Fashion Resistance to Militarism
Christine Ahn and Gwyn Kirk

“Military Bride”, modeled by Hikaru Kasahara. Photo: Araceli Curiel and Ricky Chung

A silver lining in the economic crisis is that critiques of excessive military spending are beginning to echo around Capitol Hill. To expose the ways that militarism creeps into our national budgets, foreign policies and popular culture, we produced an anti-militarism fashion show for the "Security Without Empire" conference in Washington, DC last February. Here are a few of the outfits we featured.

The Militarized National Budget
A camouflage jacket represents half of the federal discretionary budget devoted to war, and the skirt shows the other half, allocated to civilian needs. The colors on the skirt are blue for health, yellow for energy, red for transportation and purple for international affairs. Tucked between the pleats of the skirt is more camouflage, representing more military spending: Veterans Administration sneaks into the health budget, Homeland Security creeps into transportation, NASA and nuclear weapons research is in the energy budget and international affairs includes the training of foreign troops.

But that's not the full story. Underneath the military budget is a tank top featuring a corporate logo flag to show how billions of "defense" dollars go to Pentagon contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Hidden underneath the Uncle Sam hat is a long white scarf representing the $700 billion-plus supplemental spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the United States doesn't have the money to finance these wars, other nations - notably China but also Japan and Saudi Arabia are bankrolling US debts, represented by a Chinese Peoples' Army cap.

The People's Budget
This three-piece outfit features pockets: deep pockets, inside pockets, and pockets within pockets. A padded Social Security pouch is zipped up tight and padlocked. Camo pockets hold money for veterans' benefits, retraining recruiters, soldiers, top brass and Pentagon bureaucrats, to convert bases for community use, and to clean up toxic waste caused by military training and wars.

The model hurls out a wad of bills showing that there's plenty of money - for education, health care, drug treatment, AIDS research, renewable energy, good public transit, affordable homes, parks and gardens, mending everything that's broken and bringing good food to poor neighborhoods. There's money for community centers, libraries, eldercare, children and everyone who needs it. There's money for poets and poetry, translators so we can really communicate, music, theater, dance, painting and everything you can imagine that we need to live in peace and with justice.

SPC’s Fashion Forward Vision
For SPC’s 32nd Birthday Celebration in 1968 Patty Stern models the “Peace Dress.” Longtime SPC member Adelaide Webster looks on.

War Is Not Sexy
This short, strapless, body-hugging dress symbolizes the recruiters' subliminal message that war is sexy. The forest green stretch cotton mirrors the Army's dress uniform. A row of jewels replicate medals, an alluring promise of possibility for a young woman with brains but few options. Topping off this outfit is a short protective cape of camo fur fabric and heavy gold bracelets - gold bling - that promises money for college, training for the future and a large signing bonus. What the recruiter hasn't told this young woman is that these are really golden handcuffs. Once she enlists she's military property.

As the model turns and removes her cape, we see the black train cascading down her back and decorated with skulls, showing the dark shadow of death and destruction that follow in militarism's wake. This shadow may haunt her long after she leaves the military, perhaps suffering from military injuries, PTSD, or the trauma of sexual violence at the hands of her former military colleagues.

Youth from a counter-recruitment project in Portland, Oregon designed this outfit to counter the seductive promises recruiters make.

The Military Deploys Gender
We also showcased outfits to show how militarism and gender intersect, using a few examples from WWII up to the present: "Rosie the Riveter," "Bikini," "War Bride," "Patriotic Woman" and "Power Suit."

Rosie the Riveter's trademark outfit features denim work pants, rolled-up sleeves, red bandana and can-do attitude. Rosie represents women who worked in factories, shipyards and airplane construction during World War II. Rose Will Monroe, the inspiration for the iconic Rosie, worked as a riveter building B-24 and B-29 bombers. She starred in a promotional film and poster campaign used to encourage middle-class women to join the workforce to support the war effort. After the war many women lost their jobs as priority in employment was given to returning servicemen.

Another way women support war and preparations for war is as entertainers, considered essential to military morale. A two-piece bathing suit was a staple for any girl entertaining the troops like a classic red, white and blue bikini top made by none other than Old Navy, paired with a short, short skirt. This outfit also has militarized origins. A Paris fashion designer chose the name "bikini" after the US conducted atomic testing in 1946 on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific because this name dominated world headlines when his atom-sized bathing suit debuted on the runway.

A somber wedding dress of camouflage fleece with black knee-boots and a dramatic black veil suggests the fate of many women who marry US soldiers. Since World War II, with the deployment of US troops in Asia, over 200,000 Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Filipina women have married US servicemen. Many of them were looked down upon both by white US society and their ethnic immigrant communities. These war marriages were often abusive and many ended up in divorce. Studies show that abuse in military families is higher than in civilian ones and more likely to involve the use of weapons.

The military also relies on women's patriotism. In past decades, "Patriotic Woman" wore pumps and a tailored dress. Our model wore a contemporary version of this outfit, a $25 dollar "I Love My Marine" t-shirt that shows her pride, faith and spirit for her fighting guy, and perhaps her support for the military policies that deploy him to a war zone. She's working the "home front," keeping her family going while Dad's away. She's there for him, too, when he calls in the middle of the night from a base near Baghdad. The military wants us to believe that "every girl loves a guy in uniform." It militarizes our love for our sweethearts, husbands, sons - and now our military daughters too.

We called a simple cotton army drab t-shirt and pants ensemble the Power Suit. Accessories include combat boots, dog leash, cigarette, smirk and "thumbs up" gesture. This represented Lynndie England, a guard at Abu Ghraib military prison near Baghdad, and symbol of a terrible twist on sexualized military violence, usually perpetrated by men against women. Lynndie's gender was deployed in the sexualized humiliation and oppression of male prisoners. Her race and nation placed her in the dominator role, with Arab men in the victimized "female" role. Lynndie was among the few lower-ranking individuals tried for war crimes, which are forbidden under the Geneva Conventions but condoned and ordered by higher-ups in the (Bush) US chain of command.

As the antiwar movement figures out how to break the militarized mentality that is more pervasive than any war, "Fashion Resistance to Militarism" is a popular antidote to help expose the interlocking system of policies, institutions, operations and values that make up the military-economic-corporate-congressional-media-academic complex. The militarization of everyday life is in the air we breathe and the ideas we accept. We allow our toddlers to play with GI Joe and watch our teenagers "shoot 'em up" in video games. And then we watch our policymakers spend $554 billion dollars on "defense." It is high time that we assess and confront how militarized our society has become.

For More Information "Fashion Resistance to Militarism" has been produced in several cities across the country. The Women of Color Resource Center (www.coloredgirls.org) made a ten-minute documentary that analyzes how militarized our society has become, and "Runway Peace Project," an interactive, multimedia fashion show organizing kit with popular education games to help you produce your own show.


Christine works with the Global Fund for Women (www.globalfundforwomen.org) and is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF). Gwyn is a member of Women for Genuine Security (www.genuinesecurity.org). This article is condensed from the original published by FPIF (www.fpif.org).