Uniformed Individuality: Military-Inspired Fashion of the 1980s (Part III, Men’s Wear)

In the previous part I and part II, I suggested some explanations to why the broad shoulders associated with the 1940s made a come back in the 1980s. I was curious to understand if the influence of war years on the style of the earlier decade was also reflected in the later one, I found that by the 1980s elements of military attire- such as D rings, camouflage patterns, cargo pockets and of course the trench coat- were inseparable part of sportswear design, typically with little to no trace of the original function. The fashion designers who created the quintessential 1980s look were post-modernists- they juxtaposed seemingly disparate notions and mixed inspiration from several sources.

This third and last part will  examine men’s fashion from the same period in order to find if the design of their clothes was influenced by the same trends, and to what extent men’s wear designers too, looked at the 1940s and military attire for inspiration.

Last week I discussed Saint Laurent’s women’s collections of the early 1970s which already feature the1980s characteristic- broad shoulders. However, Saint Laurent’s men’s wear silhouettes of the same period are still slim and narrow at the shoulders. Yet, it is interesting to note a clear military influence in both his men’s and women’s lines. Two examples from L’Uomo Vogue  illustrate how Saint Laurent appropriated elements from Colonial khaki uniforms in his men’s sportswear; these examples directly correspond with Saint Laurent’s Safari suits for women, and demonstrates how the designer projected one vision for both men and women- another new and innovative concept at that time.

“By Saint Laurent”, in L’Uomo Vogue, n. 18, July 1972, p.93. Photo Oliviero
Toscani. Scanned from the book Uniform: Order and Disorder [Milano: Charta, c2000]

“YSL- La Shariana: un classico,” in L’Uomo Vogue, n.29, April 1974, p.197.
Photo Richard Imrie, scanned from the book Uniform: Order and Disorder [Milano: Charta, c2000], 338.

Women’s Pantsuit, spring/summer 1970
Designed by Yves Saint Laurent. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Barbara and Gregory Reynolds, 1984 (1984.598.96a–c)

The origin of broad shoulders in women’s fashion in both the 1940s and the 1980s can be traced back to men’s wear, and specifically to men’s army attire. Women of both decades experienced significant changes in their social roles- in the 1940s positions that were previously occupied by men, were-with the onset of war- open to women; similarly, in the 1980s more and more women occupied executive-level positions which in the past were a men-only club. Some fashion historians believe that women found it was easier to be accepted into the formally men-only professions by implementing traditional men’s tailored style which eliminated any trace of femininity.[1] In his book Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear, Paul Fussell suggests that male shoulders, as chest hair, is an important masculine sexual characteristic, and therefore “well-developed shoulders are important for male self-respect and pride…..Military emphasis on shoulders thus accentuates the masculinity and presumed bellicosity of uniform wearers.”[2]  It  is possible that women of both the 1940s and the 1980s stated their new social identity through their new chosen style of dress; by assuming the feature that symbolizes power in male dominated environment- “well developed” shoulders- they signaled their capability to take part in it.

Broad shoulders and soft tailored suits were fashionable during the 1980s and were offered by most major designers for both formal and informal events. Scanned from Vogue Homme September 1986.

Even a quick glance in men’s fashion magazines from the 1980s will reveal that the broad shouldered silhouette prevailed men’s fashion as well. While it is likely that the change of silhouette that occurred in the 1980s in men’s fashion is a mere reflection of the changes in women’s fashion, or rather the answer to it, it is also likely that men’s wear designers did not merely copy women’s fashion, but as part of the 1940s retro trend, chose to examine men’s fashion from the period. On of the most memorable silhouette of the 1940s is of course that of the zoot-suit.

Men in police line up wearing zoot suits. January 01, 1942 photo: Peter Stackpole/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

The term zoot-suit originated from the late 1930s’ jazz culture and night life of Harlem and it meant “something worn or performed in an extravagant style, and since many young blacks wore suits with outrageously padded shoulder and trousers that were fiercely tapered at the ankles, the term zoot-suit passed into everyday usage.”[3]  The zoot-suiters phenomena started with young blacks and Mexicans, predominantly from a lower social-economic background, who wore knee-length jacket or coat, padded at the shoulders, and pleated-front pants tapered to narrow cuffs. The suits were often made of rayon in bold colors or pinstripes, and were sometimes worn with a bow tie, suspenders and elongated chain dangling down over the pants.  In the early 1940s this extravagant and excessive look aroused grievance by those who found this new fashion, which was not in accordance with the strict restrictions and rationing of war time, distasteful if not subversive. But, it is exactly that exaggeration and self adornment that the fashion designers of the 1980s responded to. It was not only the very wide shoulders they adopted, but also the pleated pants and the over-all softer look achieved by draped jackets and pants.

Jerome Mendelson. January 1, 1942. Life Magazine. Photo: Marie Hensen.

In its reincarnation, the zoot-suit was assimilated into an eclectic look that projected the flamboyant and somewhat teasing attitude of the wearer. In the photograph below, published in L’Uomo Vogue in December 1981, a tartan suit with broad shoulders and pegged trousers is paired with army boots, black bow tie, cummerbund. and a patterned shirt evoking zoot-suit, tuxedo suit and the punk movement of the late 1970s- all rolled into one. While the roots of the zoot-suit, with its social context and the ethnic background of its original wearers, is no longer evident in this image it is its rebellious and anti-establishment attitude that endured.

