The Devil Wears Camo

Here we are, ankle-deep in the hellpit of Iraq, hemorrhaging blood and treasure, and back on the home front, everything’s coming up camo. Who said irony is dead? Support for the Iraq war is in the toilet, yet we’re dressing as if we’re in the Army now. And we’re doing it without a detectable whiff of antiwar irony.

Camouflage has established itself as a look for all seasons, like blue jeans. For the off-the-rack masses, Target stocks Mossimo Mission Cargo Pants in camo; for aspirational consumers, Michael Kors rolled out a slinky, strapless camo dress in his spring/summer 2006 show. Even the Teletubbies and Arthur demographics are caught in marketers’ crosshairs: 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, which purrs mechanically when it’s 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 get the hell 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. Hippies used it to give the military-industrial complex the one-finger salute; punks adopted it as street-fighting gear; activist rappers like Public Enemy wore it as the battle flag of black radicalism. Historically, the subcultural use of camo has been ‘a way of coopting the sartorial codes of the military,’ says Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ‘In the ’60s and ’70s, it was 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 stripped the pattern of its antiwar and antigovernment politics. Red Dot’s Girlie Camo is composed of mudflap babe silhouettes; 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 stand in such ironic relief to a home-front fad that even the most airheadedly apolitical fashionista should experience a sharp pain in the conscience?

Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, has little patience with P.C. fulminations. ‘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 that they’re looking at than anything that’s happening on the front page.’

Besides, she argues, culture is a never-ending struggle for control of the meaning of social texts such as fashion fads. ‘There isn’t any meaning in camo at all,’ she insists. ‘It’s all how it keeps being interpreted and reinterpreted by everybody, including everybody who has any kind of reaction when you wear it.’

But are all readings equally legitimate? If you lived the history behind an image, doesn’t that give you a moral edge over those cultural amnesiacs who can only see that image through an aesthetic lens?

I asked some veterans, by e-mail, about their reactions to the sight of mall rats in camo. Derek Giffin, who served in the Army’s first cavalry division in Iraq in 2004-05, calls camo chic a ‘travesty.’ To Giffin, ‘The militarization of our culture is absolutely repugnant. Our money, foreign policy, and culture [are] invested in war, and the glamorization of camouflage is an offshoot of this paradigm. 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 antiwar style modish, according to Chas Davis, a conscientious objector and former member of the military police at Camp Page in Korea. ‘I have a 16-year-old sister who has never taken any interest in the peace movement,’ writes Davis. ‘All of a sudden, the designer store 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.

A version of this article previously appeared in I.D. (Nov. 2006). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (8 issues) from Box 420235, Palm Coast, FL 32142; www.idonline.com.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.