Clive Martin is a London-based journalist. The views expressed here are the author’s own.
While most of us have never fallen prey to a cult, that doesn’t mean we’ve escaped their allure entirely. Many of us are still captivated by the mythologies behind these dubious and sometimes dangerous sects, and the wealth of films, television shows and books on the subject is surely proof of our enduring fascination.
Recent years have seen the likes of HBO’s “Big Love” and “Going Clear,” as well as Louis Theroux’s “My Scientology Documentary” and the eerie “Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene” delve into the disturbing world of cults. Netflix’s “Wild Wild Country” is the latest entry into the genre.
The six-part documentary series tells the bizarre story of how Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, and his followers took up residence in rural Oregon, embarking on a campaign of bioterrorism against the enraged local community.
Aside from all the poisoning, politics and preaching, Rajneesh’s followers were notable in the way they presented themselves in quasi-Buddhist red and orange robes, occasionally combined with a turtleneck and beads. In contrast to the wide collars and kipper ties of the native Oregonians, the “orange people” as they were sometimes referred to looked like from a different planet.
Guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his disciples in Oregon, USA. Credit: Matthew NAYTHONS/Gamma-Rapho/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
The Rajneeshan’s sartorial efforts weren’t fully appreciated at the time, but they’ve recently found many fans on the internet. Enthusiasts of the show cheerfully share images, and a number of fashion sites run pieces on how to get the Rajneeshan look. In fact, looking at pictures of the cult, you could be forgiven for believing you’d been given a preview of the latest Alessandro Michele collection for Gucci, with all the 70’s glad rags and lustrous manes of hair.
Such a strong focus on visual identity isn’t unusual in cults. Leaders are often keen to create a distinct image, combing through historical and religious iconography to draw people into their ranks.
How uniforms attract followers
History has long shown that if you want to get people to behave as you want, a uniform can go a long way. “A uniform is usually a clean slate, a starting point,” said Alex Esculapio, a writer and Ph.D. candidate with a focus on fashion and sociology. “It shows you’re not alone and you belong to a group of people. It becomes your new identity, and really signals a new start.”
Whether it’s cults, terrorist groups or paramilitary organizations, violent fringe factions often like to create a recognizable visual identity. Right-wing demagogues Oswald Mosley and Mussolini used drab colors, like black and brown, to create an image of militaristic strength, while Marxist groups seem to favor berets and fatigues. At protests around the world, you can find the instantly recognizable hoodies of the anti-fascist Black Bloc group. Religious cults might be more spiritual than political, but they clearly understand the power of the uniform.
English Leader of the British Union of Fascists Oswald Mosley (1896-1980) with some of his men, including William Joyce (1906-1946), aka Lord Haw Haw (far left). Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
“The thing that all cults, religions, or any social groups looking to distinguish themselves from mainstream culture have in common is a uniform that really sets them apart and makes all the members look alike. It creates a group identity, which is a signal to outsiders,” said Esculapio.
“They’re similar to an organized religion, who often have specific uniforms, such as Buddhist monks or Catholic priests, and there’s also an overlap with the fashion mentality in general, the idea of style tribes. I think it’s a dynamic that is present in all social life, but it becomes heightened in the case of cults.”
Perhaps the best-known example of this practice is the most violent and notorious cult of all, the so-called Manson family. In their early days at Spahn Ranch, Charles Manson cultivated a carefree, almost pastoral look for his family. The girls grew their hair long and uncombed, wore floral dresses and walked in bare feet. They could almost have been mistaken for a church group on an outing.
But after a series of brutal killings and a guilty verdict, Charles Manson shaved his head and his remaining supporters followed suit, creating a peculiar pseudo-Eastern look.
The flip side of the sartorial choices of cults
Manson was using aesthetic to both lure people in and to push them away. He created a pastoral, utopian, hippie version of his followers for when they needed to attract lost souls and runaways, and then turned them into a violent, freakish nightmare version for when they were put on a world stage.
Another infamous American cult who used uniform and stylistic language to create a feeling of purpose and vision was the suicide sect Heaven’s Gate.
The group shot to worldwide attention in 1997 when 39 members, including group leader Marshall Applewhite, took a lethal dose of phenobarbital and vodka, before laying down to die in adjoining bunk beds. But the most striking element of the photos splashed across the media was that every member was wearing the same pair of Nike Decade trainers and black jogging bottoms.
As morbid as these images were, the pictures of the cult members’ feet almost resembled a controversial fashion campaign, a feeling which was cemented when Saturday Night Live splashed Nike’s famous ‘”Just Do It” motto across the images and created a proto-meme straight from the realm of gallows humor.
Alex Esculapio, who has written about Heaven’s Gate, believes that the trainers and uniforms were a way to create an identifiable and relatable aesthetic.
“They were different from a lot of what people might expect from a cult because they were in touch with fashion. They were really keen on creating a visual identity and had been since the beginning. They had a few different incarnations, but they always used a specific style of clothing to emulate what they saw as aspirational. Nike shoes were particularly popular in the US in the 90’s. They had specific grooming rituals, [for example] none of the men had a beard and they shaved their heads.
“Their neighbor at the time described them as looking like tech-nerds, so obviously they were in touch with what was happening at the time. There was a tension between isolation and hyper-awareness of modern culture, they knew they needed to stay in touch to survive,” said Esculapio.
Some 4,000 ‘Moonies,’ believers of Unification Church which was named after the founder Moon Sun Myung, attend the mass wedding which began in the early 1960s. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images
However, some of the most dangerous and violent cults of all didn’t need to enforce identifiable dress codes on their followers. Reverend Jim Jones may have carefully cultivated his own preacher-in-sunglasses image, but his followers looked like they could have been pulled from any mall in America.
That lack of a distinct visual identity didn’t stop more than 900 members from killing themselves in his name. The same goes for David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, who visually resembled almost any other community in Texas, yet believed their leader to be the second coming and were willing to die for that.