Militant feminine: vanguards of style

In 2012 Moschino launched its collection of military chic womenswear in Milan. In mostly black and white with touches of “girly pink,” the brand’s final statement on war seemed to be delivered with a biker’s jacket bearing a large peace sign on the back. This hasn’t been the only expression of military chic so far in 2012. A few months after Moschino, and pop singer Katy Perry was causing controversy with the video for her song Part of Me. In the four minute long video Perry dumps her cheating boyfriend, cuts here hair and joins the Marines. For much of the video she’s dressed in military fatigues, and going through an assault course. Surely a feminist message, if ever there was one.

Well, not everyone thought so. Naomi Wolf was enraged. The author of The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women called the video “propaganda for the Marines,” and — deciding that the military uniform was one look that could be used against a woman — called for a boycott of the singer.

Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter.
Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter.

But, this isn’t the first instance of a woman being regarded as a heretic for putting on what are deemed to be men’s or military clothing. In 1425, the young Joan of Arc was beginning to receive visitations, so she believed, from the Archangel Michael and other accompanying angels. Only a few years later, as France was being besieged by English troops, did they the angelic beings her to take up arms to save her country. Joan appealed to King Charles VII, through his commander Robert Baudricourt. Rebuffed, and regarded as a lunatic, the young warrior persisted.

Finally, Joan was allowed to visit the king. With only a three man escort, she put on male clothing, apparently to avoid unwanted sexual attention. She would wear men’s attire into battle, and even slept fully clothed.

And, finally — partly for wearing men’s clothes – she would be condemned as a heretic.

But, Joan of Arc eventually rose to become France’s national hero, giving the world a symbol that combined femininity and martial spirit, and — as portrayed in the movies and on TV — beauty and bravery.

Symbolism and beauty pervade fashion.

Templar fashion by Torsten Amft.German fashion designer, Torsten Amft, says that he has created “Elitist Futurism.” This look fuses flamboyant Eighties power dressing with militant glamor. Think shoulder pads, leggy models, and the bal masque all roled into one. In 2009, Amft launched his Knights Templar-inspired womenswear collection. Tops included hoods cut to resemble the chain mail garments of medieval knights. And virtually every outfit included an embroidered Maltese cross — the Templars’ emblem — some of which were designed to look like modern military patches.

Amft’s look combines the elitism of Prussian militarism with the fashion industry’s worship of the female body. It pays homage to the archetypal female — lover and warrior — and celebrates decidedly female sexual aggression.

Amft’s woman in military attire stands in sharp contrast to what is one of the most controversial of such images: Lucia — played by Charlotte Rampling — in the 1970s move, The Night Porter.

The plot is somewhat weak, admittedly. Lucia, who is Jewish, was abused by a concentration camp guard, who forced her to perform cabaret while dressed in little more than an SS officer’s cap and long gloves. In a chance encounter, more than a decade after the war, they reignite their sado-masochistic relationship. The aesthetics are what concerns us, and largely what the movie is remembered for.

yasmin_le_bon_vuittonLucia’s look was absorbed into early Punk, with singer Siouxsie Sioux creating her dark, sexual, sadistic, and militaristic style at least partly from it. But Siouxsie transformed it from the image of the abused, to the look of the aggressor: the woman with power. It inspired Louis Vuitton in 2011, with Yasmin Le Bon starring in a soft-Night Porter themed photo shoot, and shows up subtly — and probably unconsciously — in Lady Gaga’s Love Game video.

Ronald Reagan once described Britain’s very forthright Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as “the best man in England.” Thatcher liked men, and was, if only by virtue of her profession, surrounded by them. But she would not have found it complimentary to be regarded as even the best of men. “In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man,” she commented 1982. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.

As Katy Perry, Leelee Sobieski in her role as Joan of Arc, Amft’s models, Siouxsie Sioux, and Charlotte Rampling have shown, women in military gear are not necessarily more like men. The woman in military attire, it seems, can flaunt the rules, precisely because she is drawing on an aspect of archetypal femininity that remains shocking to the bourgeois.

Angel_headshot_smallAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.

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