Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Military chic: a history

How military utility became fashionable

Military uniforms have long been flattering as well as functional 

Military uniforms have long been flattering as well as functional 

Matthew Sweet | October/November 2019

Battlefield archaeology is an uncomfortable business; all those damp thistles, all that dirt under your fingernails. Much easier to stay at home and pursue it inside a wardrobe. Dig out a classic white T-shirt, and you’re in ghostly contact with the submarine crews of the Great War. (The US Navy made it standard issue in 1913.) A pair of chinos memorialises British rule in India, where khaki was invented. Desert boots are a relic of Burma (now Myanmar) where in 1941 Nathan Clark, whose family gave his name to Britain’s most famous purveyor of sensible footwear, decided that the crepe-soled rough suede boots worn by his superiors might have a market back home. (Mods and Jamaican rude boys agreed.) But this isn’t a history of robbery. When military uniforms were standardised, they deployed the fashionable cuts of their moment. They were flattering as well as functional – to please the troops, the officers inspecting them, and camp followers. It’s a complex circuit of pride and desire. Perhaps Frank Sinatra described it best: “If you think I won’t find romance in the French Foreign Legion, think about that uniform and all its charm.”

Napoleon on board the Bellerophon, painted 1880
The greatcoat is a full-body barrier against the elements. Versatile enough to serve when sailing into exile, retreating from Moscow, or facing your Waterloo. It confers height, too, though let’s not make too much of that – reports of Napoleon’s physical brevity were much exaggerated by British propagandists. Authority is the key idea. Follow its long clean lines, as painted by Sir William Orchardson, and you understand why the Napoleon Delusion is more than just a comedy trope. In 1840 some 14 Bonapartes presented themselves at the Bicêtre Asylum in Paris. Some, the case notes concede, were “elegantly dressed”.

No. 2 service dress 1917
These women are not drilling with rifles: those are flags, ready to flap semaphore messages across the trenches in the first world war. The Women’s Signalling Corps was a small voluntary organisation whose chief recorder was Harriot Stanton Blatch, an American suffragist. These jackets demonstrate their seriousness. Service Dress No. 2 was formulated for the Boer war and is still worn today. Its adoption plugs the WSC into the mainstream history of the British Army, and that of the women who followed them, on full pay, into the wars to come.

Coat red
Red nylon coat, 4 Moncler x Simone Rocha, £2,850/$3,475

Crossfire
Military green nylon cape jacket, £2,135/$2,665 and skirt, £510/$636. Blue Egyptian cotton shirt, £640/$800, all Prada
 

B-15 flight jacket 1954
Marilyn Monroe loved fur. She had a habit of rising from it, like Botticelli’s Venus. This is woolly mouton rather than mink – just the collar of a jacket, added in the second world war to help bomber crews to endure the bright, cold spaces above Hamburg, Berlin and Dusseldorf. It was no warmer over Korea, where Monroe helicoptered from band show to band show, performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to 100,000 troops in four days. This was February 1954. Bomber crews had ceased active missions six months before. Towards the end, they could find little left to bomb.

Camouflage 1998
The army has vanished. In the 19th century it tended to thunder over the horizon, a bright noisy blur of scarlet and steel. Now it has become part of the desert and the forest; every modern force is Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. Divorced from nature, though, the patterns of camouflage reveal their pop-art boldness. Look at the admiration it’s triggering in these wannabe marines at the recruit training centre on Parris Island, South Carolina. As if their sergeant had just materialised out of a painting.

A few good jackets
Shearling parka with Kaffe Fassett print, Coach, £2,200/$2,400. Military button skirt, Fendi at Flannels, £1,190/$1,785. White silk shirt dress, Tom Ford at Flannels, £2,110/$3,165. Black Jadon platform boots, Dr Martens, £169/$180

Moving target
Monogram print nylon jacket, Burberry at Flannels, £650/$975

Hoa Hao fighters 1948
Fashion builds empires. It also likes to flirt with anti-imperialism – think of those ’68-ers, intoxicated by images of the Viet Cong and the Red Guards, marching through Paris in chic Mao suits and turtlenecks. Radical glamour attends this photograph – but it’s in the eye of the beholder. These Vietnamese troops are followers of Hoa Hao, a quasi-Buddhist apocalyptic cult that raised a nationalist army to fight the French in the first Indochina war. They hated the communists as much as their colonial masters. French literati would have been the first up against the wall.

Winston Churchill 1942
It ought to be a symbol of decadence, like Marie Antoinette’s milkmaid costume. But Churchill’s siren-suit – a workman’s overall cut in green velvet and blue serge by Turnbull and Asser of Jermyn Street – was read as coupon-compatible combat gear in the fight to save democracy. Perhaps Churchill stole the idea from Anthony “Puffin” Asquith, son of the former prime minister and a film director. (Both men were under contract to Denham studios in the 1930s.) Asquith wore his first world war Home Guard uniform on set. Colleagues took it to be a boiler suit. It felt modest and democratic. The Churchill version achieved the same effect at the Roosevelt White House.

Cargo pants 2018
In the Vietnam-war era some veterans wore their uniforms patched with anti-war slogans and made combat pants the dress code of the revolution. Today, when celebrities like Kanye West cross the tarmac in olive green, they’re not marching with the counterculture, they’re asking us to view a concert tour as a campaign of courage and self-sacrifice. Are we going to throw ticker-tape? No more than at those “Queer Eye” subjects who don cargos for their dangerous missions to the supermarket and KFC – and are usually persuaded to bin them by the end of the episode.

A farewell to arms
Belted trench coat, 4 Moncler x Simone Rocha at Flannels, £1,390/$2,085. Flamingo printed wool jacket with oversized sleeves, £1,460/$2,585, skirt, £585/$890, and black leather Mary Jane shoes, £625/$970, all Maison Margiela

 

PHOTOGRAPHS TOM ANDREW
STYLIST LEWIS MUNRO