How Did Smokey Bear Become a Contemporary Fashion Icon?
The Forest Service mascot turns 75 this month, with multiple clothing collabs to his name
I’ve considered buying a Peanuts watch for years. I’m not talking about a prized vintage piece I’ve coveted since childhood (like Judge Reinhold’s Oscar Mayer weenie whistle in The Santa Clause) or some $1,000 timepiece that pairs Snoopy with a Swiss movement. All that interests me is a simple Charlie Brown Timex, partially because I’m from Charles Schulz’s home state and because I try not to take myself too seriously. But I’ve never been able to hit the Buy Now button.
I’ve just never come to terms with grown adults walking around with cartoon characters for children on their chests (and sleeves and wrists). It makes me think of The Time Machine, but maybe that’s my personal fashion burden to bear. No matter how deeply cartoons have infiltrated menswear — admittedly we’re probably past the peak of Kaws and Mickey Mouse, but Kanye’s Rick and Morty look says there are plenty of other shows to repurpose — I can’t justify incorporating them into my wardrobe.
Imagine my surprise when I came across Filson’s new Smokey Bear collection, recently released in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service mascot’s 75th birthday on August 9. Now this is cartoon-branded clothing I can cosign. I’d gladly don the camp shirt, patterned with Smokey in his jeans and ranger hat. I don’t need anymore T-shirts, but I’ll take one long-sleeve, please, the one with Smokey’s vintage mug saying, “Prevent wildfires!” You could easily make the argument that what I’m drawn to is Filson’s aesthetic, which is notably better than some of the other licensed (and unlicensed) Smokey Bear collections. But I don’t think that’s it.
Smokey Bear’s history has always been one interwoven with service and directed at adults as much, or even more, than kids. Unlike Sesame Street or SpongeBob SquarePants, the symbol of Smokey doesn’t draw on nostalgia alone; it hangs on one of the few threads still holding this divided country together: our collective desire to protect the wild places that connect us to our ideal version of America. There are no politics involved, just us and Smokey versus wildfires and the imbeciles who cause them. “Only you can prevent wildfires,” he says. He’s calling on all of us to be stewards.
According to the Ad Council, “the Smokey Bear Wildfire Prevention campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history,” officially beginning back on August 9th, 1944. The circumstances leading up to artist Albert Staehle’s original poster of Smokey pouring water on a campfire included both Japanese attacks on the Pacific Coast during World War II and the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention program only being able to use Disney’s Bambi characters for a year. Circumstances are, obviously, much different today. Disney is more focused on superheroes than nature conservation, and a main contributor to wildfires isn’t a foreign power but climate change.
So why does Smokey Bear feel as contemporary, and necessary, today as back in the ‘40s? To answer that, let’s take a brief look at the mammal’s resurgence in the fashion realm, including commentary from the people behind the clothing collaborations.
Shinola and Filson, August 2016
Filson’s history with the U.S. Forest Service goes back to the 1920s when employees donned the brand’s pants and jackets as unofficial uniforms (eventually, from the ‘50s to the ‘90s, Filson was contracted to make actual uniforms). But their first collection featuring Smokey Bear didn’t appear until 2016. The line included T-shirts and Pendleton blankets, but the standout piece tagged in Shinola for a version of Filson’s Mackinaw Field Watch featuring Smokey’s face and tagline on the front and name on the caseback. “The U.S. Forest Service was generous to let us honor Smokey Bear, and working with such a humble and lovable character made the whole process a joy,” said Greg Varras, Design Director at Shinola who worked on the project. “Being an American brand, we felt a bit of responsibility to celebrate our national icon in the right way.” Needless to say, the limited-edition run of 1,000 is no longer available.
Noah, July 2017
The mission of American menswear brand Noah has always included a conscience, whether that’s working against the culture of fast fashion or replacing their website on Black Friday with a video of Black Flag’s “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie.” In July 2017, Noah released a Smokey Bear collection that featured T-shirts, hoodies and hats. As they wrote on their blog at the time, the impetus was both personal and universal, citing “a manmade wildfire in Brookhaven on Long Island” that was close to home for the New York brand, and the fact that “wildfires continue to rise as climate change continues to cause longer and hotter springs and summers.” More directly, they also cited the new administration’s efforts to cut funding for the Forest Service as well as the National Parks Service, efforts that are still ongoing today.
The Landmark Project and Chaco, May 2019
Another standout 75th anniversary collection came via the outdoor-recreation champions at The Landmark Project and the super comfortable but much maligned Chaco. In the brief mission statement, the brands are straightforward about the reason for the collaboration: “Through climate change and extreme weather events, wildfires continue to threaten communities and public lands across the country.” Thus, 10 percent of the profits from sales of the shirts, hats, dog accessories and multiple shoe styles go to the Smokey Bear Fund for Wildfire Prevention and Education. In fact, back in 1952 Smokey Bear was removed from the public domain so that his likeness would have to be licensed, and thus commercial use of the mascot has since always included funds for wildfire prevention education.
Filson, July 2019
“Anyone who spends time in our public lands will have a connection with Smokey,” said Alex Carleton, Chief Creative Officer at Filson. But in the brand’s latest collection, instead of highlighting the character’s classic phrases like “prevent” or even “think,” the brand chose the tagline: “75 years of vigilance.” (That’s different than the Ad Council’s logo for the anniversary which reads: “75th year preventing wildfires.”) This more serious tone seems to be part of the company’s desire to look beyond the cartoon mascot to what he represents, namely the “firefighters, scientists, rangers, engineers and volunteers [that] are working together — non-stop — to prevent the devastation of our forests and grasslands from wildfire.” In that vein, the campaign includes information on how to become a wildland firefighter and how to help the National Forest Foundation reach its goal of planting 50 million trees.
That’s not to say Smokey’s standalone power as a symbol should be discounted. As Carleton put it, “Smokey is a beloved American folk hero who instills a sense of pride and care for our wild places.”
So if you pick up a retro “forest fires” T-shirt or reusable Nalgene bottle, maybe you won’t be doing it out of nostalgia. Maybe you’ll do it to remind yourself that you need to be active in helping American forests, like our nation’s wildland firefighters, and like Smokey Bear.
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