Uniformed Individuality: Military-Inspired Fashion of the 1980s (Part I)

Elle Magazine, mid-1980s (exact year unknown). Scanned from the book Elle Style: the 1980s [Filipacchi Publishing, c.2003]

When flipping through fashion magazines from the 1980s it is clear that fashion designers of the time were fascinated with the past. But, it is not just one period in the past, but rather a wild mix of influences that makes the 1980s aesthetic so identifiable. Ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and almost all of the preceding decades of the twentieth century were used as sources of inspiration for the fashion designers of the 1980s.

However, I found that in particular many fashion designers of the period looked back to the 1940s. Of course the most obvious similarity is the strong shouldered silhouette, although another theme that resurfaces in both decades is the reinterpretation of uniforms and incorporation of design elements from the military. Whereas these elements in women’s fashion in the 1940s can be linked to the influence of war time, I wanted to understand how they made their way into the often glamorous, always extravagant, fashion of the 1980s.

While the early 1940s were ascetic, the 1980s were money-driven and emphasized luxury- it seems these two decades could not be more different. One wonders then, what drove the fascination of leading designers with so somber a time in human history as the 1940s? How did fashion that was subjected to rationing, constriction and shortage of materials reemerge in a decade that was all about extravagance, luxury, and material status?This post will try to offer some insights on the topic.

In 1971 Yves Saint Laurent introduced his Liberation couture collection, in which he appropriated the prevailing broad shouldered silhouette of the 1940s. This collection was a nostalgic reminiscence of his childhood memories of Oran, Algeria, where he grew up safeguarded by his mother, his sisters, and his aunts- unaffected by World War II. But for his French clients the Nazi occupation was a relatively fresh memory and the collection was not received well. While Saint Laurent’s romanticizing of this dark period seemed tasteless in the early 1970s, by the end of the decade the exaggerated 1940s silhouette was extremely fashionable, so much so that today it is the most recognizable feature of the 1980s fashion.

Outfits by Yves Saint Laurent, scanned from Vogue Italia, September 1981.

The New York Times review of this collection suggested that the designer’s drive to revive a period that aroused mostly bad memories, was in part due to his relation to the growing youth movement. The reporter, Bernadine Morris, noted that Paloma Picasso showed up wearing “her mother’s black crepe nineteenth-forties dress to the Saint Laurent opening.” The new youth culture that emerged in the late 1960s traded fashion in general, and couture in particular, for vintage personal style. Young people all over the world rejected fashion from “above,” the days of fashion dictated by French couture houses, it seemed, were over. Instead, they rummaged flea markets, or better yet, their mothers’ closets- and what they found there were garments from the 1930s and ’40s.

In her book Uniforms Exposed: From Conformity to Transgression, Jennifer Craik points out that uniform and military motifs were easily transformed into the anti-establishment, rebellious, and revolutionary imagery of the 1960s youth culture. Young people, who did not want to shop the stores their parents did, bought army surplus, which was left in abundance after World War II all over Europe and the United States. Army uniforms were not only unconventional dress for everyday life, but they also symbolized the youth’s new radical point of view and their rejection of the old and established.

Craik suggests that soon enough, what started as a radical statement, found itself in the heart of normalized mainstream fashion. By the mid-1970s, the radical ideas of the late 1960s were widely accepted by both young and old, resulting in a visual expression that related to going back to nature and embracing non-western cultures and ideas. In contrast, the rise of political leaders such Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and Ronald Regan in the US during the 1980s, signaled a transition into a much more conservative period, money was no longer a bad word- quite the opposite.

Ad, scanned from Vogue Italia September 1981.

Ad (detail), scanned from Vogue Italia September 1981.

In July 1976, Saint Laurent introduced his Opera-Ballet Russes couture collection which was featured on the front page of the New York Times. Saint Laurent’s collection is credited for reviving the dormant haute couture, but it also precedes the post-modernism of the 1980s with its mix of influences and stylisitc references.

Fashion magazines from the 1980s reveal the transition in taste from the romantic and free-spirited attitude of the 1970s to the cynical, money and brand-driven attitude of the 1980s. In early years of the decade, many featured designs are inspired by Russian peasants’ dress and traditional Moroccan costume, the prevailing silhouette, although already exaggerated at the shoulders, is much softer and the hemline is generally longer.  As the years progress the look becomes more rigid and the shoulders become wider and wider. Many designers offer leather jackets and masculine suits, but they also emphasize unapologetic sexuality.

An ad for Sports Max, showing influence of Russian dress. Scanned from Vogue Italia, September 1981.

The scholar Anne Hollander notes that “it has always been fashionable to copy certain elements of dress that have public timeliness, such as military motifs in war time or foreign motifs while public attention is focused on the foreigners in question.” Indeed, many fashion designs and editorials in fashion magazines reveal strong Russian influences; at the beginning of the decade in Russian peasant-like dresses and floral embroideries, and later in Soviet icons and Red Army military elements. Saint Laurent’s Opera-Ballet Russes certainly started the trend, but it was also Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika and Glasnost, and his new openness to the west that might have inspired so many designers to use Soviet iconography and specifically military elements.

Scanned from Vogue Italia, September 1982.

Scanned from Vogue Italia, September 1982.

Next week’s post will focus on how military elements were interpreted by fashion designers of the 1980s, as well as how fashion magazines adopted imagery relating to World War II as a backdrop for 1940s retro fashion. I hope you will come back next week for another taste of military-inspired 1980s fashion.

Selected bibliography
Craik, Jennifer. Uniforms Exposed : From Conformity to Transgrression. Oxford; NewYork: Breg, 2005
Bonami, Francesco, Frisa, Maria Luisa, Tonchi, Stefano, eds. Uniform: Order and Disorder, Milano: Charta, c.2000.
Font, Lourdes. “Saint Laurent, Yves.” in Grove Art Online.
Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes, New York: Viking, 1978.
Morris, Bernadine. “Now Why They Are Throwing Brickbats at Saint Laurent?” New York Times, February 2, 1971.
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5 Responses to Uniformed Individuality: Military-Inspired Fashion of the 1980s (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Uniformed Individuality: Military-Inspired Fashion of the 1980s (Part II) | ON PINS AND NEEDLES

  2. Pingback: Uniformed Individuality: Military-Inspired Fashion of the 1980s (Part III, Men’s Wear) | ON PINS AND NEEDLES

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