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LeGuerrier et le Soldat , Du Côté De La Mode

By Ilias Marmaras, July 2012

Published at DAPPER DAN Magazine 06

During the French Revolution, the clash between the noblemen and the citizenry gave rise to a new stylistic notion concerning the dress code, which gradually acquired a major symbolic significance in the political life of the era. That stylistic notion was no more and no less than the trousers that supplanted the low-waisted knee-length breeches, a garment that had been a hallmark of the upper classes and the nobility up to that time. The men who started wearing the new trousers, turning their back on the fashion of the nobility, called themselves the sans-culotte, which literally translates as ‘without breeches’. The new trouser style became a gesture of solidarity with the lower classes, where most of the wearers belonged in any case, and a personalized everyday symbol of the revolutionary ideals of Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood for all people.

The sans-culotte were political activists organized in groups all over France, militant champions of the new ideals, which they believed could bring a form of equality among the French people, and potentially end the destructiveness and conflict caused by class distinctions under the ancien régime. The sans-culotte came largely from the less educated classes, but with the backing of the revolutionary movement they were able to transform French society, even though their fervor gradually worked to the detriment of both justice and civility. As the revolution unfolded, its paragons became increasingly violent. In 1793 the revolutionary tribunals sent to prison over half million ‘enemies of the people’, and also thousands to the guillotine. That was ‘la Terreur’, the Reign of Terror, eleven months during which the sans-culotte and Robespierre succeeded in establishing the Republic.

During this fin-du-siecle, with all of France swept away by the Revolution of 1789-99, changes in fashion were as dramatic as those in politics. The French style before the Revolution consisted of costumes that reflected the luxurious and dazzling lifestyle of the French nobility and monarchy. Just before the Revolution, France had accumulated great debt to the international bankers, while the monarchy with its absolute monopoly on power—in cahoots with the feudal land-holding nobility—was unable to pay any serious attention to the needs and will of the French popular majority.

The small landowner-farmers together with the landless agricultural laborers, along with the rising class of the ‘enlightened’ bourgeoisie, could no longer tolerate the privileges enjoyed by the nobility, the clergy and the royal house. It was a different reality indeed that prevailed in the royal court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the Versailles palace: extreme ornamentation and formal exaggeration were the norm. The ladies of the court wore billowing wide-spread pannier skirts and squeezed their torso in tight corsets with a low neckline, also embellished with ribbons and lace. On their heads they wore huge powdered-white wigs (perruques) also embellished with ‘narrative touches’, often reaching to dizzying heights. During the same period, noblemen’s fashion did not differ much from that of previous periods. Its most important item was a well-tailored tailcoat, tight breeches combined with stockings, and the famous white wig which, not unlike women’s, always had a very expansive form, reaching to an extreme height that served to differentiate the noblemen from commoners.

During the years of Revolution, fashion veered off radically and all these courtly excesses were supplanted by a more simplified type of clothing. People took a distance from the costumes that symbolized the Ancien Régime, chose to turn their back on the enormous pannier dresses full of volants and hoops, and also on the pompous wigs that had been so popular until then. Men’s clothing became gradually more circumscribed, knee-length breeches became long trousers (ankle-length), and the overall look more reserved and frugal. Women were freed of the tight corsets and showed their preference for dresses with a high waistline, an idea nostalgic of classical Greco-Roman clothing—loosely interpreted—while the wigs were rejected and replaced by classical hairstyles, also alluding to the esthetics of classical revival.

This dramatic shift from a blatantly opulent old wardrobe, so predominantly popular during the reign of Louis XVI, to a subdued and discreet classic revival style, was truly a development that paralleled the political requirements and priorities that were unfolding along with it. The dissatisfied populace, nurtured with the precepts of the Age of Reason, was demanding a return to classical ideals in the political sphere, while at the same time it was wearing the same ideals as clothing, at least to some degree.

What did this parallel shift in the look of the iconoclastic person consist in, what are the origins of the new fashion and what does it reflect? It is quite obvious that the field that shaped this transformation was the war field, in which the new wardrobe—and the old one as well—were simply the uniforms and emblems of the old versus the new modern way of engaging in warfare.

In a lecture he delivered in 2008 on the subject La méditation philosophique sur la guerre autrefois et aujourd'hui (Philosophical Meditation on War, in the Past and Today), French philosopher Alain Badiou cited two poems; The Soldier written in 1888 by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the Seventh Stanza of Esthétique du Mal written in 1944 by American poet Wallace Stevens (influenced by French modernist poet Charles Baudelaire). According to Badiou, what these two poems have in common is the way that they describe the appearance of the soldier’s uniform, and the values that the onlooker attributes to that appearance.

The Soldier (Hopkins)

Why do we all, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part, But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart, Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess That, hopes that, makes believe, the men must be no less; It fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art; And fain will find as sterling all as all is smart, And scarlet wear the spirit of war there express.

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through; He of all can handle a rope best. There he bides in bliss Now, and seeing somewhere some man do all that man can do, For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss, And cry 'O Christ-done deed! So God-made-flesh does too: Were I come o'er again' cries Christ 'it should be this'.

