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The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion spacer The Vacuum - Issue 17 - Fashion
Cheryl Herr
by Terrorist Chic And Marching Season Style
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I once heard Ulick O'Connor say that the British government had allowed Irish hunger strikers to die rather than allow them 'to wear their own jackets.' By momentarily reducing the political struggle to a contest over sartorial self-determination, O'Connor voiced a central truth about society as we know it. Prescribed dress brings into question our individuality, our worth, the self-centeredness or communality of our purpose. While there are certainly some who love a man or woman in uniform, others avoid dress codes at all costs. There's something deeply disconcerting about clothing that we are forced to wear. This statement applies abundantly to penal situations but also covers religious, educational, military, and dance costumes.
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Every uniform implies a measure of acquiescence. Often, what may begin as an assertion of community (we need to express our solidarity by dressing the same) comes to be seen as arbitrary or arcane or both (why are those people dressed like that?). While prescribed dress baffles and frustrates the outsider, it also challenges the creative individual who chooses to wear it. And yet the very concept of the uniform severely limits the number and extent of personal improvisations. Too many changes, and the person is no longer in conformity. At the same time, any move toward de-identification from one group may look unavoidably like alliance with the opposition. A tangle of misinterpretation blossoms around uniforms and their insistent regularities.
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Where the assumptions of spectators hold sway, there is always misreading. Take as an example the West's dismal failure to understand Muslim clothing. In post-9/11 discourse, otherwise intelligent individuals have worked overtime to demonize the head scarf, to cast suspicion on all forms of traditional Islamic garb. This phenomenon has drawn forth commentary both from Muslims who wear hijab and from those who do not. Identifiably Muslim women in the U.S. have not only been subject to religiously-motivated violence since 9/11, they have also endured the effrontery of Oprah's audience holding forth whys and wherefores of the veil. What, if anything, does costume prove about identity? In a recent article in the L.A. Times (20 January 2002), Laila Al-Marayati and Semeen Issa say, 'A few years ago, someone from the Feminist Majority Foundation called the Muslim Women's League to ask if she could 'borrow a burka' for a photo shoot the organization was doing to draw attention to the plight of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban. When we told her that we didn't have one, and that none of our Afghan friends did either, she expressed surprise, as if she'd assumed that all Muslim women keep burkas in their closet in case a militant Islamist comes to dinner.'
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Refusing one item, donning another, adhering to this sartorial injunction but resisting that bit: such actions quite literally bind us into the social sphere in which our bodies take on social meaning. Choosing a wardrobe instantly poses a wide array of philosophical issues. The clothing that we might wear the totality of possible costumes charts the nature of the world into which we are thrown. From the sum of all available vestments, the outfits that we assemble are less signs than they are activities gestures of rejection, declarations of connection, assertions of individuality amidst varieties of conformity. For all of the professional writing lavished on the fashion industry, it is astonishing how rarely commentators address the central role played in all of our lives by how ordinary individuals put themselves together for public display and manage the interplay of costume and personality. Whether the clothes we call our own are purchased at the priciest boutiques or pieced together from thrift shops, whether we devour Elle and GQ or profess an untutored simplicity of self-styling, our relationship to bits of fabric variously sewn together is emotionally in dialogue with the expectations of the groups that seek both to confer our identities and to constrain them.
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Anyone exploring the vast literature on Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards will notice that in terms of globally recognized styles of dress, republicans have soundly trounced loyalists. The reason is simple and material: for the world at large, from the 1970s onwards Sinn Fein created a steady stream of visual materials (books, calendars, newspapers, videos) and saw to it that supportive organizations could immerse their followers in a highly stylized and readily recognizable aesthetic. Like an IGC marketing campaign, Sinn Fein aimed to communicate an attitude and a sense of purpose in which uniforms played key roles. In contrast, loyalist culture long adhered to Protestant strictures against visual display, at least for as far as outsiders to NI were concerned. Outside of Ireland, loyalist culture was mostly invisible until the 90s: even bowler hats and sashes fail to secure universal recognition: the images just weren't out there. As a consequence, many more people around the world are familiar with terrorist chic, IRA style. The look has been communicated liberally through journalism and scholarship on the iconography of sectarian murals, paramilitary funerals, and annual parades. Scanning this wealth of material, one-sided as it is, allows us to consider the uniform as a staged form of visual aggression. We can also discover in these images moments in which individuality trumps collectivity, in which personality exceeds the bounds of paraded sameness. However serried the ranks, rarely is individual expression entirely squelched.
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Part of personalized performance depends on the fact that uniforms do not simply materialize full-cloth; they have a history, and they change over time, a point made by John Darby in his study of political cartoons called Dressed to Kill (1983). Darby reminds us that IRA costumes evolved dramatically between the 1920s and the present. Somewhere in the recesses of the media's folk memory of Irish violence lay the image of the Irish Republican Army. So closely linked were the two in the popular imagination that the IRA began to invade cartoons even before the Provisionals were formed in 1970. To fix the image of the newcomers, cartoonists simply picked it up where it had been left at the time of partition in 1921. Trench coats, slouch hats and Tommy guns were dusted off and called into service again, at least until new cues could be established. The transformation of this outmoded stereotype was gradual and somewhat confusing. Black berets and dark glasses ap-peared, and even the trench coats eventually gave way to combat jackets.
