Intersections The Forgotten History of Banana Republic
“Why do the stores still have that insulting name?”
This is Intersections, a column by Kashana Cauley. Every other month, Cauley will explore the intersection of class and culture in her life.
It’s spring 1998, and I’m stuck in a high school English class, transfixed by the jungle print T-shirt on a guy’s back. We live in Madison, Wisconsin, smack in the middle of the Midwest’s prairie flatlands, as far from the jungle as a person could physically or spiritually be. Yet I’m sitting behind this guy who, as a short distance track runner, I know primarily as someone who can perform the superhuman act of running a five-minute mile, and wondering where the hell he got a jungle shirt from. It’s a lovely shirt—black and white and densely patterned with leaves—and I’d rather lose myself in it than pay attention to any of the start-and-stop discussion our class is having about a book. Most of us are stuck in that no man’s land where the only two ways to achieve English class cool are to refuse to admit you’d read any of the books or, failing that, to never let on that you’d thought about them, and everyone’s dedication to pursuing one of these two strategies forever sticks long pauses in between people’s noncommittal statements about the book, turning English class into a quiet death march conducted between 1:30 and 2:30 every weekday afternoon.
At the end of the hour the guy in front of me stands up and turns around; I see the words “Banana Republic” printed on the top inch of his shirt’s front pocket. I am thoroughly confused, because the Banana Republic in the mall across the street from our high school sells nothing that invokes the jungle. There’s nothing wild about khaki pants or button-up collared shirts or high-necked shift dresses. But I’m in love with his shirt and dedicated to taking the several-thousand-feet hike across the street to see if I can find one for myself, even though I know, if I find one and set aside some of my meager earnings to buy it, that my mother will chastise me for buying what she calls “rich people’s clothes.”
But I don’t end up fighting with my mother because none of the Banana Republic employees I interrogate are aware of a time when their store ever carried clothing even similar to the shirt I saw; they’ve always sold khakis and sweaters and prim high heels to people. “Maybe it’s old,” one of them says.
I make a mental note to look into whether that’s true, but don’t remember to do so for more than fifteen years, in part because as I drift from college into law school Banana Republic is presented as an essential place to shop. I know that job interviews require suits, but I have no idea what to wear to the parties lawyers throw for students to try and entice us to work at their firms, or to the firm where I land a job the summer after my first year, because I’ve never worked in an office.
I ask around at school, and everyone tells me to go to Banana Republic, and I am crushed. The clothes seem boring and, since I’m on a student budget, expensive. It would take me years to realize that boring and expensive were the twin sartorial goals in lawyerland. Purchasing and then wearing Banana Republic clothes will be my first lesson into a whole set of—previously unknown to me—middle and upper-class conservative professional values: no cleavage, no short skirts, no heels above three inches, and flats are only considered formal enough because I’m tall. After a trip to Banana Republic, I return to classes to take a good look at what everyone’s wearing and find that yes, my law school classmates do seem to buy their entire wardrobes there. So I pony up for my first business casual clothes because I’m supposed to.
At the law firm I join after graduation, I learn that the other time-lacking female lawyers have decided that they will solve their eternal work wardrobe quandary by picking a clothing brand and sticking to it. Among these women Banana Republic is considered “basic,” but my working class roots won’t let me consider $128 blazers and $98 skirts cheap, and I still have a ton of student loans to pay off. So I stay quiet when they discuss clothes and buy my wardrobe elsewhere. I’ve owned enough Banana Republic clothing to pick issues with how it fits, and somewhere in the back of my head I think there’s something wrong with the company’s name.
In the 1890s, the writer O. Henry went to Honduras to escape embezzlement charges. In 1904, after his return to the United States, he published a novel called Cabbages and Kings, set in a country meant to resemble Honduras called Anchuria that he labeled a “banana republic” because it had a shady government and an economy that depended on bananas . Here’s his first mention of the term, which occurs on page 147 of the novel:
In the constitution of this small, maritime banana republic was a forgotten section that provided for the maintenance of a navy. This provision—with many other wiser ones—had lain inert since the establishment of the republic. Anchuria had no navy and had no use for one. It was characteristic of Don Sabas—a man at once merry, learned, whimsical and audacious—that he should have disturbed the dust of this musty and sleeping statute to increase the humour of the world by so much as a smile from his indulgent colleagues. With delightful mock seriousness the Minister of War proposed the creation of a navy.
