See someone in a white robe and hood, and what do you think? Klansman, of course, but apparently they didn't always dress that way. A new book titled Hood (Object Lessons) by Alison Kinney looks at the garment's history, from torturers to medieval clerics to Red Riding Hood—and its odd rise to popularity among members of the Ku Klux Klan, the Smithsonian reports. Seems that during Reconstruction (1865-1877), Klansmen wore everything from huge animal horns to polka-dotted paper hats to pillow cases and flour sacks. "They imitated French accents or barnyard animals; they played guitars to serenade victims," writes Kinney, as excerpted in the New Republic. "Many early Klansman also wore blackface, simultaneously scapegoating and mocking their victims."
The variety of disguises enabled Southern leaders to deny the existence of a coordinated KKK, Kinney says. When Reconstruction ended—allowing white men to take power and pass Jim Crow laws—many of them quit the Klan and committed lynchings without any disguise. Then came DW Griffith's wildly popular 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which lionized the Klan and dressed them in white hoods and robes (perhaps influenced by Freemason outfits or garments worn by Holy Week penitents in Europe). Soon a wily salesman benefited by selling the KKK white hoods and robes; the KKK then mass-produced them and boosted sales with a mail-order catalogue. "The hoods made Klan membership cool," writes Kinney; "they helped rebrand the Klan as a popular, patriotic, money-making, white clubhouse movement." (A former Klan leader is hosting an MLK event.)