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Who WAR what?

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

If, as a Native New Yorker friend of mine will tell you, make up is war paint for women, then the orange trousers and clashing shoes that I stepped out in today are fatigues for fashionistas. Its raining missiles - not men- here in Israel this week and you can be forgiven for wondering why anyone would be superficial enough to be talking about clothes right now. But war and fashion are seasoned bedfellows -they go back a long way.

There is a strategy to what is worn in war. The brightly coloured uniforms of the 18th and 19th Centuries were brightly coloured for a reason – designed in this way to help soldiers distinguish friend from foe on smoke-filled battlefields where visibility was poor. The strong colours were intimidating, they signaled Imperial power, they made armies look great, both in number and in might. European monarchs became obsessed with how their soldiers dressed. War was akin to fashion week on steroids.

Then as weapons improved, the brightly coloured uniforms became more liability than asset. The introduction of smokeless gunpowder increased visibility on the battlefield, the greater range and accuracy of repeating rifles made it easier to hit a specific target from a distance and with these developments came a new era of sartorial functionality. Dazzle camouflage, trench coats, and steel helmets became the norm shifting the focus from grandeur to utility, from intimidation to protection and concealment. Nations began to influence each other’s uniform designs; the iconic Russian ushanka spread widely amongst cold-climate countries and berets, once exclusive to the French, became a staple in many military dress codes the world over. And with the advancements in technology came still further changes - the incorporation of body armour, night vision compatibility, and other utilities, all of which began to transform uniforms into advanced combat gear so that today’s military uniforms are a blend of tradition and cutting-edge technology. Digital camouflage patterns, moisture-wicking fabrics, and ergonomic designs optimize functionality and comfort for soldiers - the ever-changing nature of what is worn in war.

What has not changed however is the influence that military apparel has had on men’s attire - to this day nearly everything men wear is rooted in military dress - from chinos and bomber jackets to suit and overcoats; the history of the military uniform is the history of menswear.

The modern suit can trace its lineage back to the Napoleonic era. War in Europe for the better part of two decades resulted in tailors perfecting the art of outfitting soldiers. Those techniques and styles found their way into civilian dress; the tailored cut of the cavalry officer's coat gave way to the single and double-breasted Victorian frock coat, which in turn gave way to the modern suit jacket. ‘Over breaches’ became trousers and when Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher saw his soldiers struggling with ‘on and off -ing’ their boots he commissioned a shoemaker to solve the problem. A shoe with two leather flaps across the vamp held together by laces was born and to this day Bluchers name remains synonymous with the unchanged design of the modern man’s dress shoe. Men’s overcoats are descendants of the Prussian Greatcoat with a brief stopover in the shape of the second World War’s Officers overcoat and the modern belt, derived from those worn by cavalry officers on the outside of their uniforms, was adapted to replace braces in everyday civvie street.

More recent military dress, where function has favoured form, has also had its fair share of influence. The ubiquitous, ‘no wardrobe is complete without one’ T-shirt, for example was originally issued by the U.S. Navy as a standard undergarment. The Spanish-American War gave us chinos, the name a nod to the manufacturing in China of the light cotton trouser. And the modern-day bomber jacket has never looked back following its debut as standard issue to US Air Force and Navy pilots in the early 1950s. Cargo pants and field jackets were derived from the uniforms of WWII soldiers and polo-neck sweaters, pea coats and woolen beanies, all contemporary winter staples, have been used by Navies for over 200 years. It is said that were it not for the military, men would be walking around naked, and that if you want to know what the next menswear trend will be, forget fashion shows and street style blogs. Instead just loiter around the military barracks for a while and soak up some fashion-forward vibes.

And how does any of this relate to my orange trousers? Well, they are my equivalent of the brightly coloured uniforms of the great wars, they are my potent means of self-empowerment, my reaffirmation of my identity at this tough time. They are my beacon of hope and my proverbial ‘middle finger up’ at anyone that would seek to grind me down or worse, disappear me. They tell the world I am very much here, and they remind me of that fact too. My orange trousers sustain my morale and define my identity. It’s a heavy burden for a pair of trousers I grant you, but so far they are holding up pretty well.

Spoiler alert - that's not actually me!

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