Badiou argues that the visual transformation of the soldat’s figure is significant, as in its essence it is also a political statement. The clothes, the soldat’s uniform, his appearance in our eyes, had been exemplary throughout the revolutionary sequence of political developments. To be ‘le soldat de la Revolution’ was the most common condemnation. Wearing ‘revolutionary clothing’ was the blatant evidence. Hopkins seems to be very clear about it. The soldier is a figure, an example. Everybody blesses the soldier but can also hurt him, or wound him. Everybody praises his pure appearance, “Uniform … redcoats … scarlet” for the simple reason that his appearance is the “Spirit of war”. And so Badiou wonders “Why is the spirit of war so important?” The answer is “because it is the expression of human potential beyond danger and beyond death”. Here we see a condition where the human being is complete and victorious very much like God himself in the guise of ‘Christ’. In his appearance the unknown solder allows us to see certain persons performing all that the human being is capable of performing. The essence of humankind is fulfilled in the soldier’s appearance.

Seventh Stanza of Esthétique du Mal (Wallace Stevens) How red the rose that is the soldier's wound The wounds of many soldiers, the wounds of all The soldiers that have fallen, red in blood, The soldier of time grown deathless in great size.

A mountain in which no ease is ever found, Unless indifference to deeper death Is ease, stands in the dark, a shadows' hill And there the soldier of time has deathless rest.

Concentric circles of shadows, motionless, Of their own part, yet moving on the wind, Form mystical convolutions in the sleep Of time's red soldier deathless on his bed.

The shadows of his fellow ring him round In the high night, the summer breathes for them Its fragrance, a heavy somnolence, and for him, For the soldier of time, it breathes a summer sleep,

In which his wound is good because life was. No part of him was ever part of death. A woman smoothes her forehead with her hand And the soldier of time lies calm beneath that stroke.

Unlike Hopkins who represents the soldier by means of his appearance or action, Stevens represents him by means of wounds and death. The color that prevails inside and outside the soldier’s clothes is the color of blood. And yet Badiou argues that here too we can see a positive transformation. The symbol for the wound is a rose. The wound itself, same as the rose, is a symbol of the grace of life: “The wound is good because life is good.” It is time itself that constitutes the soldier, because “Every soldier is a soldier of time.” The reason is that war, modern warfare, can no longer be understood as brilliant battles fought by great Guerriers, but as a time period of great tribulations for millions of anonymous soldiers. Yet “That time creates something above and beyond time, the soldier’s death creates something beyond death.”

The Guerrier (warrior) of the Ancien Régime, his clothes and uniforms, revealed a combination of victory and destiny, superiority and also obedience. The Guerrier, a nobleman whose uniform bore the heraldic symbols of the lands granted to him by the King—sometimes to own but often just to manage as King’s property—the Guerrier was powerful while at the same time he was not free to use his power as he wished. Upon his armor and uniform he bore the symbols of his obedience to destiny. Upon his back he carried his King and the clergy too. He is a figure from the Ancien Régime, a figure half-bestial and half-divine. The Guerrier is one who asserts himself, one whose clothes and uniform declare his superiority. He is not a figure that creates freedom. The classical hero in the form of a Guerrier simply manifests his destiny. We could translate—to the extent plausible— on one hand, the adventures of the appearance of a nobleman who is balancing on a tightrope between his unbreakable bonds with the land, which he rules over while at the same time he impersonates it with his uniform, a very instinctual, bestial type of relationship that he attempts to transcend with heroic acts; and on the other hand the ‘radical’ wardrobe of the 1960s hippies. In both cases one could observe that the ‘uniforms’ manifest the wearer’s fateful bond with a natural order, and also his-her ineffective efforts to transcend that bond, which all things considered did not signify much beyond the person’s physical death and her-his submission to destiny. A death which, in spite of the violence that accompanied it, often left around it a sense of vagueness concerning its causes or, in our own contemporary way of thinking, a lack of meaning (in the case of the hippies, the heroism of transcending the human beast was exhausted in psychedelic tripping, while death usually came about from downer overdose).

Unlike the Guerrier, the soldat always finds his essence in a collective dimension; he is a figure possessed of a conscience that derives from great discipline, a discipline that exists under the authority of an Idea. That accounts for the anonymous heroism of the soldat inconnu (unknown soldier). Conversely there has never been—nor could there ever be—a Guerrier inconnu. Badiou emphasizes that the transformation of the Guerrier figure into the figure of the anonymous soldat in democracy is a political act.

How are things today? Starting in the 20th century we inherited the evolution of the soldier into a negative form of heroism in the sense that the soldier symbolizes the continuity and domination of the non-human bestial element within the realm of human action. During the period of the French Revolution, the end of narratives and of the tradition that expressed them, led to a crisis that is visible in our costumes, our clothes and our ‘emblems’. We are at a cul-de-sac (dead end) that facilitates the resurgence of old feudal traditions. There is nothing new, only forms tending to return. Contemporary trends differentiate more and more the human from the non-human, and there seems to be no prospect of an action that would reincorporate the animal into a new human scheme. We live in an inflexible inhuman condition—and fashion expresses that—side by side with high-technology warfare fought by mercenaries both in the battlefronts of life and on backstage, under bureaucratic surveillance of all of life’s dimensions. Despite this regression, we no longer encounter anything heroic anywhere. The disappearance of the heroic element did not lead to a situation superior to the old models and their restitution, except in the guise of inevitable, destined, gutless sequels. Since we can’t find a scheme, a creative representation of the active element, we are left with little beyond the old-fashioned religious sacrifice on one hand, or the blind will of capitalist control on the other. As society continues to experience nostalgia for the Guerrier—the extremely dangerous but fashionable farce of contemporary fascism is ample evidence of that—we accept the pseudo-chevalier, who is little more besides a sign of the decomposition of the soldat figure under the pressure of nihilist individualism. What we need is neither the Guerrier nor the soldat, and certainly not the Christian pacifism of sacrifice. What type of fashion would be able to express those needs?

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Page last modified on November 16, 2012, at 02:07 PM