Controversial sweatshirt hits home for Emerson professor

by Rebecca Fiore / Beacon Staff • September 21, 2014

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The 'vintage' sweatshirt sold for $129.
Via Urban Outfitters
The 'vintage' sweatshirt sold for $129.
Via Urban Outfitters

When Emerson professor Gregory Payne saw Urban Outfitters sell a Kent State University sweatshirt — stained and splattered with what appeared to be blood — he said he tried to bite his tongue initially. But, since he has spent more than 40 years studying the massacre, he said he realized it was his responsibility to respond.

He broke his silence when Emerson’s news site asked him for his opinion on the matter, the day the sweatshirt was discovered. According to Payne, the article has over 5,000 views now.

“I think it has hit a responsive chord among people,” he said in an interview with the Beacon.

On May 4, 1970, four unarmed students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard during a demonstration against the Vietnam War. Payne was attending the nearby University of Illinois during the event. 

“That’s when America realized that the war had come home,” he said.

Since then, Payne has been researching, writing, and analyzing the massacre. He has written a book, Mayday: Kent State, and a play, Kent State: A Requiem, about the event. 

“Sometimes people need to realize that even though we live in a celebrity spectacle time period, we should realize that tragedies have taken their toll on people and that you can’t really exploit them for these purposes,” he said. “I think Urban Outfitters knew exactly what they were doing.”

Payne recalled seeing the infamous Pulitzer Prize winning Kent State photo taken by John Filo on a t-shirt in Bloomingdale’s a couple of years ago. But he said he didn’t have a issue with that item because it brought awareness to the incident.

“That’s different than something that looks like a blood soaked, bullet riven sweatshirt,” he said. “Where is our moral compass?”

After public outcry, Urban Outfitters responded to the sweatshirt claiming it was not the intention of the company to offend anyone, and the item was originally from the Rose Bowl Flea Market purchased to be a part of the “sun-faded vintage collection.”

In its apology, the company wrote, “There is no blood on the sweatshirt nor did we ever promote it as such. The discoloration that has been mistaken for blood is from natural fading and sun exposure.”

Mary Quigley, a senior journalism major, said she, like many of her peers, was troubled by the garment.

“I thought it was very tacky,” she said. “I believe, in the past, Urban Outfitters has had items that were provocative in a tasteless way so it doesn’t surprise me that they would do it.”

Mary Harkins, who teaches History of Fashion and Decor at Emerson, wrote in an email to the Beacon she is "not shocked at the lack of sensitivity from the brand."

Harkins gave examples of other marketing strategies that companies have used to be more controversial. She listed Nine West’s summer 2014 campaign of what the modern woman should be, which included “finding a starter husband” shoes and owning a “walk of shame” bag. 

She said in comparison with other crass images out there today, the Kent State sweater is consistent with today’s culture.

“Personally, I think that it trivializes an event that seems pivotal to American life in the 60s and 70s,” Harkins wrote, “and is beyond insulting and offensive.”