Fetishizing Military Gear

After seeing Gisele Bundchen’s latest Vogue shoot entitled “Call of Duty” in various military-inspired ensembles, my conflicted feelings about the sexifying of war gear swung hard and fast in the “that’s not cool” direction. Huffington Post presents these images with significantly less conflict: “let us know which is Gisele’s fiercest moment.” I should mention that this was shot for Vogue Korea no less — presumably South Korea, but formerly united with insular, distinctly militaristic North Korea which now has the highest percentage of military personnel per capita of any nation in the world with approximately 1 enlisted soldier for every 25 citizens. I mean, I wonder if anyone involved in this Vogue fashion shoot experienced any irony whatsoever. Photographed by Nino Muñoz, clothes are from Balmain, Alexander Wang, Chloé and others in Call of Duty (in case you didn’t get the soldier reference from the images alone). Some choice selections follow.

Gisele is so parched from her desert swim that she must provocatively douse herself with her canteen:

The practical cargo shorts paired with the distinctly impractical shorty army-issued t-shirt and stiletto-heeled combat booties are almost laughable:

This one has clean lines and uniform (as opposed to combat) tailoring that generally appeal to me, but it’s still disturbingly devoid of irony or socio-political critique:

Now, shall we look at some historical moments when military uniforms crossed over into day wear? Frederick Law Olmsted (1822 – 1903) noted that after the Mexican War (1846 – 48) “a great deal of military clothing was sold at auction in New Orleans, and much of it was bought by planters at a low price, and given to their negroes, who were greatly pleased with it.” Not only did military uniforms carry the associations of literal warfare, but they had the compounded layer of becoming sloppy seconds for African American slaves. Later, the surplus army clothing of the Civil War (1861 – 65) was adopted by Western frontiersmen: functional heavy coats and trousers, double-breasted pullover shirts, boots, and individually crimped hats were appealing to those living a rugged civilian lifestyle. And many men who served in WWII found many articles of clothing designed for warfare (i.e. khaki pants) to be comfortable, practical, and even stylish. War generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton, and Douglas MacArthur became fashion icons of sorts, and the practical “Eisenhower jacket” was adopted by men and women for its formal practicality:

In the years immediately following WWII, record numbers of veterans entered colleges (in 1946, 75% of entering Harvard students were former G.I.s), bringing with them the comfortable and practical khaki pants, fitted tailored shirts, and casual military jackets. With America’s current casual collegiate styles this might not seem noteworthy, but pre-WWII college students typically dressed in suits and ties, emulating the businessmen many aspired to become, and the casual military look was a sharp turn.

But the natural dissemination of actual army/navy clothes into regular society is a far cry from the fashion industry appropriating military as a trendy look (see Style.com “Marching Orders” trend). In one aberrant season of Rudi Gernreich (1922-1985), better known for his whimsical ’60s graphic mini dresses and topless swimsuit, his 1970 resort collection was distinctly military inspired. His muse and model Peggy Moffitt actually brandished a rifle in a different shot, as did the models on the live runway (this is one of the tamer looks):

Generally embracing a mod-meets-hippie look, Gernreich showed this controversial collection just months after the Kent State shootings and during the dragging Vietnam War (1955 – 75). During a 1985 retrospective presentation at the Smithsonian Institute, Gernreich commented, “I did the military look in the late 1960s because some designers were making Scarlett O’Hara clothes, which I thought was an insult to women when they were becoming totally equal to men.” I’m the first to admit military-influenced styles of WWII acted as a gender equalizer (see my other posts on War), but Gernreich’s feminist message was lost, but this is an inherent problem with glorifying military clothes: there is too much damn violence in the world for it ever to be appropriate without implied commentary (making it shorter/tighter/sexier does not count unless you’re trying to say “war is sexy”).

On the one hand, I have residual fondness for pairing fancy bling with camo — I think it can call attention to the inherent disconnect between wealth, individuality, style, and the mostly poor, conforming, functional purpose of military uniforms. On the other hand, glamorizing the military — especially when one’s own country is in a dragging, controversial war — seems problematic. As a designer (or a photographer, or a model), how do you make this distinction? I am all about playful fun in fashion, but glamorizing bigotry and government-sanctioned violence is distasteful at best and irresponsible at worst. Practical innovations that have come from military issued uniforms should absolutely be adopted by the general public: deep cargo pockets and trench coats are utilitarian and stylish. But making sexually provocative military clothes is not conceptually provocative.

There is some interesting art incorporating fashion and the military. Peter Gronquist’s show entitled “Firearms and Fashion” included weapon objets d’artes with fashion house labels, alluding to a complicit (if vague) relationship between corporate fashion and violence. Below is a Burberry rifle from the collection:

Bringing back the Korean military thread, I saw a powerful piece last summer of Do-Ho Suh’s entitled “Uni-Forms: Self-Portrait/s: My 39 Years” from 2006:

This is a sartorial timeline of Suh’s mandatory life in the South Korean army, from the disturbingly tiny boy’s crested jacket to the full-grown man’s camo and khakis.

Martha Rosler is known for collaging images of the Vietnam battlefield and magazine clippings from the home front including fashion models, washing machines, living room sofas, Playboy nudes, etc. Here is a more recent 2006 work using Iraqi/Afghani footage with a superimposed fashion model who appears to be turning away from the confrontation:

Though the model doesn’t actually wear military gear, it does point to an irresponsible relationship between the fashion world (and the public that so eagerly consumes it) and concurrent warfare.

So readers, do you think it’s ever ok to sexify military wear, and if so, in what context?

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  • Brenna May 25, 2010 04.06 pm

    Well said. Thank you for this wonderful post. Not only does it seem like the fashion industry is trying to make the horror that is war “sexy”, it is insulting the men and women who do not control where they are sent, but take up the responsibility of protecting and serving their countries; and their families who are left behind to struggle with life without them around, and worries for their safety.

    War is not sexy. It is horrific, that’s why people come back with PTSD. And to make a mockery of it is to make it trivial and proclaim it to be not worth considering seriously. Which is very dangerous.

    Well done.

  • keren b. May 26, 2010 12.46 pm

    Very interesting post, I just finished a 14 pages paper about a very similar subject….

  • Tove Hermanson May 26, 2010 01.02 pm

    Karen, do share some details of your own paper!

  • Keren B. May 27, 2010 08.32 pm

    I compared the incorporation of military elements in women’s dress in the 1940s and 1980s. My research was based mostly on images from American Vogue in the 1940s, and Italian Vogue in the 1980s. I believe that similar social changes women experienced in both decades influenced them to adopt masculine style, and specifically military elements. I am a part time graduate student at FIT, but I am also a full time fashion designer, I am aware of trends and fashions, and am required to incorporate them into my designs daily. However, I grow up in Israel, and for me to design a “fun” and desirable collection inspired by uniforms and military imagery seems a bit tasteless. I think that’s what pushed to research this topic, I was especially interested in understanding the change, or the difference, in attitude towards “military fashion” in times of war (1940s) and time of peace and comfort (1980s) , and what it says about the women who adopted it. If you are interested to read the paper i will be happy to email it to you and get your feedback.


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