name? The Banana Republic clothing line was founded in 1978 by Mel and Patricia Ziegler as a safari and travel-themed company. (Interestingly, they were also co-founders of The Republic of Tea. They seem to have a thing for naming companies in relationship to fictional colonial encounters.) Mel Ziegler says that they named the company as “part of a whimsy of creating an imaginary republic where I was Minister of Propaganda and Finance and Patricia was Minister of Culture.” The Gap bought Banana Republic in 1983 and subsequently began shifting the brand away from its original travel theme (the Travel and Safari catalogues were discontinued in 1988) and towards being a mainstream luxury brand, though certain tropes of travel and discovery continue to appear — whenever relevant to broader fashion trends — in the company’s clothing and marketing. (For example, despite all of the giraffe print and safari dresses and cargo pants that have been in stores the past few seasons, I distinctly remember a 2004ish marketing campaign with balloons, croquet, and pink and white pleated skirts.)

What I find most interesting is not a debate over what the name does or does not mean for Banana Republic as the brand currently defines itself, but instead what its rise — and recurring motif of travel — says about some broader cultural moves in the United States. In a much bigger essay on the relationship between American Studies and Postcolonial studies, Brian Edwards momentarily digresses, suggesting that there was an “efflorescence of colonial nostalgia within U.S. popular culture during the 1990s” (73). He cites a range of examples: the films The English Patient and The Sheltering Sky, the J. Peterman clothing catalogue (that like the old BR catalogue would sprinkle colonialist anecdotes throughout), the “faux colonialist” feel of furniture stores like The Bombay Company, the growing popularity of Banana Republic and Anthropologie, and the 1990 Ralph Lauren “Safari” perfume campaign, which featured well-appointed models lounging in exotic locations in Africa and the Middle East. Drawing from a framework of national narratives offered by Donald Pease, Edwards argues that the success of such businesses and marketing campaigns can be understood as a “nostalgia for a colonial encounter the U.S. never had” and, in the wake of the Cold War and the accompanying economic and political shifts, “a process that helped establish the U.S. state and its major corporate apparati as global managers, accomplished by producing…sensual fictions of the older (colonial) order” (73). I would love to hear what some American Culture Studies folks think about that.

On a more pedestrian level — and having not brushed up on my travel theory — I think that the notion of exotic travel and exploration has an appeal that’s also intertwined with certain class and gender norms. Admittedly, in a marketing sense, places like Anthropologie and Banana Republic are smart to capitalize (hee! Marxist joke!) on this desire.

So, much like the travel narrative used to sell it, this silk skirt with its front patch pockets, even in its deceptively sturdy olive green color, is a total fantasy. This skirt will not withstand either a safari on the African plains or a day with my toddler. For a day of playing dress-up and gathering inspiration for spring dressing, however, it was perfect. It took a while to get the right mix, but I loved the end result that mixed a variety of textures — silk, cashmere, and leather — in a subdued color palette. Oh, Banana Republic, if I won $50 to spend, I would be tempted to buy this confection of a skirt, but let’s be frank. I would end up with one of your staples, like your glorious classic trench or pleated sheath dress.

Cardigan and Lace Detail

E: Improbable Safari

Want more to read on colonial nostalgia and clothing retail? You could also check out:

D’Urso, Gabriella. “Urban Outfitters to Anthropologie: From Hipster Grunge to Hippie Chic.” Journal of Culture and Retail Image 2 (2009): 1-8, accessed February 22, 2011. http://www.library.drexel.edu/publications/dsmr/D’urso%20final.pdf

Edwards, Brian T. “Preposterous Encounters: Interrupting American Studies with the (Post)Colonial, or Casablanca in the American Century.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 23 no. 1 (2003): 70-86.

Kaplan, Caren. “‘A World without Boundaries:’ The Body Shop’s Trans/National Geographics.” Social Text 43 (Autumn 1995): 45-66.

Smith, Paul. “Visiting the Banana Republic.” Social Text 21 (1989): 128-148.

Smith considers Banana Republic’s pre-Gap travel-themed catalogues: hand-illustrated, eclectic items accompanied by fictional backstories that seem to be from colonial narratives but in fact have no historical or cultural specificity. Smith argues that this catalogue as a kind of evacuation of history from purposeful representation, and he uses the catalogue’s text and image relationship to launch a critique of late capitalist “inflated truths.”

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§ 39 Responses to E: An Improbable Safari"

  1. Jessica says:

    Thanks for the back story on Banana Republic’s name. I’d use a gift card for a new spring weight cardigan.

