Banana Republic is currently a store known for their business casual clothing, comprised of mid-level priced, versatile yet professional clothes and accessories. The store’s target clientele includes white collar professionals, young and old, and those wishing to present an affordable, luxurious aesthetic. How could this seemingly tame store have such a problematic origin?
The clothing store Banana Republic was created in 1978 by Patricia and Mel Ziegler. Throughout the 80s, the store was known for its safari style travel clothing with styles that included photographers’ vests and pith helmets. The founders of the company described their clothing styles as “vintage military surplus clothing in a new context.” This aesthetic with merchandise names such as “French army bush hat” and “army air forces scarf” mixed with the “Somalia skirt” and “Bombay dress” allows for obvious connections between the store and its links to colonialism and imperialism.
The aesthetic of their store had matched the bad taste their clothes had been shown in. This includes the army colored jeep and giant tusks that can be seen in the front of the stores. The mix between the jungle and the safari provides harmful stereotypes which exponentially increases as the founders are white Americans, a country that isn’t very well known for their cultural sensitivity.
The name of the store is also very harmful in itself. The term “banana republic” was coined by writer O. Henry after he had escaped to Honduras in order to escape embezzlement charges. He used the term in his novel Cabbages and Kings, in which he labeled a country based on Honduras a banana republic because of its “shady government and economy that depended on bananas.” The current definition of a banana republic is a small country with a corrupt, dictatorial government whose economy is dependent on a single export commodity, such as Guatemala and their forced dependence on bananas due to the United Fruit Company. According to the New York Times the Ziegler’s were well aware of the derogatory connotation of their business’ name.
While the Ziegler’s had explained that the aesthetics of their stores and merchandise as well as the store’s name were inspired by the cultures they saw on their trips to Africa and Southeast Asia, the harmful stereotypes and references to imperialism and colonialism are very apparent. The store was bought by the corporation Gap in 1983, but they had allowed the founders creative control until the 1987 stock market crash. This event led them to transition from the safari aesthetic to the business casual attire that remains to this day.