In 1988, Q magazine published “The Mad Max Factor,” an article about the British new wave singer Gary Numan. The title was a reference — if you haven’t got it already — to Max Factor cosmetics and the futuristic and apocalyptic movie Mad Max. Numan, who had begun his career wearing tight suits and thick-painted cosmetics, had flipped to wearing futuristic, all-leather warrior-type gear, with a relatively recent albums named Warriors and Berserkers (the latter was the name for a special type of Norse warrior).
All of this might seem horribly contradictory — Numan himself probably thought it was. But there is a long tradition of the warrior being concerned with what today would be regarded as effeminate. Notably, Norse warriors and the Samurai wrote poetry, as did warriors in most other traditions. The most famous and revered of the Samurai was Miyamoto Musashi (circa 1584-1645). Although he didn’t care much about his own physical appearance (he rarely bathed), Musashi cultivated both the warrior arts, such as the sword, and the more genteel arts of painting and calligraphy.
Although not necessarily a reflection on Musashi, the late Samurai manual the Hagakura tells readers that “he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.” The principles that apply to calligraphy apply also to painting, sword fighting, and so on. The movement of the brush, and the movement of the sword, share technique, composure, and spirit.
This recognition of the unity of the arts — and of life and death, even — is embodied in the Samurai, and Japanese tradition more broadly. Beauty thus becomes masculine, and part of the warrior.
There were times when a Samurai was required to commit harakiri (ritual suicide). It usually came at the request of the warrior’s lord, and was regarded both as a way of fulfilling one’s duty and as a way of preserving one’s honor, perhaps after the loss of a battle.
As Japanese playwright Yukio Mishima (1925-1970) noted, facing death in this manner, or prior to a duel, the Samurai was required to “make up his face [with] powder and lipsticks in order to keep his face beautiful after his suffering death.” “In the Samurai tradition the sense of beauty was always connected with death,” Mishima observes.
For the playwright there were two intrinsic but “contradictory characteristic of Japanese culture. One is elegance. One is brutality,” although, as in the Samurai, “these characteristic are very tightly combined sometimes.”
Highly-decorative armor was common in the ancient world. Often extremely expensive to produce, it was sometimes the preserve of the warrior elite. However, in ancient Greece the use of engraving and embossing for helmets was common. While the decoration was often abstract or geomteric, some armor was decorated with figures and scenes.
The 7th century British Sutton Hoo burial ship helmet, for example, was decorated with animal ornament and “heroic scenes.” Moreover, as the British Museum describes it, “Placed against the top of the nose, between the eyebrows, is a gilded dragon-head that lies nose to nose with a similar dragon-head placed at the end of the low crest that runs over the cap. The nose, eyebrows and dragon make up a great bird with outstretched wings that flies on the helmet.”
While the aestheticization of armor clearly indicated status — which often reflected military accomplishment and prowess — in some instances it may also have imbued the armor, and warrior, with the power of magic, or, in the Christian period, God. We know that the ancient northern Europeans often etched particular runes (letters considered to have magical properties) into their swords to ensure success in battle. In the Old Icelandic text the Sigrdrifumol, which preserved much pre-Christian mythology, we are told:
Winning-runes learn, if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, and some on the flat…
The later Crusaders, as we also know, carried shields emblazoned with a large Christian cross. Since the Crusaders were readily identifiable, by their dress, and distinguishable from their enemy anyway, the cross must have been primarily a symbol to ensure God’s favor in the so-called “holy war.”
Dress and Warrior Identity Today
With the disappearance of the historical warrior, his identity has reemerged in areas as diverse as fashion, subculture, popular music, fraternities and even — and most unfortunately — religious and political fanaticism.
In regard to fraternities, in Freemasonry, a moral and mystical fraternity founded in London in 1717, several rituals and “Degrees” were created to confer a kind of mystical chivalry on its members. The most widespread and popular of these is the “Knight Rose Croix,” a mixture of esoteric Rosicrucianism and Roman Catholic chivalry.
In fashion, the warrior image is perhaps more often found in womenswear (model Meghan Collison was transformed into a modern fashionista-Samurai warrior in Interview magazine in October 2012.), although menswear is fairly frquently inspired by warrior armor and — stretching the definition of warrior a bit — military fatigues. In some instances, the warrior image reemerges perhaps unintentionally, where the clothing combines the masculine and the feminine, such as in the work of Kiev-based fashion label DRESSADDICT by Artem & Victor.
The warrior is a complicated figure. Ostensibly standing for elitism and war, in contrast to the professed values of the modern West, he nevertheless embodies the notion of going beyond, both beyond himself as an individual, and beyond the conventions of society. While his reflection appears in forms that might be regarded as little more as play acting, the reemergence of the warrior in contemporary society belies an unhappiness at the state of the world, and the wish for the power to transform it, and oneself, into something more authentic.