Together, a pointed white hood and robe creates the distinctive outfit worn by America’s oldest and most infamous hate group, the Ku Klux Klan. But members of the terrorist organization donned very different costumes for much of the group’s early history. It took the influences of Hollywood and a mail-rder catalogue to establish the white supremist's garb of choice, Alison Kinney writes in her book Hood (Object Lessons), excerpted for the New Republic.
While the white robes—which were later mythologized by Klan members as depictions of Confederate ghosts—did show up in early costumes, it was initially more common for members to don costumes that came from a wide variety of folk traditions and pageants. Kinney writes:
Klansmen wore gigantic animal horns, fake beards, coon-skin caps, or polka-dotted paper hats; they imitated French accents or barnyard animals; they played guitars to serenade victims. Some Klansmen wore pointed hats suggestive of wizards, dunces, or Pierrots; some wore everyday winter hoods, pillowcases, or flour sacks on their heads. Many early Klansman also wore blackface, simultaneously scapegoating and mocking their victims.
During the Reconstruction era (1865-1877), this variety was what helped keep early versions of the Klan a secret. While testimonies from witnesses referenced the outlandish costumes, people in power denied that these attacks were evidence of efforts by a coordinated hate group. In 1890, with the ushering in of the Jim Crow laws, the Klan's first iteration mostly disbanded, as their prejudices had been successfully codified into law— meaning there was no need for lynch mobs to hide their faces and identities.
A nostalgia for the Reconstruction-era Klan surfaced among white Southerners around the turn of the 20th century. Thomas F. Dixon, Jr. wrote a trilogy of books that depicted Klansmen as heroes, including his most infamous piece, The Clansman. The 1905 novel, which featured illustrations by Arthur I. Keller, depicted Klansmen in the white hood-and-mask combo—a made-up uniform that became the Klan's ubiquitous attire once D.W. Griffith adapted the book into his blockbuster 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. "The critics were raving. People were on their feet cheering at the climax of the film, when the Klan is seen as a healing force—restoring order to the chaos of the South during Reconstruction," Dick Lehr, who wrote a book on the film, tells NPR.
The exact version of the hood seen in the film might have been influenced by Paris-trained costumer, Clare West, who worked on the production, Kinney suggests. This might explain the similarity with the outfits worn by penitents during some Holy Week processions in Europe, making the resemblance with the Klan outfit just a coincidence.
So how did all the Klan members get their hoods? A traveling organizer for several fraternal orders, including the Klan, saw an opportunity in the commercial success of the movie, and started selling hoods and robes in 1920. By 1921, the Klan began mass producing the costume, even publishing a “sumptuous, full-color, mail-order” catalogue, Kinney reports. They were tapping into a big market as by the 1920s, the Klan had once again become "a powerful polictical force in both the North and the South," notes the National Museum of American History.
The costume was less a disguise and more of an in-group identifier. As the Anti-Defamation League points out, the uniform hood and white robes served as a symbol that gave the hate group "a sense of power and belonging, as well as a quick way of identifying others who share[d] their beliefs." While financial difficulties and charges of tax evasion would cause the Klan to splinter and dissolve again, it emerged again as a smaller, violent presence during the Civil Rights Movement. The hood remains a part of the group, however, as does the hate, to this day.