The Evolution of Military Style


War and Fashion: An Aesthetic
The singer Monica rocks epaulets on a military-inspired coat.
The singer Monica rocks epaulets on a military-inspired coat.
Michael Buckner/WireImage/Getty Images

By the late '40s, runways were back in business. Designers were back at their studios. Fashion editors were dictating. And "military style" became an art.

In the hands of high-fashion, uniform elements were transformed by feminized shapes, bright colors, soft fabrics, cut-outs, sequins and bustier structuring never seen in any foot locker. Creative interpretation in haute couture surely contributed to the look's remarkable staying power.

Hollywood's insistence on a cause-effect relationship between World War II-era trench coats and deep, desperate kisses probably didn't hurt, either. (Nor did the later appearance of "M.A.S.H" character Hot Lips Houlihan in some very flattering olive-drab tees.)

"M.A.S.H.," in fact, coincided with a turn toward the military-authentic that helped the trend become a full-fledged fashion statement. By the '70s, wearing a U.S. Army jacket said something about the wearer -- more often than not, something ironic. Canvas, military-issue rucksacks paired with tie-dye took on college-uniform status.

In the 21st century, it's desert-camouflage doing the talking, though its message (if there is one) can be difficult to read. But no matter: What camouflage clothing, and military-influenced fashion in general, says about a wearer's politics is secondary to what it says about the wearer, which is pretty consistently this: I am an individual. I do what I like. I don't much care what you think.

It's ironic, but so appealing, and in the end, it may be the strongest thread running through military style in modern times. Lady Gaga's human-hair epaulettes; 1990s Seattle-export combat boots; Old Navy cargo pants; Ralph Lauren's beaded field jacket circa 2012 -- maybe it all just signals an abiding desire to take fashion beyond the "merely" fashionable. To humanize it.

That, and it sells.

For more information on military trends, fashion history and current style, check out the links on the next page.