Dressed to kill

Military garb as an expression of culture

One way to answer the question "How has war changed us over the past 1,000 years?" is to look in our closets.

"We have recruited so much of the modern wardrobe from the military in tailored valor, the pragmatism of warfare, and the memory of victory, that it is hard to imagine modern dress without the presence of military adaptations."

Thus Richard Martin, the late curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, commented on the Met's 1995 exhibition, "Swords Into Ploughshares: Military Dress and the Civilian Wardrobe."

"So often," he continued, "clothing represents our dreams and longings. Military dress is paradoxically both the embodiment of heroes - in Eisenhower jacket or Napoleonic tailoring - and the combat-ready usefulness of clothing, a merger of the real and epic. War yields a perverse effect in becoming a socialized and beautiful ideal for dress."

The Met exhibition included a Geoffrey Beene coatdress adapted from the gray Confederate uniforms of the American Civil War, Norma Kamali's disco wear made of military parachute cloth, and camouflage clothing adapted for evening wear by designers such as Valentino. "Evening wear inspired equally by Andy Warhol and Desert Storm," the information sheet noted.

Many military-derived items of clothing are so familiar that we've lost track of their soldierly origins: the trench coat, the peacoat, the bomber jacket. Even the necktie - de rigueur for the briefcase-toting soldiers of the corporate wars - is traced back to Croatian soldiers, as its other name, the cravat, hints.

According to the Croatian Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, which issued a series of postage stamps commemorating the necktie in 1995, Croatian soldiers made a name for themselves for their bravery in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Their distinctive neckerchiefs caught on among the admiring French.

Another group of fierce fighters who made a mark on fashion were the North African soldiers who fought with the French against the Russians in the Crimea and brought the term "Zouave" into the English language. They also inspired a new style of dress both for soldiers in the American Civil War - some of whose uniforms were, well, not quite uniform - and for the high-fashion readers of Godey's Lady's Book, the popular 19th-century magazine.

But even invaders have left their sartorial mark. "A lot of things came in through less than peaceful contact," observes Dale Carolyn Gluckman, curator of costumes and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The frog clasp so familiar in women's wear are a legacy from the Ottoman Turks' attacks on Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Sometimes the influence on civilian fashion came not from military uniforms but directly from war itself: In the United States during World War II, the War Production Board had strict limits on how much fabric could be devoted to production of certain garments. "Reputable" manufacturers adhered to the limits - which meant that the "zoot suits," with their abundant expanses of fabric, worn by the young rebels of the day, were all the stronger as a protest against the establishment.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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