  2. Jessica says:

    And, I’d already “liked” BR on Facebook — does that count?!

  3. Christina says:

    And posts like this are fabulous. Nerdy expositions for the win!

  4. Emma says:

    Absolutely love this look. The mix of lace and safari skirt is very cool.

  5. Julie F says:

    I just came across this issue in the intro to Chaudhuri and Strobel (eds), Western Women and Imperialism (1992): “Since the 1970s, a marked resurgence of interest in colonial matters has occurred, at times verging on colonial nostalgia. Banana Republic, an insulting term used to describe Central American nations whose oligarchies were supported by United States fruit companies and United States foreign policy, is unabashedly used as a trade name for a line of safari clothes.” — no citations or further discussion but those are the opening sentences of the book.

  6. Bella says:

    Thanks E., this is the kind of stuff I want to see from you chics! I could go and see the BR outfits styled on any other blog but only you could integrate that with some level-headed discussion on the origins of the brand and its contemporary cultural connotations.

  7. Erin says:

    This is fantastic! And, of course, makes me want to buy it all….but, like you, if I have a $50 gift card I would end up with a staple that is dramatically lacking from my wardrobe: a good button-up blouse , like this non-iron sateen one (http://bananarepublic.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=5039&vid=1&pid=715604&scid=715604192). BR makes them like few others…it’s quite difficult for me to find one that looks appropriate for the classroom given my body shape!

  8. Stacey says:

    This really good together!! I am going to have to mimic :)

  9. estie says:

    what a great promo! i’d splurge with something versatile, yet with subtle pop, something i don’t usually think about — shoes! the Sheldon modern t-strap wedge in orange or green, perhaps?

  10. k says:

    This is what sets this blog apart from the others! I love that you look at cultural issues, discuss the orgination of clothing article, and messages they send, ect. I am always intrigued when discussions of message tees, gold jewelry, gender, ect come up and you ladies always do a fabulous job of exploring the issue at hand.
    I will admit, I was shocked to see that you are now accepting sponsorships and taking courtesy of items, because it seemed to me, that using your actualy clothes and actual budgets was another one of the great things that seperated you. I suppose though, like everything else, in order to compete, you have to play the part.
    Anyways, whatever you as a group are doing, keep at it, because this formula works for you, and I must admit, I love this blog!

    • K, there are a number of really good blogs that tackle both issues of style and culture in addition to the Chic’s fabulous blog. Already Pretty, In Professorial Fashion, Oranges and Apples, and Narrowly Tailored – just to name a few.

    • admin says:

      K – I just have to jump in and address your comment because you’re not alone in expressing your concerns. We’re received some similar comments and I’d like to clarify that we’re looking for paid sponsorship that would allow us to incure a bit of monthly income to offset some of the costs of this blog…our Pro Flickr account, the shipping on all the giveaways we host, some of our camera equipment and accessories, etc. Being on a student budget, a bit of monthly financial help would go a long way for us.

      We’re not looking to start wearing items predominently sent to us by companies. We love being creative with how we accumulate our wardrobe – sales, thrift stores, hand me downs, eBay, etc – and would never want to trade that in. We’ve always accepted items for review that mesh with our style and we’re especially keen to do that when our readers benefit in the process, that’s how we are able to host those awesome giveaways.

      But rest assured that the scope of this blog will not change. If we’re lucky enough to get some companies that are a good fit with our ethos to financially sponsor our site, we’d just have an easier time meeting the financial demands of this project of ours. We love maintaining academichic and we have no plans of changing the basic premise of it. I hope that addresses your initial concern about us taking on sponsorship and thanks for bringing it up and leaving a comment!

      S.

      • k says:

        Woah, 4 days without a computer and it seems I have missed a lot!

        La Historiadora- thanks for the tips on other great blogs, I will be sure to check them out!

        S- I appreciate you replying to my comment, and I am glad to hear that the ladies and gent of academichic will not become walking billboards for modcloth or any other retailer. I understand that you are on student budgets, and there are costs that go into this site, the URL fees, the flicker, and postage gets higher everyday, not to mention the time that you take out of your daily lives to post and reply to readers. I think the transperency that you are showing is great. I am glad to see you are acting ethically and also remaing true to yourselves. I look forward to more creative outfits and discussions!

  11. Izzi says:

    Wow, E – that was a wonderfully crafted, thoughtful review of colonial nostalgia. I feel like a new part of my brain is active now! Thank you for your ladylike, joyous style and engaging, reflective writing. And for occasionally including pictures of baby e – he’s such a sweetface!