The term he coined hung around long enough to be absorbed into popular culture as a slang insult for, as Wiktionary puts it, a “small country, especially one in Central America or the West Indies, that is dependent on a single export commodity (traditionally bananas) and that has a corrupt, dictatorial government.” O. Henry’s book is classified as satire; it attempts to convince you that it’s funny when a fruit company has more control over a country than its government does.
The retail company called Banana Republic was founded by Mel and Patricia Ziegler in 1978. According to The New York Times , a friend who heard their business name said it was a bad choice You’ll be picketed by people from small hot countries. ” So the Zieglers were well aware that they’d chosen an insulting name for their company.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Banana Republic sold safari clothing: pith helmets, safari jackets, photographers’ vests. The brand’s first store, in Beverly Hills, had a World War II army jeep in its front window, a salvaged bush plane suspended from its ceiling, and life-size model giraffes and elephants between the clothes on the sales floor . Its ceiling was painted to resemble a “blue Zimbabwean sky.” It also featured live tropical plants and a gurgling stream that ran down the middle of the sales floor. “A lot of people forget that there was a big safari craze in the mid-eighties,” Mike Madrid, Banana Republic’s production manager back then, told AdWeek .
The term safari usually conjures up visions of Africa, but the founders described their company’s aesthetic at its broadest as “vintage military surplus clothing in a new context .” Marketing materials from that era refer to Africa, South America, Nepal, Burma, and, under an illustration of a pith helmet, “Her majesty’s former burden, the colony of India ,” a country which is also described in the marketing copy for a ventilated shirt as “a blistering, dusty, absolutely wretchedly uncivilized, godawful, overbaked, undernourished misplaced Hades .”
A “ Bombay Shirtdress ” is deemed necessary because it’s “still the Dark Ages for women in much of the world. No pants! No shorts! No like it, go home!” A “ French West African Hat ” was invented because “now and then some former French colony suffers a trifling rebellion or economic collapse and France, for old times’ sake, sends troops or financiers to help restore order—Gallic lads who’ve never suffered a stronger sun than that of St. Tropez.”
In 1983, Gap bought Banana Republic and funded an expansion of the brand, opening the door for “mall stores decorated with Jeeps and jungle foliage ” to spring up around the US, but left the founders with creative control until 1987, when the stock market crash led Gap to ditch Banana Republic’s safari wear idea. The company’s founders sold their stake, and the brand transitioned into the business-casual-wear store it is today .
The jungle shirt I saw on the guy in front of me was from one of the early safari collections, and I saw a few more around in high school once I’d noticed the first one. Madison is an affluent city where most of its white people had little to do with either the poor or people of other races, and where our school curriculum barely mentioned the colonial period: an easy place for safari shirts to be worn without regard to their ugly class and racial implications. After spending hours flipping through archived eighties Banana Republic catalogs that appear to disdain the existence of people like me, I mentally beat myself up for ever wanting one of their shirts in the first place.
But beyond the jungle shirts and the pith-helmeted, giraffe-decorated history of Banana Republic lays one burning question: Why do the stores still have that insulting name? Since all the new version of Banana Republic shares with its ancestral form is the idea of selling khaki pants, it’s bizarre that the brand has retained its name for nearly thirty years after the safari experiment ended. Mel Ziegler once mentioned that he ran into Don Fisher, one of the co-founders of Gap, at a party years after Ziegler and his wife sold their stake in Banana Republic. Fisher mentioned that he felt the Zieglers had, at the time of the Gap sale, “taken a metaphor and gotten as much as we were going to get out of it .” While Fisher’s quote undoubtedly refers to the idea of selling safari clothing, it feels like an apt way to describe the use of the Banana Republic name as well.
There’s nothing like learning the history behind an insulting term to darken your future encounters with it. When I pass Banana Republic stores now I feel a twinge of disgust. They’re cheerful enough looking places from outside, full of bright lighting and perky employees and focused women who remind me of my law school student self looking over wool skirts and polyester blouses that won’t be noticed in climate controlled offices. But I always see the interior, and then I look up at the store name, and all that perkiness is ruined for me. After the disgust now mentally comes memories of catalogued pith helmets, mesh bags the catalog states can carry both freshly killed game and fresh farmers’ market produce, and the idea that it’s OK to have a brand name that states that warmer countries are not to be taken seriously.