Anthony in Tartan suit. Fashion editorial published in L’Uomo Vogue, December 1981. Photo: Amy Arbus. Scanned from: Jocks  and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century. By Richard Martin and Harold Koda [New York: Rizzoli, 1989], 209.

What I find most fascinating and relevant in this photograph are the multi-layers of seemingly contradicting meanings. It is interesting to note that the outfit in the image was not created by one fashion designer, but rather by a stylist or the wearer himself. First, what might seem out of place in this image is the pairing of suit with army boots.  Nonetheless, the suit itself is a hybrid between a tuxedo and a zoot-suit, each in turn is a type of uniform- the tuxedo is the uniform for formal events, and the zoot-suit was “more than a drape-shape of the 1940s….it was in the most direct and obvious ways, an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating an identity.”[4] In other words, the individuality of the wearer (in this case Anthony) is achieved by mixing three different uniforms from three different worlds; each holds a distinct and separate meaning.

Last week I discussed how functional elements from military uniforms lost their original purpose and became merely decorative. A camouflage printed cotton suit, designed by Stephen Sprouse in 1988, is just one example of how far removed elements “borne out of necessity” have became. Sprouse, who used Andy Warhol’s camouflage print, appropriated bright and contrasting colors that do just the opposite of camouflaging- they make the wearer stand out, announcing his individuality. Sprouse does not print a t-shirt or even a sports jacket, but rather a suit- the symbol of the uniformed man. What is even more interesting in Sprouse’s design is the shape of the suit itself; although paired with shorts, the jacket is surprisingly quite conventional.

Stephen Sprouse, suit, 1988. The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum. Gift of Michael Macko, 1991. Accession Number: 1991.35.1a, b

I would like to argue that in addition to design elements – such as camouflage prints, belts, pockets, double stitching – and garments –such as the trench coat, cargo pants, bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses and cap-  visual imagery which originated from the military, and specifically World War II, dominated mainstream fashion editorials and advertisements in the 1980s. One example is a billboard advertisement for Emporio Armani Autumn/Winter 1985/1986 collection (figure 11). The pixilated black and white photograph depicts four young men uniformed in matching caps, leather gloves and sweaters printed with the famous Armani eagle logo. The image is set like a snap-shot, slightly out of focus, not all of the models are looking into the camera- they seem to be caught in the action rather than model the clothes. The Armani logo disturbingly resembles Nazi emblems, especially in such a uniformed context.  In addition it is the size of the billboard and of course the austere nature of the clothes that evoke Stalinist statues and Soviet icons. Yet the image does not convey power or arouse fear, even to the contrary. It is not the clothes themselves that Armani is selling, but through familiar signs and codes he is offering the idea behind them- that of belonging by way of uniformity.

Emporio Armani billboard, autumn/winter 1985/1986. Scanned from the book Uniform: Order and Disorder [Milano: Charta, c2000], 310-311

Soviet propaganda poster


Advertisement. Vouge Italia, Milano: Edizioni Condè Nast S.p.A
September 1982.

Nazi propaganda poster from 1937


Armani’s famous eagle logo

I would like to suggest that like the familiar imagery appropriated in the Emporio Armani advertisement, it is not the essence to which designers and advertisers responded to but rather the image itself. According to scholar Jennifer Craik, in the 1960s “fashion photography, popular music and radical films became bedfellows. Their shared practices rested on subversions and cannibalization. Uniforms and military motifs were perfect sources of appropriate imagery for burgeoning youth culture.”[5]  But, much like the garments and design elements that came to dominant the sportswear world, this imagery that originated from military conflicts was diluted by the time it reached fashion magazines and advertisements in the 1980s. Armani is not making a statement or denouncing the acts of his country’s leaders during World War II- he is fabricating an image with which he hopes to appeal to potential consumers, and he uses imagery which, by this time, was already used and reused for two decades. As opposed to Saint Laurent’s Liberation couture collection from 1971, Armani’s imagery is so familiar, it is not longer subversive.

[1] See for example Deirdre Clancy, Costume Since 1945 Couture, Street Style and Anti-fashion, [New York: Drama Publishers, 1996], 168.
[2] Paul Fussel, Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear [Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002], 11
[3] Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare”. History Workshop. No. 18 (Autumn, 1984) [Oxford University Press], 78 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4288588 [accessed12/08/10]
[4] Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare”, 78.
[5] Jennifer Craik, Uniforms Exposed From Conformity to Transgression, 192.

Selected Bibliography

Bonami, Francesco,  Frisa , Maria Luisa, Tonchi, Stefano, eds. Uniform: Order and    Disorder, Milano: Charta, c2000.
Richard Martin and Harold Koda,. Joks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century. [New York: Rizzoli, 1989], 193.
Hollander, Anne. Seeing Through Clothes. New York: Viking, 1978.
 _____________. Sex and Suits.New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1994
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