In 1946, a French designer named Louis Réard was seeking the perfect name for his latest exotic design; meanwhile, the United States Military was conducting research on nuclear weapons near Bikini Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. As news of the explosions hit the headlines, Réard opted to name the world’s most risqué swimsuit bikini.
An American flag bikini top is one of the pieces featured at a Spring 2010 fashion show at the University of Oregon called “Fashioning Resistance to Militarism.” Many of the outfits for the show are designed to raise awareness about how some popular fashions have deep militaristic roots. The free show also features original handmade clothing designs that visually represent issues ranging from sexual abuse of women in the military, to the federal defense budget, to the military carbon footprint.
The bikini isn’t the only clothing item with military origins. Just study the following titles: tank top, trench coat, bomber jacket. Moreover, for decades, designers have printed camouflage on everything from flip-flops, to lingerie. The overlap of militarism and fashion has some wondering, what are the deeper implications?
Gwyn Kirk, a visiting women and gender studies professor at the University, is concerned that militarism has become normalized in everyday American life. “What does it mean when a country is fighting a war in two places, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lots of young people and not so young people are walking around in camouflage?” she asks concertedly.
Kirk defines militarism as a web of economic, political, and ideological investments in the military. “These investments seem somewhat underground, but they’re ongoing and they have a long history,” she says.
Kirk explains that militarism has become a normal influence in our daily lives through fashion, media, and politics. Because it is so normalized, it can be hard to recognize.
University junior Chelsea Joyce says that she has always been curious about people who wear camouflage but don’t necessarily support the military, such as her ex-boyfriend. “He’d always shop at the army surplus store, and at the same time he was really anti-war.” Joyce says she owns a pair of knee-high lace-up Doc Martens that she describes as “pretty freaking military-like.” But until now, she never thought about their connection to the military.
Like Joyce, many people don’t necessarily see the links that their wardrobe has to the military. That’s why Kirk teamed up with University students and members of Oregon WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions) to produce the anti-militarism fashion show.
Janice Zagorin, a member of Oregon WAND, says,“What brings us to the fashion show is looking for creative ways to talk about the issues around the Pentagon and the military budget that is so destroying our country.”
Kirk organized a similar show in 2005 in partnership with the Women of Color Resource Center (WCRC) in Oakland, California. The fashion show, called “Runway Peace Project,” has traveled to several other college campuses and churches since then. Kirk, a longtime peace activist, has also taught several classes on women and militarism, including one at the University earlier this year. This is where her students rekindled the idea for the fashion show.
For University senior Katie Hulse, Kirk’s class inspired her to get involved with the fashion show. Prior to the class, Hulse says that she had no idea what militarism really was. “I knew I shouldn’t like the war, but I didn’t have a real understanding; I didn’t feel empowered enough in terms of knowledge-base to really comment,” she says. “And then we started looking at the budget and that’s really what concretes, I think, the understanding of how much we prioritize the military in this country.” Hulse is planning to model an outfit in the show—a green box—to raise awareness about Jamie Leigh Jones, a female Halliburton employee who was allegedly raped and placed in a storage box by her co-workers while on a business trip to Iraq.
Despite some heavy content, Hulse says the fashion show will also focus on peaceful solutions to some of the issues addressed. “I hope that people just think,” she says. “The more educated the populous is, the less they can ignore suffering and dehumanization.”