  12. PH says:

    I would get the BR monogram ruched goddess dress http://bananarepublic.gap.com/browse/product.do?cid=50130&vid=1&pid=802909. I love the simplicity (and comfort) of an easy summer dress and this one is perfect!

  13. Jennifer M. says:

    I remember the old Banana Republic stores. Ours had a jungle jeep inside and huge fake palm trees. I used to have a BR t-shirt with a giraffe and a map of some exotic locale in the background. Thanks for bringing back memories!

  14. Alex says:

    Great info, thanks! I’ve been following Academichic for about a year now, and as a student of Communication with a focus on American popular culture and fashion, I found this post really fascinating!

  15. sarahrice says:

    I was just discussing the origins of the store name last week with a colleague! You do a great job giving us background and explaining the context of BR’s name, but don’t you think BR’s name trivializes some pretty brutal realities of colonialism? It makes colonialism seem ‘quaint,’ something the US didn’t get to do, but that glosses over some pretty harsh aspects of colonialism. Many people today give similar treatment to plantations in the American South. This era is also characterized as ‘quaint’ and when folks sipped tea on the front porch – but they neglect the reality that the lifestyle was supported by free labor (from slaves) and afforded only to the wealthy few. Anyway, I know it’s complicated. I mean, I have been known to shop at BR, but I wanted to make that point.

    • admin says:

      Sarahrice – I agree, and I think that I was trying to get at that a bit with the term “colonial nostalgia,” where the colonial experience is romanticized and prettified. I think that under the Gap umbrella, BR has purposefully moved away from what was a bad naming choice that reflected some emerging and unfortunate trends in broader American culture. I suppose one could try to argue that for many young consumers who don’t remember BR’s full of palm trees and jeeps, the company has evacuated the meaning of the name altogether. Does that ever really work? Probably not.

      I really still wrestle with Anthropologie’s name as I think that this company has a more active fetishization of colonialism/exploration through its perpetual emphasis on travel, eclecticism and collecting “unique” items that have multiple, cosmopolitan references. Part of BR’s distancing from its “travel and safari” roots has been its move towards more corporate, classic attire rather than the distinct pieces that Anthropologie is known for.

      I’ve chosen to still shop, selectively, from both of these stores, but I can’t fault someone who decides to eschew, especially if she or he does so as a consistent statement across retail brands.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response!

      - E

      • sarahrice says:

        thank you for the reply!
        This is a fascinating topic and i’m so glad academichic is exploring it. I love that you interweave the aesthetics of fashion and self expression with such thoughtfulness. And as someone in the public history/archives/libraries field, I find interjecting this sort of thing with historical context to be thrilling! nerd alert!
        thank you again!

        • Inder says:

          I was wondering if you were going to address this during this promotion! As a cultural anthro. major, back in the day, I have to admit, that the name “Banana Republic” has always been a big turnoff for me. (I shop there, sure, I love the nice, simple aesthetic, but the name SUCKS.)

          Colonial nostalgia is nostalgia for a time when white people enjoyed undeserved and unearned affluence, by using FORCE against the colonized! Not something we should feel nostalgia for. Blech.

          I am always intrigued when I see the “safari” style come back. One the one hand, these are classic, utilitarian styles, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But the romance of mosquito-netting and drinking gin & tonic on the veranda … that’s not so innocent.

          I’m really glad you brought the issue up, at least, even if your comments aren’t quite as harsh as mine. After all, I DO actually like their clothes. :-)

          • Inder says:

            P.S. I love Anthropologie’s clothes too, and that’s another terrible name-choice. A good reminder of how colonialist and racist the origins of the study of anthropology (let’s go study the Natives in Bora-Bora! they’re really weird!) were. We can try to get past it, but we can’t change the past. Sigh.

            Still colonial nostalgia is nostalgia for racism and violence. The “romance” is the romance of power.

  16. sarahrice says:

    oh! and thanks for the reading list!

  17. Denise says:

    Interesting history lesson! I’d put the gift card toward a wrap dress, which, as a grad student, would bring it down to my price range.

  18. Laura says:

    Glad you mentioned the name issue – I’m like sarahrice in that I *hate* the name because I feel it celebrates colonialism and oppression. I really wish it were something else. I do shop there, but would be happier if it had a different name – my husband refuses to buy anything from BR because of the name.

