Pattern Recognition

Here we are, ankle-deep in the hell pit of Iraq, hemorrhaging blood and treasure—2,680 U.S. troops killed, 43,258 Iraqi civilians filed under “collateral damage,” and an estimated $300 billion poured into nation-building as of this writing—and back on the home front, we’re dressing as if we’re in the army now, in the army now. Who said irony is dead?

Camouflage has once again established itself as a look for all seasons, like blue jeans. Target stocks Mossimo Mission Cargo Pants in the print; Michael Kors’s slinky, strapless camo couture on last year’s runway turned fashionista heads. For toddlers, there’s MamaBebe.com’s camo onesie, with “Major Mess” embroidered on the front; for older kids, there’s Target’s Night Vision Bedding Collection, with its glow-in-the-dark camo comforter and cuddly pillow in the shape of a tank that purrs mechanically when hugged.

I’m a brow-furrowing lefty intellectual, so maybe I had an irony-ectomy at birth, but can anyone tell me: Why in the name of God are American consumers parading around in military drag at a moment when most of us think U.S. troops should haul ass outta Baghdad before the insurgents hand us our heads, on video?

The short answer is that camo is by now a primary color in any designer’s palette of cultural references. Scavenged from army surplus stores after the Vietnam War, camouflage has since been repurposed by any number of subcultures. Hippies used it to give the Pentagon the one-finger salute; punks adopted it as standard-issue combat dress for street-fighting men; activist rappers like Public Enemy wore it as the battle flag of black radicalism. Historically, such (mis)uses of camo have been “a way of co-opting the sartorial codes of the military,” says Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It’s a critique of the political system, tinged with a heavy element of irony.”

Since the ’90s, when, according to Bolton, camo entered mass-market consciousness, designers have tried to strip the pattern of its antiwar or antigovernment politics. Red Dot’s “Girlie Camo” is composed of pneumatic Playboy bunny silhouettes, while Sun + Sand’s camo substitutes hearts, doves, and Buddhas for the usual woodland foliage. Soon, what Bolton calls the “aestheticization of what was originally a potent signifier of political turmoil” will be complete. Camo: the paisley of the Iraq war era.

But isn’t there a moment when the horrors of war become so grisly that even the most apolitical designer riding the camo wave should experience a sharp pain in the conscience? Not according to Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, which is currently showing an exhibition about military influences on women’s fashion (see page 101 of this issue for a review). “The vast majority of fashion designers are responding purely to visual cues,” says Steele, “which are much more likely to be in some hip movie than in anything that’s happening on the front page.”

Besides, Steele argues, “there isn’t any meaning in camo at all. It’s all about how it keeps being interpreted and reinterpreted, including by everybody who has any kind of reaction when you wear it.”

But are all readings equally legitimate?

I asked some military personnel, by email, about their feelings on seeing mallrats in camo. Derek Giffin, an army veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, 2004–05, calls camo-chic a “travesty.” To Griffin, “there is nothing sexy about camo. Granted, I cannot disassociate camo from blood and blown-apart body parts.”

Irony of ironies, the vagaries of fashion may be making an antiwar stance modish, according to Chas Davis, a conscientious objector who served in the military police force at Camp Page in South Korea. “I have a 16-year-old sister who has never taken any interest in the peace movement,” he writes. “All of a sudden, Hollister has a new line of clothes with all these hippie statements: ‘Love, Not War,’ ‘Peace,’ etc. Now, out of the blue, she is telling her friends how proud she is that her brother is a conscientious objector, all because it’s the popular thing to do.”

Antiwar activism with a designer label: the new, blithely apolitical fashion statement. It’s all so confusing: Camo is paisley, war is peace, and we’re at war with East Asia this year—or is it Eurasia? I can never remember.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic who teaches media studies in the Department of Journalism at New York University. He last ranted for I.D. about the scapegoating of Le Corbusier (June 2006).

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