By Brian Fencil
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In the midst of the World Cup, fans have been buying troves of jerseys and supporting their teams through clothing. Surprisingly, according to an article from The Wall Street Journal, some of the best selling vintage jerseys are not only from a country that is not in the games, but from a country that doesn’t even exist anymore. Vintage CCCP jerseys are a current favorite.
According to a salesperson from one store, most of the jerseys are sold to fans who remember that the Soviet Union had a strong soccer team–a small fraction support communism. This trend has us wondering why CCCP, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara are marketable.
We’ve all seen it, the high-contrast image of Che Guevara and his wryly hair; it is one of the most merchandized images in the world. His guerilla warrior look and stoic gaze have become emblematic for “for the revolutionary—-and even the merely discontented youth.” His appearance even impressed Benicio del Toro who said, “Damnit, this guy is cool-looking!”
His cool persona was partly created by the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, in which Che was painted as an idealist, hurt by the injustice in the world. His face has become so sellable that there is an entire store dedicated to him and Che’s face has even been seen on the runway.
The truth however, is much darker.
Che Guevara was also a murderer, and was responsible for at least 216 deaths. He also created work camps for gay people that operated under the slogan “Work will make a man out of you,” and he probably supported the plot to destroy New York’s Macy’s, Gimbals’, Bloomingdale’s, and Grand Central Station on the day after Thanksgiving.
If the simplest answer is a correct one, then we can assume that it is ignorance that allows people wear Che, Mao, or Stalin shirts, and there have been a few incidences that support this argument. In one case, a billboard of Hitler alongside Superman was painted by university students, who had no clue it was offensive. Even Mercedes-Benz didn’t realize how offensive using the image of Guevara in their ad would be until they were forced to apologize for using it.
However, ignorance is not the only factor involved. Many times the information about the atrocities conducted at the hands of these historic figures is given to the buyer right in the product description. The description of one Mao Zedong shirt says he “caus[ed] severe damage to the culture, society, economy and foreign relations of China, as well as a probable death toll in the tens of millions.” And facts about Che’s mass executions are published on The Che Store website as well. People do often miss the obvious, and ignorance is certainly a factor, but it is not the only one.
Youth rebellion, the growing distance between the present and the past, social openness, and just the aesthetics of this old memorabilia need to be considered. But, the biggest reason for popularity of this type of memorabilia lies within the nature of symbols.
Symbols are shorthand, a summary of an immense amount of information. An image of Che, for example, summarizes his work as a doctor, his political ambitions, his military career, and the changes he hoped to make in the world. This is part of the reason why CCCP jerseys are selling so well: people are identifying with one layer of meaning in the CCCP jerseys, a great soccer team, and not their corrupt government.
Complex symbols also gain popularity in another way. By carrying many meanings, a symbol appeals to very different people. A teenager might identify with Che because of his ability to leave the normal path of life and become a revolutionary, while someone else might identify with his ceaseless drive toward a goal. Yet if bottom lines are any judge of the matter, these symbols, be they murdering revolutionaries or ruthless dictators, have huge markets of interest.