One long chapter in the history of fashion is dedicated to tailors who supplied military uniforms, headgear, helmets, cuirasses, swords, pouches and banners. British historical tailoring businesses such as Gieves and Hawkes catered for example to army officers during the World Wars, providing uniforms for the navy, the army and the air force.
These established businesses even developed innovative and functional pieces: Gieves designed a waistcoat that combined tailoring with a life-saving function, since it integrated a rubber life belt that could be inflated. As the decades passed, these tailors kept on incorporating elements from military designs into civilian clothes, so that the handwork of some of their uniforms turned throughout the years into fine tailored details (check out for example the first image in this post showing a bespoke wool coat with military styling with inverted box pleat and vent, hand-tailored by Gieves & Hawkes).
Sarah Burton channelled this military tailoring tradition in Alexander McQueen's A/W 2015-16 menswear collection, combining it with the centenary of World War I (a mood evoked also by the setting, a bunker with parked trucks). Pinstriped suits and coats with boldly printed slogans such as "Honour", "Truth" and "Valour", chunky army knits and thick olive green soldier's uniforms pointed towards Wilfred Owen and the sacrifice of too many young lives, while also hinting at soldiers' equality in the face of duty (in Milan we saw instead at Ferragamo's a fascination with the artworks made by soldiers during the Crimean War).
Houndstooth was turned into an abstracted camouflage pattern while camouflage was transformed into a poppy print on an olive green padded jacket. Poppies also reappeared in a floral brocade tapestry that, inserted on jackets and coats (borrowed from the Regency period but remixed into modern hybrids), formed a flag-like motif.
In McQueen's S/S 15 womenswear collection Burton added ceramic flowers that vaguely evoked the ceramic poppies in last year's installation by Paul Cummins - "Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red" - at the Tower of London. Each of the 888,246th poppies included in that installation represented a British or Colonial military fatality during the First World War. In this menswear collection poppies came back instead on jumpers, or were evoked by silk jacquards on red evening suits.
Burton also employed in this collection velvet, a fabric that military tailors considered as a very luxurious materials (mainly used for wall covering, upholstery, carriage interiors and horse trappings in the 1700s, it became a prized textile for wealthy members of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy after the Industrial Revolution).
There were no Trafalgar coats in regulation blue wool weave, but navy/air force blue made an appearance together with sparkling silvery and black medals that called to mind the decorations on Horatio Nelson's Vice Admiral's undress coat (View this photo) or the embroideries created by historical company Hand & Lock.
Also Burton's Pre-Fall 2015 womenswear collection for McQueen displayed direct links with military tailored moods and with this menswear collection. Though inspired by Victoriana and sepia images of 19th century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, military details came back in the tailored coats with rigid high collars and epaulettes and in the thick knits, while poppies were evoked by a red lace dress.
It is interesting to note that while uniforms were interpreted as a great leveller by Burton, they were also mixed in her menswear collection with anachronisms such as thick-soled creepers and teddy boy trousers (with high waists borrowed from the Regency period...).
The words printed on the suits, coats and jumpers may also be re-read in a punk key, they may have indeed been references to the slogans on McLaren/Westwood's customised "Anarchy Shirt", or to the early attire of bands à la Manic Street Preachers, revealing that Burton was probably not combining war and peace, but war, young casualties like Wilfred Owen and his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" that condemned the conflict, and the energy and rebellion of youth subcultures.
The military effect was completely different in Milan Vukmirovic's A/W 2015-16 collection for Ports 1961 in which the designer tried to move from classic uniforms to reinvent modern garments for men, though in the end he came up with jackets and coats that looked literally borrowed from a cadet's wardrobe.
Italo Zucchelli at Calvin Klein instead combined different grey tones – concrete, granite, charcoal and anthracite – in cropped fitted flight jackets and pocketed bombers matched with high-waist trousers (that looked inspired by the air forces), and in army ponchos, coming up with paramilitary uniforms (unfortunately, the military inspiration didn't protect Zucchelli from falling into the trap of the terrible vinyl trousers in 50 shades of grey...).
There is an important point to make about these collections as they prove that in the current fashion industry, references to military uniforms are not make in an aggressive key. Military inspired clothes are indeed designed to provide functional practicality and protection to the wearer or to call back the elegantly linear style of uniforms.
As a consequence, ordinary camouflage patterns have been reinvented or reincorporated in urban yet formal gear. Based on a mix of arty inspirations that included the Ballets Russes and geometrical patterns borrowed from Melbourne-based artist Esther Stewart, Valentino's Autumn/Winter 2015-16 menswear collection included intarsia camouflage patterns on softly tailored parkas, leather jackets and luxurious rucksacks; the pattern was also employed as the lining of suits in British heritage fabrics, to create contrasts with conservative grey micro-checks.
We will discover if the ghost of Wilfred Owen will haunt further collections in the next few days, as more menswear shows take place in Paris.
In the meantime, if you're looking for a soundtrack for the tailored military mood in fashion, opt for the Manic Street Preachers' classic "La Tristesse Durera (Scream To A Sigh)". The title of the track may be taken from the last words of Vincent van Gogh, but the lyrics are currently very poignant. The song was indeed written from the perspective of a war veteran, who feels like "a relic", "a cenotaph souvenir", a useless "fashion accessory", "wheeled out once a year". In the song the veteran sells his war medal to pay a bill, and, by following its progress, we discover that the medal: "...sells at market stalls / Parades Milan catwalks". Looks like the Manics had nailed the trend already in 1993, but it looks like now it has spread to runways well beyond Milan.
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