Fashion Authority

Mary Pelzer, Civilian

Mary Pelzer, Civilian

Like any responsible fashion-conscious New Yorker, I follow every luxury retailer on Instagram.  It is a hardship to keep up with all of the trends, a social media minefield of knowing things like what is the current it-bag and making sure not to carry it, myself.  The goal after all, is to be trendy without being like everyone else.  But follow enough brands, retailers and star designers and you begin to notice their influences.  Designers are famous for touting their muses – 1930s Hollywood glamour, post-modern architecture, hippie chic, military dress…  Inspiration abounds from classic works of art to street style.

Literal interpretations of source material are frowned upon.  Whether it is an artist, a culture or an organization like the military, designers get involved in knowing the ins and outs of that group.  Designers take their inspiration and translate the idea into practical applications for the American consumer.  American design is replete with these references.  Isaac Mizrahi in his film Unzipped famously said that his “Eskimo Chic” collection was inspired by the film Nanook of the North.  At one point he exclaims: “All I want is to do fur pants!”  

These ideas are a nod or wink to the original.  Most of what we wear started as a seed of an idea, inspired by something else.  Military dress often serves as an inspiration for designers.  What man or woman doesn’t own a khaki jacket? 

Jaclyn Hill, one of the most famous makeup vloggers on YouTube recently touted her obsession with camouflage clothes on her snapchat channel.   On a recent tour of her closet a full-sized bedroom with row upon row of free standing racks – she and a friend pulled sneakers, heels, shirts, pants, jackets and bags all in varying camouflage patterns. She is self-described as “#obsessed” with camo. 

But aside from the cut, a pattern, or an overall look, what are the designers trying to emulate when they copy military dress? And what are their customers trying to adopt? 

Uniform, literally meaning the same or without any differences, is a good place to start.  Members of an organization that require a uniform are part of a defined group, and their singularity in purpose is also defined in their dress.  Military uniforms come with a set of standards and regulations as to how they are to be worn, how their wearer is to be groomed and, most importantly, how the wearer is to behave.  Wearers of the uniform come with a code of conduct.  In copying the style of a military uniform the designer and the customer are looking not just to copy epaulettes and camo they are also looking, either directly or indirectly, to emulate the authority and discipline that those in the military project.  

When you wear a uniform you immediately indicate that you meet a set of standards, that you have all of the merits required to belong to the group.   You qualify.   But the meticulous image of the uniform is often given a subversive treatment in civilian design. Patches of chevrons, stars and anchors are often layered with smiley faces, dripping bullets and rainbows.  Images of uniform discipline and power are layered with differentiation, an idea that confronts many of the military’s organizing principles.

But the designer and the customer do not have to adhere to these strict regulations.  Unlike being a member of the military part of the group wearing a uniform isn’t mandatory and wearing them in a meticulous nature isn’t required.  The designs, in highlighting difference and incorporating whimsy, indicate that the wearer creates their own permission to stand out from the ordered group.  They simultaneously want to adopt the authority the uniform carries while rejecting being one of the same.

Being a stylist often requires a little controversy, a non-standard element, something out of place.  But in turning a chevron on its head, or adding a peplum to khaki jacket, are we moving beyond interesting and veering into the offensive?   For those wear the uniform, they have agreed to abide by the military’s compacts. They follow the rules, some have fought and died under their constrictions.  So, what message are civilians sending to members of our armed services when we take something they hold sacrosanct and disregard its deeper meanings?  Is there are way to be fashionable without being offensive?