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The passive voice speaks volumes here. Darby leaves us wondering precisely who set the look and how that instruction was transmitted to adherents. (Darby reprints a Punch cartoon in which a man in a striped suit is greeted by a trench-coated volunteer: 'Jasus Sean! You can't go out to murder people dressed like that!') To what extent did fiction, film, journalism, and television prompt changes in clothing and accessorizing that mutated into the norm? And what aspects of popular fashion have accounted for even subtle differences in paramilitary style? To some extent, responses to these questions can be found in Neil Jarman's Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland (1997), which admirably aims for even-handed ethnography of loyalist and nationalist culture from 1690 onwards. But Jarman's account comes up short when facing the photographs his own that liberally punctuate his work. These images reveal, without authorial commentary, the mixture of earnestness and fecklessness, solemnity and comedy that marks the typical contemporary parade. With tight enough framing, any march can take on the patina of absolute concentration and lockstep orchestration. Take a wider purview, and the whole event is revealed in all of its makeshift glory - decentered, even downright messy.
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Each image in the history of Irish terrorist chic tells both an ideological tale and a story about the individuals modeling the look. For example, in Tom Collins' The Centre Cannot Hold (1983) a photograph of a 1978 republican march is interesting not simply because it displays the dress uniform of the era beret with insignia, black turtleneck, wide-bottom dark pants, and either wool or leather sports jacket but rather because each person in the photo, to a man, sports hair of a suitably seventies' over-the-ear length. To me, the effect is as startling as that of the 1989 Gerry Adams interview in Playboy, where the words and images of Northern Ireland's distress jostle with 'Girls of the Big East' for attention.
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Indeed, the Provos have never shied away from a good photo op. One of the images in Collins' book documents a power fashion show: a volunteer in paint-spotted, shapeless beige jacket, full-face balaclava, and black cotton gloves holds an 'accessorizing' AK-47. The caption reads, 'Member of the Provisional IRA exhibiting sub-machine gun during a kind of military fashion show at Casement Park, Belfast, at end of Provisional parade on 12 August 1979'. A loosely draped cloth provides the photographic backdrop. This occasion drew many photographers, and we're lucky to have an alternate record of the model. In the catalogue of Ireland's first photographic exhibit, held in the early eighties, we are treated to the same incident from another angle of vision. In a photo by Eamonn O'Dwyer, the point of view captures the backcloth, the posing paramilitary, and a cluster of cameras clicking away. The sheer staginess of the event overshadows the intended menace. Reflexivity reveals the material effort involved in looking fierce for the camera.
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Yet another instance: on the cover of the 1988 Sinn Fein calendar for County Derry and Southwest Antrim, posed field maneuvers depict a woman in the foreground, her mid-length red hair emerging from her beret, wearing a dark drab hooded army jacket and a wool scarf over the bottom half of her face. The arresting part of this photo is not her femaleness, although foregrounding her gender seems to be the intention, but the condition of her gun, which is old, chipped, and rusty. That this photograph is a posed bit of propaganda finds emphasis in the Republican Resistance Calendar for 1990, on the cover of which we find two men helping each other with what looks like a mini-missile launcher, a machine gun, and a two-way radio. Looking stalwartly toward the viewer is the same red-haired model, now holding a more impressive ma-chine gun. All three wear half-masks, and the hole on the side of one man's facial covering suggests that the short mask is produced by folding down the full balaclava. Add sunglasses, and you're in like Flint. In the Sinn Fein calendar for 1987 a whole unit in drab, one woman wearing a skirt instead of pants stands at attention in a cemetery, while above them pike-headed flagstaffs pierce the air and around them press photographers with huge lenses angle in for the best view of the proceedings. The clothing is as theatrical as it gets, the overall effect mildly risible.
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The marching season has traditionally offered the public an opportunity to inspect sectarian uniforms of a non- or semi-military kind. We can see firsthand, for instance, that marching bands for children often include boys and girls who are unable to keep their ties on straight or hair properly tucked under a cap. Innocence and dishevelment go hand in hand when you're eight years old and rather bored. The same can go for adult band members whose ebullience of spirit, exhaustion, or carelessness result in loosened ties, crooked hats, lost instruments, or other egregious failures of decorum.
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Considerable calculation can go into the improvement of a stodgy band uniform. I recall watching a meticulously turned-out women's accordion band where much costume tweaking could be observed. The women all wore the de rigeur black beret, but they also wore very short and very tight black skirts, sheer black hose, and decidedly beach-worthy sunglasses. Indeed, the band leader wore a feather in her beret (charmingly unorthodox in its length and flourish), impressive chandelier earrings, and three-inch heels. Never mind that these instrumentalists were going to walk for blocks down the Falls Road. Never mind that it was threatening to rain and that at any moment a political march might dissolve into turmoil. And never mind that a 'regulation' uniform was obviously the way to go for a parade. Regardless of the circumstances, the band actively claimed and personalized a look rendered pi-quant by their insistence on a stylish and even provocative presence in contested public space.
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In the aura of tense ideology that tends to mark the marching season, there remains a modicum of improvisational possibility. The subcultural fabric, continuously reweaving its collectivity around fashions of the past, slowly evolving new styles, gradually accommodates the construction of difference through dialogue with dress codes as well as prevailing fashion. The costumes worn at parades by marching bands supporting one political group or another constitute a fashion that has been inscribed over time with value. But that value isn't fixed and it isn't uniform. Individual performance always brings personal style into the mix serious, sexy, amused, disruptive being human exceeding the restrictions of dress codes.
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