01 June 2010

Uniform chic

Last week, Worn Through featured an article by Tove Hermanson entitled "Festishizing Military Gear."  It's a great piece, and I can't fault Ms. Hermanson's conclusion that sexualizing the horrors of war is unacceptable. However, I'm not entirely certain that the prevalence of military gear in fashion is a result of the fetishizing of war, per se: rather, it represents an ongoing fascination with the uniformed body.

There's a lot of history behind militaria in fashion. Just about as soon as people started making armor, it became not only a statement of power, but one of style. Ancient Greek artifacts show arms and armor decorated with beautiful motifs: Roman senators and emperors were depicted in their armor on coinage and in statuary.

By the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, it became the norm for men to combine pieces of their garnitures, or suits of armor, with their softer, fancier 'street' clothes for portraiture. Not surprisingly, the clothing worn by even unarmored men began to resemble the padded, segmented garments worn for protection under the heavy metal harnesses. So, to an extent, did those of women: some fashion historians theorize that the rise of the corseted female body, which began in this period, was an adaptation of the structured, armored male torso.

Borrowing from military styles has been an integral part of fashion ever since. In the late 1700s, women wore Spencer jackets, often decorated with epaulets, braid, and other ornaments of the era's military insignia, over their diaphanous Empire-waisted gowns. Cardigans were the innovation of a British commander during the Crimean War. Khakis, trench coats, duffel bags, Breton stripes, and other perennial fashion favorites are all of military origin.

Fashion has always had an uneasy attraction to the concept of uniform. Dress, in our society, is supposed to be a means of self-expression, which is an antithesis of the concept of the uniform. However, fashion itself represents a type of uniform: What's in style this season? What looks are the designers showing? Very few people dress with true individuality.

Uniform goes deeper still. All individuality is, in theory, subsumed into the uniformed whole. What this means in practice is that any expressions of individuality lie in two fields: the manner in which the uniform is worn and the body inside it.

It's the second factor, I think, that is one cause of fashion's ongoing fascination with uniforms and militaria. The only time a uniformed individual is able to show his or her individuality is when the uniform is removed. There's an inherent eroticism in the concept that, in order to have the freedom of expression that we consider a necessary component of personhood, the uniformed individual must be unclothed.

If the fetishizing of uniform was entirely about glorifying war, why would other uniform images - schoolgirls, nurses, even clergy - have such a strong presence in fashion and erotica both?

Another contributing factor is the growing casualness of dress in our society. Uniform, in many cases, indicates a more formal mode of dress, or at least the possibility of its existence. Even in work clothes, though, military clothing hints at the possibility of greater formality: the most tattered-looking soldier has a formal dress uniform somewhere.

A quote from a vintage pattern seller featured on Gertie's New Blog for Better Sewing made me think about the power and authority of formal uniform: "The hat, the crisply starched white dresses, the white shoes that nurses used to wear commanded respect. The nurse's uniforms conveyed an authority that the sloppy scrubs with teddy bears that many nurses wear today do not." In many professions, the uniform is now a polo shirt in company colors: crisp shirts and ties have fallen by the wayside. That's not the case in the military, one of the few truly uniformed institutions remaining in our society. Adapting the trappings of the military allows the wearer to borrow a little bit of the perceived power and authority of the uniformed soldier - an interesting dichotomy, because in many situations, soldiers themselves have less say in their career paths, living arrangements, and, obviously, dress, than the non-military person adapting military imagery.

The dress regulations of the US Army fill a book of not inconsiderable size. In any circumstance, a soldier has guidance and direction as to what to wear and how. How many of us, when faced with the welter of choices presented by fashion's conflicting messages, haven't wished for that sort of guidance, even if just for a moment? The popularity of, and fascination with, capsule wardrobe challenges and The Uniform Project among style bloggers indicate that the concept of a limited, dictated wardrobe has appeal, even - perhaps especially - among people who are immersed in the culture of self-expression through fashion.

Separating the uniformed soldier from the war is a fine line: perhaps it's an imaginary one. My perspective on this matter is not unbiased - I'm married to a US Army veteran, which colors my understanding of the military. However, I think that saying that militaria in fashion is little more than a glorification of war sells both fashion and the military sadly short.

1 comment:

  1. I think part of the fascination also comes from the simple fact that uniforms in general are so NEAT. You'll hear women say, "I love a man in uniform!" and the same women will also appreciate a man in a good suit - something tailored and well-fitting. Baggy t-shirts and ill fitting jeans have become so commonplace, neat and tailored military styles are both refreshing and eye-catching.


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