Umar Rashid, a 29-year-old painter and musician, was standing outside the Grand Star nightclub in Chinatown one night after the start of the Iraq war when he came face to face with the potential perils of militant chic.
A “soldier-looking dude” glared at Rashid for a moment and then said angrily, “People died wearing that in Iraq.” The guy was referring to Rashid’s kaffiyeh, the versatile Arab head scarf, often with a checkered pattern. Rashid brushed off the comment because he had heard it before. People in the U.S., it seems, get testy around the kaffiyeh. It recalls Yasser Arafat and Islamic fundamentalists. For some, it suggests militancy and menace.
It also goes great with a vintage sports coat.
“I just like the look of it, the style of it, the pattern,” said Rashid, who is neither Arab nor Muslim and has been wearing kaffiyehs--sometimes around his neck, sometimes around his entire head--since childhood. “It’s a multipurpose, beautiful scarf.”
Invariably, it’s also a political statement. “We feel the need . . . to look like warriors,” Rashid explained, “because we physically can’t be warriors.”
The donning of kaffiyehs is not exactly new. Left-leaning urbanites and activists all over, not to mention countless millions in the Arab world for whom these scarves are as commonplace as baseball caps, have been wearing them for decades.
But since last year, the kaffiyeh has begun showing up more and more on the streets, appearing suddenly in hip neighborhoods in New York, throughout Europe and here in Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park. Even hipsters in Israel are wearing it. “Want to make your parents angry and want to be provocative?” said Jerusalem Web designer David Abitbol, co-founder of the blog jewlicious.com. “Wear a kaffiyeh.”
For many, the kaffiyeh is just one piece of their ensemble. Often, it is paired with draping scarves, military prints and heavy boots. In this way, the kaffiyeh is part of a look greater than its parts. It has been dubbed “militant chic” and “terrorist chic.” But that’s not enough.
Something far wider and weirder is going on. Let’s call it “fear fashion.”
On the runways of the world’s fashion capitals, designers are cloaking their models’ faces to evoke mystery, anonymity and intrigue. This phenomenon is playing out on the streets, too, with kaffiyehs, hooded sweatshirts and, for women, flowing veils.
Kathryn Garcia, a 27-year-old artist who lives and works within a two-block radius in Chinatown, wears black veils draped seductively over her head and a gaudy gold crucifix dangling from her hip. I met her last fall and promptly nicknamed her “the post-Apocalyptic death disco Virgen de Guadalupe.”
“It’s kind of a feminine thing to me,” Garcia said of her veils. “What’s hidden is erotic; what’s hidden is sexy.”
But her choice of attire, she added, is also a response to the culture of fear. “Our society is nourished on fear. Everything is fear, fear, fear. We’re kind of playing into that and provoking it, and it works because people do get scared.”
There were threads of it here and there, even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The previous summer, Britain’s now-defunct the Face magazine ran a fashion spread, with photographs by Terry Richardson, that featured models holding automatic weapons and blood-soaked machetes, their faces concealed by deep hoods, kaffiyehs and masks.
Then, after the initial shock of the attacks faded, fashion designers returned to the theme. Some, such as Raf Simons and Bernhard Willhelm, played with Western concepts of terrorism and war in their clothes: dark colors and gothic lines; kaffiyehs and other Middle Eastern prints; hoods and layered scarves that obscured faces; pieces referencing turbans and the pointy head coverings that conjured the most sickening images from Abu Ghraib.
After Abu Ghraib, after Seattle ’99, after the Zapatistas in Chiapas, after anthrax, after eco-terrorism, after the SARS scare, after 9/11--it somehow all made sense.
“I feel like a lot of it started in the ‘90s, when everyone was wearing camo and cargo pants, and a lot of things started being made with really high-tech fibers and modeled after survival gear,” said Aay Preston-Myint, a 24-year-old artist and teacher who lives in Chicago. “That was when militias and separatists and cults were getting a lot of press, and people were all hyped up about the end of the millennium. Gang warfare was a hot topic as well. So maybe there’s a sort of fetishization of all that, and we’re still holding on to it in the 21st century because now we’re all wound up about ‘terrorism.’ ”
Preston-Myint picked up his kaffiyeh, a lavender number, in London last January. At least in Europe, he said, it seemed like the look was starting to become overly commercial: “People in street markets were selling kaffiyehs with peace signs and yin-yangs and spiders” on them.
