Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fashion that Kills: Clothing and the Crimean War

It's no secret I love clothes. I literally have a wardrobe built on the premise that wearing plaid button ups with the right striped tie is an attainable victory every day.

This is what I did recently with a tie of mine for a work function:
The Eldridge Knot, worn at a past work event; definitely a hit with the donors.
I think most people would agree that when they enjoy dressing themselves it's a relationship between them and the story that their clothes carry with them. What you wear can say a lot about you, and when I have the most fun with clothing is when someone else sees a story there, or gets excited about what it is I'm doing with the patterns, colors or cuts of the cloth. The best is when I get into conversations I never thought I'd have access to. Case in point: you can't imagine how many straight, middle-aged men stopped me at work while I was donning the Eldridge knot. A door had suddenly opened to a group of people I normally wouldn't have any common connection with. Awesome.

Hurray for History

Now, I love history. Or rather, I love to absorb random pockets of history because I can't possibly consume all the history that is out there--so I get obsessed with learning about particular time periods in a certain area and the people involved. Hence my watching 14 hours of Ken Burns' Civil War documentary not too long ago.

Most recently that has turned into my obsession with the demise of Yugoslavia and the last hundred years of wars in the Balkans.

You know. Like you do.

In talking to my mother, who we can safely say is to blame for my love of playing dress up, we started getting into a fascinating conversation:  apparently, there are a LOT of popular fashion items that have a brutal history to them.

Fashion That Killed

When we think of fashion and famous fights, I think the most obvious (and recently re-popularized in 2013) fashion trend would be this one:

The Gladiator Sandal:

Now if the mosaics in Roman archeological sites are any indication of truth, these were totally worn by gladiators. Technically they were just a universal shoe in Roman culture. But, you have to admit, the mosaics depicting gladiatorial fights kind of makes it hard not to think of them as... well, gladiatorial. Side note: I wonder what they would do if any of these men knew they'd one day be inspiring the likes of Serena Gomez to be chic and Summer-y, yet casual.

Detail of Gladiator mosaic, a Thraex (left) fighting a Murmillo (right), Römerhalle, Bad Kreuznach
© Carole Raddato

I didn't realize, however, there were several additions to modern clothing that came about relatively recently. In doing more research on some of my favorite items of clothing, I found out that they're all linked together in a surreal series of historical events.

Still Crimean After All These Years

First off...

The Raglan Sleeve:

This first item was actually created prior to the 1850's--I'll circle back to how it's linked to the Crimean War later. But, I bring it up because it's a great example of where fashion meets practicality. 

Now, you might recognize this design from your favorite intramural baseball team. There's a reason why this shirt is oh-so-popular in sports: the seam that goes diagonally across the shoulder makes for easier movement. 

It was created by the tailor of Lord Raglan. Lord Raglan had lost his arm in the Battle of Waterloo (the decisive battle that ended Napoleon's campaign to take over the European continent). He was adored and adorned in medals for his service. And he made a nifty addition to sportswear.

Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan.  Note: Raglan Sleeve not painted.
Getting dressed is hard when you've lost your favored arm. And thanks to his tailor, he had a sleeve cap to the shoulder, as opposed to a  hard vertical line up and down between arm and chest. This just made getting dressed easier. Now I'm curious how many fashion trends have been created out of a need to help someone with a physical disability...

Moving on to....

The Balaclava:

You might recognize this from every modern terrorist group ever.

Now this was actually popularized during the Crimean War (if you're having a hard time placing the Crimean War think Florence Nightengale, the phrase 'thin red line' and Tennyson's poetry). These knit helmets were sent over to British troops from England to Ukraine. Apparently it was freezing in Ukraine. Absolutely frigid. So, what to do instead of stop fighting over territories you're not actually native to but claim sovereignty over? Wear knit helmets, that's what!

I find it ironic that the first group that came to my mind when seeing a balaclava was actually IRA terrorists, setting car bombs off on the English
Next, we move on to...

The Cardigan:

Oh, how I love my cardis. They are oh-so-dapper with the right button up and tie. But, cardigan sweaters apparently also come from a very real need for comfort during wartime.

Again, during the Crimean War they were popularized amongst soldiers along with those lovely balaclavas. It was named after the famous British Army Major General James Brudenell, the 7th Earl of Cardigan. Hah!
Major General James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan (cardigan sweater not pictured).

Fun fact? This is the guy that lead the Charge of the Light Brigade. The same Light Brigade that poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized in his poetry. Generally speaking, when people describe your mission as charging into a valley of death, things aren't looking too perky. But, you will be remembered for being heroic--as well as getting an adorable sweater named after you.

Fashion That Kills

Now. After doing this research a couple things became clear:  if it looks good, it'll stay fashionable. And also, it is a very, very small world.

Here's an odd fact: years after the Raglan Sleeve took off, Lord Raglan ALSO ended up serving in the Crimean War. Even though he had a successful beginning to his military career, things didn't go well for him in Crimea. He was part of the confused and ill-communicated orders that resulted in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Easy-to-get-into-shirts or no, Raglan wasn't very popular. He was  blamed routinely by the press for the lack of clothing and supplies for the British Troops, which again resulted in the massive shipment of balaclavas and cardigans. He died during the War. But, not from war wounds; he was older, weak, and severely depressed by the troublesome and ill-conceived military campaigns he was part of. 

In thinking about all of this, I find it even more surreal that this very same stretch of land is in conflict right now. Crimea has gone back to being a Russian territory. It's like it's 1854 all over again. 

Also startling, Russian "masked gunman" have taken over Ukranian governmental buildings. They're wearing something you now might recognize with a tinge of historical hindsight:

This was the latest article on the Ukranian crisis on BBC World News today.

Cry-me-a' River

I have no grandiose message here--if I were to sum everything up it would probably be that clothing and how it comes into our cultures is more powerful than you might think. Don't assume just cause it's clothing it can't carry a wallop to it. I would also say that it's ironic who wears what today, given the history behind it all.

I think we use clothing to hide. But, the beauty of clothing is that it also ultimately is a lens through which the true inner self shines through. When I think of balaclavas, I think of restless angry men wanting to look impressive, terrifying and devoid of humanity. But, at the same time I see someone so desperate to be anonymous out of fear of repercussions over their behavior. How human can you get?