Military influences in fashion

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Over the centuries, at the same time military might has been building borders, shaping national identities and protecting ways of life, it's also been building our wardrobes, shaping our silhouettes and taking fledgling brands to the front lines of fashion — for men and women. Indeed, war's contributions to the world's closets are too numerous for a definitive list — bomber jackets, combat boots, epaulets, raglan sleeves and pea coats, anyone? But here are a few highlights.

Khaki trousers: The beige twill trousers known as "khakis" (derived from the Hindi word for dust) have their military roots in uniforms worn by the British colonial forces in India in the 1840s, a version of which was later adopted by the U.S. Army for World War I and World War II uniforms. On the home front, the first wave of popularity came in the 1950s, when American soldiers returning from the war introduced them to the college campus crowd.

Allen Edmonds shoes: Wisconsin-based shoe manufacturer Allen Edmonds cites winning government contracts to make dress shoes for Army and Navy officers as one of the key turning points in its corporate history. According to company lore, troops wearing Allen Edmonds during World War II found the shoes so comfortable they continued as customers after they came home.

Hart Schaffner Marx: When Harry and Hart Marx opened their doors in Chicago in 1887, it was on the retail side of the clothing business, but early successes on the wholesale side led to a government contract. That in turn created the critical mass that pushed the company to move from focusing on made-to-measure suits to large-scale manufacturing of off-the-rack, pre-sized versions — the basis for the label's claim that it was the first to introduce suits tailored to different body types. According to company history it was also the first to introduce zippered trousers and tropical-weight wools. The company went on to dress troops through two world wars and become one of the single largest suppliers of U.S. military uniforms. After the war, that military heritage and the brand's made-in-America roots were recurring themes in its advertising, which made it the perfect label for President Obama to wear on inauguration day.

Trench coats: There's a historical debate over whether the trench coat was invented by Burberry and first used to protect British soldiers from inclement weather in World War I or by fellow British brand Aquascutum nearly half a century earlier for soldiers in the Crimean War. (That skirmish, incidentally, added the cardigan sweater and the balaclava to the fashion's lexicon). But there's no debating that Thomas Burberry invented the water-repellent gabardine fabric traditionally used to make the long, double-breasted coat with large lapels, convertible collar and epaulets to which military insignia could be easily attached. In the post-World War II years, the style became equally popular with women and has since become entrenched as a key piece in any fashion-forward person's closet.

Camouflage: The green and brown blotches that characterize traditional military camouflage have their roots in the patterns employed by the French military in 1915. Although the pattern cropped up on civilian clothes just a few decades later (some point to Elsa Schiaparelli designs circa 1937), camo colorways really had their pop culture coming-out party in the 1980s. Over the last two decades, labels such as John Galliano and Bathing Ape have appropriated the motif, and today what was originally designed to help soldiers blend into the background is rendered in eye-catching colors emblazoned on items as varied as wrap dresses and condom wrappers. But one thing civilians won't find is the dominant pattern used by the U.S. Army, because it is proprietary. Even military supplier Massif can't use the U.S. pattern on the new line of civilian clothing it's launching. "We are using a genuine camouflage on one of our tailored soft-shell jackets," says company Vice President Scott Branscum, "but it's one that was used by the Spanish army."

Ray-Ban Aviators: Developed by Bausch & Lomb in the 1920s at the request of the U.S. Army Airs Corps, the goal of what were then known as Anti-Glare goggles was to protect the eyes of military pilots from high-altitude glare. In 1937, they were offered to the general public under the name Ray-Bans (as in "they ban the sun's rays"). Stoking their early popularity was military man Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Woolrich blankets: Thirty years after it was founded in Pennsylvania in 1830, Woolrich started a long-running relationship with the U.S. Army by supplying the heavy woolen blankets soldiers carried into battle during the Civil War. The company would subsequently supply troops in both world wars with blankets and uniforms. And, as the only continuously operating U.S. woolen mill to supply troops as far back as the Civil War, the company is a key resource for film studios and re-enactors.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World