In the early days of the Ku Klux Klan, members didn’t wear any kind of uniform. Instead, they wore disguises of all kinds: fake beards, flour sacks, face paint, masks, even drag costumes to hide their identities. That not only made them anonymous, it allowed local authorities to dismiss their terrorist activities as those of young pranksters. It also fed into the idea of the "invisible empire," as many denied the existence of an organized group, at least publicly.
As Reconstruction ended and Southern white men reclaimed political power, they dropped out of the Klan, no longer limited to secret outlets for their violence. In 1872, the old Klan made a valedictory appearance: in public, in the Memphis Mardi Gras parade, revealing a new kind of pageantry that was no less ceremonial than chilling. Local Klan leaders and representatives from all the Southern states rode their own float, wearing black, conical hats with the skull and crossbones and “K.K.K.” in white. They staged the mock lynching of a man in blackface; they lassoed black spectators. The Klan itself was dying, but only because white supremacy was resurging right out in the open, with the sanction and participation of law enforcement and white society at large. Now they had Jim Crow laws. They had a criminal justice system that disproportionately punished Black people and imprisoned them in prison farms, on former plantations. They had lynch mobs, who no longer concealed their identities.
The adoption of the uniform with the white hood is traced to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie Birth of a Nation and to William J. Simmons, who chartered a state Klan organization and sold uniforms. The hoods and a new expansion of the Klan’s focus gave the organization a shot in the arm, so to speak, in the early 20th century. Read an overview of how all that happened at New Republic. -via Digg
(Image credit: Library of Congress)