    I suppose I’m being two-faced in that I did enter the drawing for the gift card, but I was uneasy when I saw you guys start this week of sponsored posts. I would prefer that you not do these kinds of things, even if it means we can’t win anything. You could take donations for the cost of your hosting/shipping etc. instead of looking for sponsors.

  19. Lindy says:

    Why cannot I find these outfits at my local (very smal) BR or on line? All I find are pastels or beige??????

  20. Rita says:

    Such an interesting historical reflection. It’s so nice to have a place where one can actually do this sort of thinking and analysis. Lucky you!

  21. Jen says:

    This is seriously the best post that has been on this blog in a long time– I think it’s interesting that the store was formed in the late 70′s after the Vietnam war ended– it’s almost as if the U.S had to re-assert itself in the global context. It’s particularly telling that Banana Republic chose to do so through the use of colonialism– William Spanos’ arguments about American Exceptionalism would be really useful here. Don Pease seems to be more psychoanalytic while Spanos takes a more ontological approach to American Exceptionalism. Just as Pease argues in his new book that the Vietnam war left our national identity in, well, shambles, Spanos claims that the Vietnam war was ultimately justified by our identification as “exceptional.” I think Banana Republic fits into all of this through what seemed to be their desire to create their own state, one based off of fictional colonial domination. That domination seems linked to the Vietnam war and the violence of the American War machine. Economically speaking, they seemed to be creating an exceptional sphere where they could play out their desire to travel to and ultimately colonize the wilderness. None of this is well thought out as it’s 7 in the morning and I haven’t had a cup of coffee yet but the books are really worth reading! Don Pease’s new book is pretty good and Spanos’ text on Vietnam is fabulous. Either way– thanks for letting me think about my clothing in new ways! It’s important that we explore the larger contexts of what we choose to wear.

  22. Becky says:

    I heart your works cited list. I can’t wait to nerd it up and read those. Thank you for the interesting perspective and back story.

  23. Jen says:

    Thank you! This is why your blog is my favorite!

  24. [...] I say something about the outfit, I just wanted to note that I’ve loved the discussion on the background of Banana Republic’s name and the cultural nostalgia imbued in the company’s campaign. Thanks to my co-blogger E, I’ve learned a few new [...]

  25. Kathleen says:

    Great post, and it made me dust off the thinking cap for a bit as I’m currently working in a job that has nothing to do with what I studied in school. As a child of immigrants who come from a country (the Philippines) with a 400 plus year old history of colonialism from different “invaders” (mainly Spain, China, and the U.S.–the country is even named after a Spanish king), I’ve seen firsthand what colonialism can do to a country and its “native” identities so romanticizing it upsets me somewhat as the reality is definitely not pretty. That said, I do like Banana Republic’s clothes, but in the future I may rethink some of my clothing choices/buys from the store and what they might reflect.

  26. bette says:

    erm, this makes about as much sense as invoking judith butler in the right to wear a belted cardigan. i really don’t see how buying, wearing and promoting clothes from banana republic is actually an act of recovering a lost colonial center and unveiling the privilege contained within that center when the ultimate conclusion is that that safari skirt is perfect for “gathering inspiration on spring dressing.” i get it, we’re grad students, we can only afford things from the br clearance rack in order to look decently professional, but can we please call a spade a spade? and maybe feature some clothes that show a little ingenuity beyond the mall?

  27. Someone says:

    I will add another historical detail here – I also remember the “old” BR stores, but even further back, I remember their catalog-only beginnings and purchased a few of the first BR offerings. They started out with real vintage deadstock. One of my very very favorite pieces was a gorgeous gray-blue wool RAF (Royal Air Force) sweater, that just looked great on me! Unfortunately it sustained enough damage over the years that I let it go a while back.

    Of course, there is not an endless supply of vintage deadstock, so that business plan was ultimately unsustainable. I didn’t really care for the new replica stuff that they switched to (which must have been part of the Gap switchover – the much larger market served by the Gap would have to be supplied that way).

  28. Nadine says:

    So interesting! I’m not from the States, and Banana Republic has always seemed a bizarre choice of name to me – this was fascinating.

  29. Lucy says:

    I wasn’t able to access the first resource, i.e.:

    http://www.library.drexel.edu/publications/dsmr/D’urso%20final.pdf

    Loved the comments about Banana Republic’s name. I’d considered it myself, and wondered why – especially during the 90s when awareness of multiculturalism reached its peak – there were never any protests against the brand. I’ve thought it seriously offensive. On the other hand, I accepted Anthropologie blithely without any real consideration of its roots.

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