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Half the people on the street are dressed to kill. Every second woman on the avenue and every second man on the town and every other kid on the jungle gym has his or her back clad in army green. Challenging the ubiquity of black outerwear in the cities and lending a flavor of the PX to the suburban shopping center, the color has conquered the national wardrobe. The history of getting dressed is in large part a story of borrowing combat garb — cravat and cardigan, bomber jacket and pea coat — but the proliferation of the army green jacket is different in kind and in degree.

The most symbolically resonant of this year’s models evoke the M-65 field jacket worn by United States troops in Vietnam. The ideal color — the one approved by the Army Uniform Board — is “Army Green Shade 44,” but a variety of hues and cuts speak in the same idiom, likewise breathing military jargon into the general American vocabulary of dress.

Proving immune to the seasonal cycles of designer fashion, retaining currency with elites despite its presence in bargain bins, losing no prestige with youth even as their elders try the same look, the army soldier’s green jacket has developed a status on par with that of the gold miner’s bluejeans with which it pairs so well.

The green now regarded as a quintessentially American tradition emerged only recently. In the early 1800s, imperial armies kitted themselves out in similar shades, like the rifle green of the British and the Russian green of the czar, but Gen. George Washington had preferred the blue coat and buff breeches ordained by one of his old Virginia military companies and immortalized in the Charles Willson Peale portrait. Though Washington ordered the Continental Army into dark blue coats in 1779, the color did not become official nationwide until 1821. Nonetheless, the uniform’s details changed to suit new styles worn by European cavalry and on the streets of the new republic. In contrast to the rigidity of the French or the British or, for that matter, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army maintained a uniform tradition that was ad hoc and improvisatory — haphazard at worst but dashingly White manesque at its finest.

When the tactics of the Spanish-American War showed the wisdom of some semblance of camouflage, blue gave way to khaki and eventually to the olive-brown tones of Dwight Eisenhower’s famous short jacket. The standard-issue olive drabs, or “O.D.s,” were openly derided. “It was a shade that might have reminded an imaginative observer of the color of vomit or even excrement,” the cultural critic Paul Fussell wrote in his 2002 book, “Uniforms.” After V-J Day, it became existentially necessary for the Army to address its image problem. Olive drab was a drag on morale and a handicap to recruitment, and the mass entry of army clothes to the civilian life, as worn by veterans to tend their lawns or to pump a customer’s gas, further eroded its prestige.

In 1949, the Office of the Quartermaster General set about stabilizing the army uniform, and its search for a new color may have represented the most extensive development and market-testing process in the history of both apparel and bureaucracy. An advisory committee ruled that a neutral gray-green would be “flattering to the greatest range of people,” according to a later technical report. A team from the Quartermaster Corps proposed army uniforms to about 15,000 troops in 24 cities; quantified the relative enthusiasm of recruits, veterans and officers’ wives; and tested the new uniform on the ceremonial troop companies of the Third Infantry Regiment, a majority of which felt that officers and enlisted men should wear the same clothes.

Phased in between the mid-’50s and early ’60s, the army green field uniform projected “the confidence and readiness of an authoritative military force,” the historian Shelby Stanton wrote in “U.S. Army Uniforms of the Cold War, 1948-1973.” “Army green,” Stanton felt, “complemented the U.S. desire to project the most professional soldiering image toward its Cold War adversaries.” The M-65 is named for the year of its debut.

But only a few years later, as a youth revolt emerged around the world, anti-authoritarians pressed the army jacket into subversive service. Country Joe at Woodstock, John Lennon at Madison Square Garden and Jane Fonda on the Free the Army road show all treated costume as commentary. The counter-culture kid in Army gear could razz the warmongering machine that had endowed the jacket with symbolic power, and he could honour boys destined to die in their boots, and he could also effectively affect a bohemian pose.

In 1971, having returned from the Vietnam War and committed to protest against it, Navy Lt. John Kerry wore an army green field jacket to meet the press and the public. Alison Lurie decoded the message of every protester’s surplus-store get-up in her 1981 book “The Language of Clothes,” writing that “the longhaired kid in the Confederate tunic or the Eisenhower jacket was not some kind of coward or sissy; that he was not against all wars — just against the cruel and unnecessary one he was in danger of being drafted into.”

Having evolved into a uniform for dissenters, the army green jacket could variously represent the shell of a loner (Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver”) and the skin of a neurotic (Woody Allen in “Annie Hall”), the badge of the last honest man (Al Pacino in “Serpico”) and the sign of a rebel’s toughness (the guys smoking cigarettes in your high-school parking lots).

The March 10, 1996, edition of The Times carried a report on ballistic-missile tests off Taiwan, an analysis of President Clinton’s difficulty articulating a foreign policy absent “the organizing principle of the Soviet threat” and an inquiry into “Fashion’s Military Fascination,” wherein the critic Suzy Menkes observed an increased number of fashion designers trafficking in the visual rhetoric of the battlefield. The escalation made her uneasy. Gucci epaulets, a Versace battle blouse, a trim-fit Prada trench coat tailored to a fascist aesthetic: These references collectively seemed crass, given the gravity of the referent. Moreover, they seemed like poor business. “Military looks on the runway are often badly received,” Menkes wrote, citing clients’ rejection of Valentino camouflage print in 1994, “just when the United Nations peacekeeping force was in Rwanda.” Why did designers persist? Menkes diagnosed a romance for old uniforms of all stripes: “Wartime images tend to be absorbed into fashion when the clothing no longer serves its original function.” This was the advance guard of the current moment’s military formation.

It is tempting to say that the army green jacket could not properly begin its ride to the fore until the 20th century was put to bed and the 21st woke to a need for nostalgia. The first sign of broad public acceptance of the army green jacket came in the spring of 2001, with the first Marc by Marc Jacobs collection, which emblematically featured a green jacket with epaulettes adjacent to the cute puffs of its gathered sleeves. Vogue assistants threw them on to counter the girlishness of floral-print dresses, and fashion followed, high and low.

Why not? As engineered by the government, army green has mass appeal. Egalitarian in its origins and its effects, the color is in the key of the enlightened manners of the day. Not so much androgynous as unisex, it implies perfectly correct gender politics. The army jacket retains suggestions of smart readiness and swaggering utility. It seems to have been scrubbed clean of most other connotations.

Wrapped around a hippie in 1968, army green blared a clear contradiction: The wearer was at sartorial war with the program of power. Worn to brunch in 2015, it still communicates a conflict, but there has been a paradigm shift. The person most likely to own a fur-trimmed Saint Laurent army coat is most unlikely to have a yellow ribbon tied around her oak tree.

The jacket, shifting symbolic shape, now belongs to a consumer culture that pays tribute to the chic of a uniform worn by veterans who are currently begging for change. Thoroughly disconnected from the military-industrial complex and the wearer’s place in it, the garment announces allegiance to only a broad conception of contemporary style. To wear an army green jacket while remaining innocent of the consequences of donning the genuine article for its dedicated purpose is the definition of luxury.

In John Knowles’s prep-school novel “A Separate Peace,” set during World War II, his narrator describes olive drab as the “prevailing color of life in America. That color is always respectable and always important. Most other colors risk being unpatriotic.” Does army green inspire any sense of national pride in 2015? Even as it has come to epitomize a certain kind of urbane civilian cool, green field jackets have given way to camouflage prints in the U.S. Army, and the top brass decided to retire the green service uniform as well. The phaseout was completed last year. Dress blues are the new green.

Article by Troy Patterson
Source: NYT Magazine
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