Still, fear fashion remains serious business for many, including anarchists, who march in antiwar rallies with their faces shrouded, and graffiti artists, who often pose for pictures in front of their work with black bandanas hiding their identities.
On the streets, people are creating fear fashion looks on their own terms, in the true DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit. I’ve seen scarves wrapped over and around faces and, more than ever, baggy sweatshirts with hoods drawn at all hours and in all forms of weather. I’ve seen military gear and camouflage prints; large, clunky boots; goggles, gas masks and face paint; cascading chains and oppressively heavy jewelry; outrageously layered outfits that feel as though they might be appropriate for trekking through a broken civilization in a dull red, post-doom haze.
Last fall, the blog thecoolhunter.net sparked a minor Internet dust-up when it brought attention to a design company in Paris called Anticon, which sells a masked hoodie--a sweatshirt with a hood that falls to the chin and is made with holes for eyes.
“Obviously, I’ve received e-mails from some who say I’m trafficking in terror, that I’m pushing people to commit crimes,” said Anticon designer Lucas Mongiello, a 38-year-old native of Argentina. “I guess it reflects their fears and concerns at that moment.
“People who want to commit crimes didn’t wait for me to create this hoodie to do their acts,” he added. “The hoodie can be seen as a consequence--and not a factor--of violence.”
Among Muslims in the West, the kaffiyeh trend is a subject of debate. In discussions on the Internet, some see it as a welcome indicator that their concerns are being acknowledged by non-Muslims and non-Palestinians. For others, though, it simply cheapens the cause.
“I doubt these kids know much about the Palestinian struggle but, rather, just think the kaffiyeh is a cool-looking scarf,” said Hajera Ghori, 24, a Muslim and UC Berkeley graduate who is currently working in London. “As an added benefit, for the price of a mere scarf, they can look enlightened and stylish at the same time.”
Gino Perez is a 28-year-old artist and fashion designer who lives in Highland Park. By his own admission, he’s a scary sight.
With brown skin, deep-set eyes and a brazenly bushy mustache and beard, he looks like the type of character who appears in nightmares set in dark alleys. He favors wide-brimmed hats, torn jeans, heeled boots, military prints, oversized coats--and layers, layers, layers. Strangers all over L.A., usually in language unsuitable for print, tell him how frightening he looks.
“What you wear is who you are, literally,” Perez said. “People are not so much afraid, but weirded out. I get it every day of my life.”
I know the feeling. These days I make an extra effort to let those who meet me, especially at night, know that I am harmless.
The need arose after I somehow ceased being Mexican American in people’s eyes and somehow became Arab. At some point after 9/11, that’s what strangers began assuming about me. My dark mustache and short beard, my sharp nose, my olive-brown skin--somehow it all began communicating foreignness and, therefore, danger. I became fear fashion walking.
I’m not indulging in paranoia or intending to trivialize the experiences of those who have been racially profiled. Still, when I stroll the streets of L.A. at night, I can sense my fellow pedestrians tensing up a bit when I pass. In stores, I can feel the shop owner regarding me with suspicion when all I want is to grab tomorrow morning’s milk.
It’s also happening to other U.S. Latinos, the products of centuries of ethnic mixing that spans the globe. Our sometimes Middle Eastern features can be traced to the Moors and Sephardic Jews in Spain, many of whom settled in the New World and merged with native peoples in Mesoamerica, creating nations that in turn drew immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa and, yes, to this day, the Middle East.
So, responding to this, I bought a kaffiyeh last October from a military surplus shop in Silver Lake. I took it home and wrapped it around my neck and, standing before my mirror, my own countenance startled me stiff. I looked pretty damn Arab all of a sudden. No wonder my older siblings in San Ysidro, half-jokingly--I hope--call me “terrorista” when I approach.
I once wore the kaffiyeh out of my house to see a band at Little Pedro’s downtown. Even among a gaggle of seemingly post-ironic and open-minded hipsters and indie rockers--on Halloween!--I couldn’t get a pass. People were visibly uncomfortable in my presence. A few sneered at me.
Then I turned around one weekend, and it seemed everyone in Hollywood was sporting a kaffiyeh. Naturally, I haven’t worn mine since.