The past typically provides a template to imagine the future, but in an ever-progressive fashion industry, history doesn’t always repeat itself. Let’s first look at the major World Wars, where fashion played a similar role in both periods.
Take WWI, where shifting gender roles in wartime (positioned alongside the first feminist movement) launched what was perhaps the most radical change in dress for men and women in the 20th century. As the industry coped with a sudden shortage of fabrics and dyes, the strict rules of the Victorian era fell by the wayside, followed of course by the partying and high-powered consumerism that defined the ’20s. From flappers to college men, America’s new image was obsessed with young people and what they wore.
Supplies were rationed again during WWII, especially materials like leather and rubber. Recycling old clothes and restitching men’s suits for women became standard, and the push to contribute to the war effort turned capitalist-happy shoppers into anti-patriots. Men’s suits and women’s casual wear became even more informal, and “aloha” shirts were all the rage as Pacific Theatre influences found their way back to the States. Functionality and affordability were key.
Just as postwar festivities meant an explosion of youth culture after WWI, the late ’40s and ’50s were no different. Disposable income was on the rise and again focus shifted to the teenager. Dior’s debut collection introduced the “New Look” in 1947, and Chanel’s influence regained momentum after reopening her collection for the first time since 1939, the year the war broke out in Europe. Leading into the Cold War, America only became more concerned with setting up an ideological front to the rest of the world, and looking good was part of that.
The war in Iraq doesn’t follow the same cyclical model, though; and as the war stretches on, its effects on our culture only become increasingly complex. A new kind of angst is building: a sense of misinformation and confusion, a sense of betrayal by a government who promised a short war. As the U.S. continues to fight under the pitiful guise of “conflict,” our own reactions have settled deep in creative expression, and fashion is no exception.
Though technically pre-war, the initial Sept. 11 climate was one of patriotism and trepidation. Homeland security measures became the necessary means to protect the country, but that’s not to say it didn’t come with its problems. In September 2006, Vogue Italia ran a photo spread titled “State of Emergency,” shot by the controversial Steve Meisel. The photos attempted to capture the panicked state American law enforcement assumed in a post Sept. 11 nation: Female models are shown undressed and humiliated at security checks; pinned against a cop car while a policeman’s sexual assault warrants armed backup from a partner; and perhaps most disturbing is a woman with darkened circles around her eyes, hands behind her head, kneeling with legs spread, shown terrified and flanked by a policeman’s baton and a police dog, pulling at its leash as if about to attack her.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to look past the blatant degradation of women, the perpetuation of rape culture and flippant attitude toward violence. Meisel’s efforts, though perhaps laudable in technique, find a twisted sense of erotic pleasure in the demeaning tableaux. But the photos do convey a strange feeling of unease; the women depicted are victims of sexual abuse, but perhaps intended to act as symbolic reference. Because years after Sept. 11, did the American people not also feel mistreated and deeply violated by the various attempts from Homeland Security to protect them?
Vogue Italia’s September 2007 issue investigated another source of unrest with Meisel’s “Make Love Not War.” The magazine cover was a somewhat awe-inspiring collection of muddied-up soldiers with somber faces, as if to bring a more honest depiction of war to Vogue’s pages. But instead the spread reveals a pornographic narrative of black-eyed women giving lap dances over army cots and half-naked models shown as little more than playthings alongside bottles of liquor, cheap distractions from the life-threatening world beyond an American base camp.
Critics praised Meisel’s work for its provocative edge, turning a blind eye to the internalized objectification of women in our culture and excusing the eroticized images as sexual rewards for defending a nation. But perhaps this is precisely the point. We turn a blind eye, too, to the statements our leaders retract, to the months that roll over into years. We wonder why we’re still fighting at all and some of us begin to see war as needlessly corrupt, and the undisguised debauchery in these images exhibit just that.
But the hyper-sexual portrayals of homeland security and war culture are even further complicated when coupled with a neo-colonialist attitude. Runways have been riddled with various head coverings of assumed Middle Eastern origin, such as burkas and turbans. In Prada’s Spring 2007 collection, each look was paired with a brightly colored satin turban, which functioned more like a beret, allowing the models’ hair to flow down to their shoulders. This line could also be recalling the stylish aristocracy of the ’20s, but still it’s become almost automatic to assume a contemporary connection to Iraq.
For British designer Louise Golden, hijabs were the focal point of her 2007 RTW collection, and the niqab style of covering one’s face was also incorporated. The looks were mostly full-coverage, slim-fitting pieces in black, white and gray. Regardless of the possible political commentary here, appropriating Islamic culture seems to be a sacrilegious, off-limits arena for designers — as opposed to simply fusing secular cultures into a hybrid style.
Various other forms of head coverings have been seen on and off the runway, particularly in print ad campaigns. Often referred to as “burka fetishism” — particularly when attributed with sensual, exotic qualities — they raise all kinds of questions about reasonable cultural boundaries, between the U.S. and Iraq especially.
Stuck in a war with no definable limits, the fashion industry, too, has lost its direction. A new kind of war calls for an unprecedented response by the fashion industry and its consumers.
The American government has instituted a culture of fear; from airport checkpoints and the Homeland Security advisory system to a steady stream of news images, we have learned to live in a constant state of anxiety and perceived emergency. We have questioned the motives for going to war, and question the need to remain in partial occupation of Iraq, brought to light by radical interpretations like Meisel’s photo narratives. And all realms of expression, fashion in particular, are finding influence in a previously unfamiliar heritage.
War has become the stylish backdrop of fashion, whether in attempt to glamorize or criticize. The industry now lies somewhere between the surreal and the real, the glitz and the gritty. A culture of fear has been translated on the pages of fashion magazines and through “terror chic” style, and our highly westernized world relies on fashion to carve a new niche for feeling out unexplored cultures.