Army chic

Whether used for making love or war, the combination of militarism and design is all about power.

military fash 88  (photo credit: )
military fash 88
(photo credit: )
From Chanel and Ralph Lauren to Jean Paul Gaultier and Fendi, one of the most prevalent items on this fall's runways was the military jacket. Buttoned-up and trimmed with everything from fur to gold, the classic piece was worn with skirts and pants, mostly in blacks and reds, and was inspired by the garb worn by the military mastermind himself, Napoleon Bonaparte. Though wars ravage countries around the globe, sales in these military-inspired garments, as well as in Breitling watches and Hummer jeeps, continue to grow, with both men and women succumbing to the aggressive trend. Two months ago, in one of the world's most war-torn environments, designers from across the spectrum gathered to examine this peculiar relationship between warfare and design. "I served in the reserves during this summer's war in Lebanon and it greatly affected me," says Prof. Amnon Zilber, director of the Israel Design Center in Holon's Mediatheque and the organizer of the conference. "If you're in a war and you're a designer, you see things differently." Before the war, Zilber says that he considered design one world and the reality of life in Israel - filled with conflict, violence and terrorism - a completely separate and distinct universe. After experiencing the war firsthand, however, he says he discovered that design is also affected by this reality. "Design is supposed to be a way to escape reality," Zilber continues. "But that's not what's actually happening." The conference was the first of its kind to be held here and featured designers from the US, France, England and Israel discussing the effects of militarism on fashion, industrial and graphic design. Lecturers discussed the wars of the 20th century, the effects of 9/11, the subsequent consequences on consumer culture and the aesthetics of violence in contemporary design, such as a metal flower vase with a bullet hole through the side. Many products influenced by the military make their way into daily life, says Prof. Ezri Terezi, the artistic adviser behind the conference and the head of the industrial design department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. "I don't believe in arbitrary design, I hate it even," says Terezi, who discussed how and why military inventions are used in civilian lifestyles. "But I love design and I believe design can help you live your life better, and in that sense I like the values that are in army design - to make something the most functional and the longest lasting is much better than something that looks nice but is useless." Terezi questions why the Western world would be attracted to army-inspired equipment and products, in particular the Land Rover and Hummer jeeps. "What's so appealing about the army?" he asks. "Why don't we just hate everything the army symbolizes and represents? Why are they instead examples of the posh and expensive?" The answer, he says, is in the honesty inherent in all products designed for military use. They have no stylistic lure, but rather are made to fulfill very specific functions and such a utilitarian design is appealing, because it is the most professional and reliable. If a compass or binoculars doesn't operate correctly in a battlefield situation, regardless of how it looks, it can mean life or death for a soldier, he elaborates. Shape, size and color are all determined based on function, and while fancy design elements are often preferred, the public enjoys the option of the "simple and honest back-to-basics style." Ironically, however, he points out that most consumers of military inventions - such as the Land Rover and Hummer jeeps - do not use them for the purposes for which they were designed. Rather than journeying off-road or through the mountains, most jeep owners park their vehicles at the mall. "It's a statement of power and reliability, it says 'Beware of me,'" explains Terezi. "Someone who is against war would still buy this product because of the honesty and safety in its function. Women, for example, drive big jeeps as a way of protecting themselves." Conversely, women wear military-inspired clothing as a way of proclaiming their own power to freely express their opinions and sexuality. MILITARY FASHION as we know it today began in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, says Prof. Era Lev of Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, when women wore khaki jackets and military hats to protest the war. In the meantime, others wore them to emulate military models like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, and eventually, as designers sensed the trend and began to replicate it, the look became a style. More recently, however, fashion designers have taken on the task of utilizing the military look to inspire peace rather than war. In Japan in 2003, says Noa Arber, a fashion designer and a Shenkar lecturer, a designer made his entire collection out of camouflage pieces, each a different and modern interpretation of the camouflage influence. A few years earlier, another Japanese collection showcased military clothing that had been completely transformed to the extent that it bore no resemblance to war at all. The revolutionary concept, Arber explains, was to reconstruct the military pieces by making them more feminine, dressy and romantic and less associated with conflict and warfare. For designers, it's seen as a challenge, and for consumers, it's a novel and expressive way to dress. Citing the example of the trench coat, which Arber calls "a classic piece" and one of the top five items every woman should own, she explains that the coat's practicality and versatility lent itself to becoming a hit even off the battlefields. Introduced during World War I, the trench is an extremely adaptable clothing item, says Arber: "There's just so much you can do with it. It can be khaki, it can be leather, it can be colorful and it has buttons, a belt and plenty of pockets. Everyone began to realize what a great piece it was." On the other hand, military-inspired fashion gained popularity purely for how it made women look - tough, masculine and extremely sexy. "There's a double meaning with military clothes," says Arber. "For women to attain the masculine strength associated with the army is very provocative and also very empowering, thereby showing the power of women from two angles - that of love and that of war. And that's why so many designers use it and so many people buy it." Though Arber admits the concept of war being sexy or appealing is difficult to understand, she compares it to the also unexplainable but wildly popular and seductive trends of animal print. And for pacifist-minded consumers, the simple idea of taking a military piece and transforming it into something else entirely - pink beaded suede, for instance - symbolizes the escape from conflict and violence. Alternately, the effects of design on the army were also introduced at the conference, with the prime example being that of the Tabor gun, a rifle made to be both functionally and aesthetically effective. The new weapon is both shorter and lighter than the M-16, enabling the soldier to hold it closer to his body. This is more comfortable and forces the soldier into a more alert, shooting position, which frightens the enemy, explains Yoav Tichochinsky, a member of the industrial design team that built the gun. The Tabor is designed in color and shape to be streamlined towards the exit point of the bullet itself, also in an attempt to scare away the enemy. "It's a combination of aesthetics that makes the gun look extremely aggressive so that the enemy may think twice before entering into battle with this soldier," says Tichochinsky. "Being an Israeli soldier myself, we wanted to present combat soldiers with the best rifle possible from every angle." Terezi, however, says he wishes the great minds of design and engineering would be put to better use. "The government invests tons of money in the development of army products," he complains. "If they put that same money and all these top designers, engineers and scientists toward concentrating on other global issues, like global warming, alternative energy and life-saving technology in Third World countries, we could solve all the world's problems in a few years." Nonetheless, he acknowledges the love/hate relationship the design world shares with the military, and while we can still find camouflage baby outfits in children's clothing stores, we still have a long way to go before the trench becomes taboo.