I have a favorite pair of army green cargo pants that have been a key part of my wardrobe for years, but I feel weird wearing them now. Should I put them in the back of my closet for the immediate future, retire them forever, or is it OK to keep wearing them? Please advise. — Susan, Boston
Fashion has been enamored of military style for almost its entire existence, with designers regularly taking inspiration from all branches of the armed forces, be it color, shape, print, decoration.
The associations attached to the clothes — strength, power, security, safety, aggression — are rooted deep in our lizard brains, and thus catnip for those whose job it is to read the psychological tenor of the times, and give it shape in cloth. Books and museum exhibitions have been devoted to the relationship. Simply consider the fact that the famous Burberry trench, staple of so many wardrobes today, was created for British officers during World War I before making its way into civilian life. And onto catwalks.
But there’s no question that an outfit that reads one way in peacetime (ironic, cool, rebellious) reads an entirely different way in wartime, when people in the actual garments are in harm’s way.
And seeing President Volodymyr Zelensky on the streets of his country, speaking to his citizens and the world in a military T-shirt, puts a different perspective on fashion fatigues.
During Paris Fashion Week, I asked a smattering of designers who often refer to military styles what they would advise. Most said that the absolute first thing to do was to consider the complicated reactions such clothing could provoke.
While some were reluctant to dictate the correct choice, wanting to leave it up to the individual — Olivier Rousteing, backstage at Balmain, said he thought it was important to remember how precious is the idea of creative freedom — Dries Van Noten was more definitive.
“No,” he said. “For me it’s the only answer. OK, we play with these symbols, but it has to take second place to what’s happening in the world.”
Indeed, I think it’s worth resurfacing an email I got from a veteran when a similar question about camouflage came up after the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
“I am a woman,” she wrote. “I love fashion.” But, she went on: “When you are in the military, you are instructed about wearing parts or all of your uniform after you are back in civilian life. If your service was honorable, you have earned the right to do so, but it must be done in such a way that it does not disrespect the uniform. If you are not a vet, you should not be wearing camo at all. It is akin to stolen valor.”