How politics branded fashion over time
By Jenni Zellner
Fashion is extremely prevalent in society. Regardless of how invested you are in fashion, it is present in all tenets of daily life. Although trends in fashion have been influenced by different things at different times, the military is something that began to affect fashion in the 1940s and continues to today. In fact, the military has had such an effect on fashion that different military influences can help distinguish different eras.
According to Lily Sheehan, Ithaca College English professor with a specialty in fashion, the meaning or message of military fashion is linked to the circumstances.
“It depends on the context and how it is deployed. Certainly military-influenced fashions help to make visible the ways the military permeates our society,” she said. “But the purpose of wearing a style could vary from protesting militarism to promoting nationalism—or the wearer could be unconcerned with such issues altogether.”
In the 1940s, uniforms became commonplace not only because of soldiers, but also because of women joining the war effort by serving as nurses or other positions in the military. The uniform is by far the most noteworthy form of dress, for its presence during battle and every day life, yet its purpose is most perplexing.
“In some ways, uniforms aren’t necessary for war,” Sheehan said. “Of course, camouflage can have practical uses, but that does not explain the presence of uniforms in all parts of the military. Uniforms manifest and enforce practices and ideas of conformity as well as hierarchy and distinction, all of which are key to military institutions. It seems necessary or natural to wear them, when they are actually a cultural construct.”
Although a military uniform is capable of creating unity, it can subsequently create restrictions, or even the idealistic view that war is a game rather than a life or death conflict.
Additionally, families were expected to ration food and household items, or sacrifice them entirely. The rations affected various parts of everyday life in many ways, fashion was one of these ways. For example, nylon became scarce, as the nylon was a necessity for parachutes, therefore women weren’t able to wear stockings made of nylon.
Patriotism played a significant part in wartime fashion, even for materials that weren’t rationed. Sheehan explained women were expected to set an example, and as a result, fashion took an overwhelming tone of drabness and austerity.
“Fashion became a political issue in that spending money on dress was seen as unpatriotic. People were encouraged to invest in war bonds,” she said. As a result, signs of war were not just found in propaganda posters or in newspapers, they became relevant in the smallest activity of getting dressed. Because of this overwhelming influence, debates about fashion reinforced patriotism and strengthened support for the war.
Although in past eras, military-inspired fashion may have had specific connotations—whether they were for the war, against the war or just affected by the war—Sheehan does not think this is applicable for today’s society.
“Today, wearing a military-style jacket from Urban Outfitters, for example, doesn’t signal that you’re supporting the occupation of Iraq,” she said. ‘The consumption of those styles likely has more to do with a desire to follow fashion than a wish to express patriotism.”
In other words, fashion has become so convoluted with military influence that you may not need to think about the message you’re sending when you wear those combat boots.
Jenni Zellner is a sophomore English & anthropology major who says don’t ask, don’t tell about her camoflauge. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.