Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a day when one gives pause, praise and prayers for the courageous men and women who have fought in all the terrible wars now and then.
My wonderful partner in our weekly Transatlantic Parallel conversation, Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart, creator of the stunning blog, Through the French Eye of Design, suggested we honor the holiday. Of course I agreed.
As most of you know, she is French, living in the United States; I am American, living in France. Every Monday we share our thoughts on a specific subject.
Today It’s Memorial Day
We have set out to at one and the same time show our esteem for the sacrifices made throughout the world for the beliefs a nation holds dear and on a lighter note, Jeanne-Aelia’s brilliant idea, take a look at the military uniforms that give each country its unique vestmental personality.
It is particularly significant, I think, that Jeanne-Aelia and I are citizens of two countries which have always been allies. As independent, democratic nations, our leaders’ decisions from time to time throughout history angered and annoyed each other (and their respective citizenry), but never have our differences spilled over into armed conflict.
Let me admit up front, I’m feeling out of my depth, but I will try to show my profound respect for the significance of this anniversary while simultaneously talking about what is more along the lines of my “expertise” — clothes — without trivializing the meaning of the day.
A historical note: The first Memorial Day, originally known as “Decoration Day,” was founded by the Civil War general, John Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic. His desire was to find a meaningful way to help heal the divided country after the horrors of that war. He chose May 30th to mark the commemoration for two reasons I never knew before researching for this post:
1. The date did not mark the anniversary of a Civil War battle.
2. General Logan said, “flowers would likely be in bloom all over the United States.”
It was not until 1971 that Memorial Day became an official federal holiday when Congress passed the National Holiday Act resulting in the annual three-day weekend at the end of May.
Now, on to the uniforms that unify the various divisions of the armed forces. Built for comfort, camouflage and protection one cannot take the significance of the garments worn during war or potential conflict as vestmental statements (though many of their practical assets have been absorbed into mainstream dressing). These garments are made for service whether green spotted with brown and black to fade into the flora, white splashed with black to melt into the snow or tan with brown and beige to disappear into the desert. Those are the fundamentals of form and function in their most highly evolved expression.
Symbolically, a uniform is the outward manifestation of a team, a group of individuals dressed identically to signify which side they are on while at the same time creating an immediately recognizable image to their fellow soldiers emphasizing they are on the same side.
Then there are the glamorous manifestations of military dress uniforms, the style of a country, the national costumes if you will of a nation on parade. Those are the ones which take us away from the wars and give us the comfort and assurance that we are protected and oh so proud.
My tendency at this point is to wander off into my abstract appreciation of the concept of uniform dressing in which I shall indulge only briefly here. I admire the crispness, perfectly tailored, usually extremely flattering cut and design of official uniforms. It is why even in the civilian world we like our “uniforms” — the blazer, pea coat, trench coat, watch cap, French navy striped t-shirt, insignia details, brass buttons, the neat white shirt, the fabrics which hold their shape and keep their sharp creases, the whites, navies, khakis, grays and tans of the materials, the simple trousers and skirts. . .
Designers cannot stay away from the influences of the pure lines of uniforms, nor can most of us in some way. Who among us doesn’t own a well-cut suit for important meetings, interviews, whatever occasion calls for the vestmental message: “I am serious, intelligent, you can count on me?” We have all devised our “go to” ensemble which makes us feel comfortable, powerful and ready to take on a challenge. I think that is the beauty of a uniform in all its manifestations.
Finally, it is said if you tweek the red pompom of a French sailor’s beret it will bring you good luck.
Pictures: World War II women in uniform; General John Logan; Marines in dress uniform, graduation at Annapolis; West Point cadets; French Navy Admiral, Chantal Desbordes, and women at the French military school, Saint-Cyr.
P.S.: Dash over to visit Jeanne-Aelia, her take on our subject is brilliant (!)