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.
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.”