Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Recurring Images: Combat

Mia Wasikowska & Michael Fassbender in W Magazine

Weapons and armour may not be the first thing which comes to mind when you think about fashion, but designers have been taking inspiration from them for years. It's an inescapable part of human nature that we fight with each other, and unpleasant as violence may be, it also gives rise to some of the most interesting aspects of our culture. Consider for example the military trend, which seems to recur at least every other Autumn/Winter. It wouldn't exist without armies and their uniforms.

Burberry AW12

The most common incarnation of this trend is an influence stepping across from old menswear to modern womenswear, bringing big shoulders, statement buttons and boxy masculine shapes with it. But this is by no means a modern fashion invention. At a recent talk by fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart, I learnt that women during the time of the Napoleonic wars were keen to incorporate military fashions into their own clothes. Ladies would wear 'Spencer' jackets, (cropped outer layers), often in a red shade reminiscent of the jackets worn by the militia and featuring braiding, buttons or other army-like details. This was a way of showing solidarity with husbands and male relations who were fighting in the wars, and also to an extent showed their patriotism.


Similarly, masculine military styles filtered into mainstream womenswear during the Second World War. This time though, it was more about practicality and showing yourself able to keep calm and carry on. Even very feminine items like floral dresses took on a broad-shouldered shape, in what could be considered a statement of female power. After all, many women took on new roles like ambulance-driving while the men were off fighting.

So there is a clear correlation between mainstream fashion and military styles, but what about weapons themselves? Many people today abhor violence, and rightly so. We've seen all too often the damage which can be done with a gun. And yet, I still think one can appreciate a well-made weapon as a thing of beauty in its right. Though I worry about seeming like a gun rights activist (which I'm not) by wearing one, I often find myself drooling over little gun charm necklaces on Etsy. I particularly like the one pictured below as it reminds me of Georgian highwaymen; another image of violence, yet also of romanticism.

Perhaps this is a flaw in our collective consciousness, that we admire figures from factr and fiction alike for their skill with instruments of death. In Far From The Madding Crowd, it is Sergeant Troy's "dexterity" with a sword which allows him to win Bathsheba's heart, in what is arguably the most sexually-charged scene in the novel. Even though he actually endangers her life by using a sharpened blade, he also excites her; it's the classic 'bad boy' complex. Weapons can be associated with bloodshed and crime, but also with passion. They are also, for obvious reasons, often seen as an object of masculinity. Hence why the great heroes of legend - King Arthur, Beowulf, even Godric Gryffindor - require their own special sword. It is as much a statement of who they are as modern fashion is today.

Furthermore, weapons can influence the way people have dressed through the ages due to practicality as much as anything. In the court of Queen Elizabeth I, there was at one point a law forbidding men to wear cloaks, as this would prevent them from reaching their swords quickly if the need to defend the queen arose.

Another need created by weapons is that of defence. Thus, armour and shields could be equally important. In The Aeneid, Venus persuades her husband Vulcan, god of fire, to forge a shield for her son Aeneas so that he might win a war and gain a new land for his people. Not only does this shield save him from potentially-deadly blows in battle, it also depicts the future of his people, as Aeneas is destined to found the beginnings of the Roman Empire.

painting by Batoni
one can see why designers may seek to incorporate weapons, shields or armour into their clothes. They give one a feeling of power. By wearing Valentino camouflage trainers or Doc Marten combat boots, you can add a little bit of toughness to your outfit, which is often a nice boost for one's confidence in today's busy and at times scary world. But perhaps the real genius comes when the aesthetic of combat is combined with beauty to make something unique. Alexander McQueen did this, especially in his Fall 2009 collection.

Though the image of a woman's body almost totally covered by chainmail is somewhat disturbing, (and, some at the time argued, misogynistic), it can also be interpreted as giving the wearer a protective layer from the world. It is also beautiful in a very haunting way, and though not exactly wearable, very admirable as a piece of art.

In short, images of combat represent violence, pain, and death. But equally they can show strength, courage, and victory.


kiri said...

Love this post. I love the McQueen outfit the best!!

Meli said...

Love this post! Violence and vulnerability push our emotional buttons, so of course fashion will as well. A few years ago there was an exhibit comparing armor and corsets (curated by Valerie Steele) at the FIT museum in NYC. Your article highlights the romanticism of past violence by those of us who don't need to "live by the sword".