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There’s nothing fashionable about today’s wars

From World War I's trench coats to World War II's nipped waists to Vietnam's protest-driven fatigues, past wars have heralded strong periods of American style. But the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have hardly made a ripple in fashion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The fashion legacy of World War I includes trench coats and shorter skirts. World War II popularized sportswear, strong shoulders and nipped waists. Vietnam inspired protest-driven Army green and fatigues.

Wartime has heralded strong periods of American style, yet the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to be barely a blip on the radar of the fashion community. There's been an uptick in camouflage prints and, a few seasons back, a mini boom of the kind of epaulettes typical of military jackets — but those styles were around before the current conflicts, and they'll probably circle back again when they are resolved.

These wars, which began in 2001 and 2003, respectively, "have not been impactful," at least not in obvious ways, says Kathleen Campbell, a fashion historian affiliated with the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota. That minimal effect might be because they are not global wars dominating the conversation in the same sense as the World Wars, nor have there been huge public protests even if they're considered unpopular by some.

However, she adds, when history judges this period with a long-view perspective, an influence — possibly the use of scarves and/or layers like the ones used in those regions to protect against weather extremes — might emerge. "I think we're too close to analyze the effects now. It's much easier to see in retrospect."

There was no such time lag, though, during World War II, which changed the way Americans dressed forever.

Because of rationing of materials, domestic manufacturers began using nylon and rayon as alternatives to silk and wool, and the silhouettes became much leaner — requiring much less fabric.

Style cues were no longer coming from occupied Paris, so American designers stepped up to develop their own casual, separates-driven sensibility. The public was eager to show off its patriotism, making brass buttons and bomber jackets trendy items.

"You haven't seen the military details in fashion now the way you had previously seen them during wars or in the ironic ways they were worn by the counterculture during Vietnam," says Andrew Bolton, associate curator at Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York.

Apart from an increase in tan-and-brown "desert" colored camouflage, recent fashion trends do not make such nods to the armed forces.

A practical way of dressing also typically emerges during wartime, while conspicuous consumption comes in times of peace, Bolton says. The last 7-plus years have brought both.

There is a noticeable push of local, homegrown talent at the moment, Bolton notes, although that's probably more driven by the economy than by war. "The recession has affected fashion, and the recession is allied to the war in some respects," he says.

The industry's concern right now is to get people shopping again as consumer confidence fell in July yet again. That has meant a revival of some classics that offer a lot of wear and usage instead of super stylized items that don't give a lot of bang for the buck. (Interestingly, many of those versatile American classics have a hint of the '40s in them, especially Claire McCardell's no-fuss, no-muss denim, ballet slippers and belted dresses.)

Campbell thinks fashion might be missing an opportunity with its inward focus.

"I have often thought in these past few years, if Yves Saint Laurent was still alive and designing, he'd take the beautiful Afghani layered looks and interpret them beautifully on the runway," she says. "They wear a tunic over pants, a vest over tunic — it's really quite beautiful and I don't think anyone has really picked up on that."

Bolton also has observed fewer overseas influences, especially Asian ones, as designers also mine the looks of old-school style icons, such as the late Jackie Kennedy or C.Z. Guest, as inspiration.

Still, it's not in-your-face U.S. patriotism, either.

Tommy Hilfiger did his fair share of stars-and-stripes styles in the late 1990s and especially right after 9/11, but you don't see that in his collection now.

"When the Iraq War started, we were expanding a lot in Europe and we decided to pull back on all the red, white and blue," Hilfiger explains. "We didn't want to wave the flag in a strong way, for fear the international customer base would not be very positive on that."

There's a way to spin true American fashion, with its strong roots in sportswear, without burdening it with a message other than U.S.-based designers "know how to make some really cool clothes," he says.

Hilfiger has incorporated military-style jackets and pants into recent lines, but it's purposefully done in a preppy tone, he says. "I think the Americana will come back at some time, but it will be a different way."

"When I started out in '69, it was a revolution in itself. We were all revolting against the establishment, and we used long hair, bellbottoms and hippie clothes to make a statement against the establishment. We wanted peace and love, and we felt the politicians wanted commercialism and war," Hilfiger says.

"Now fashion is not as much a political statement, it's just a fashion statement."