Some thoughts on military uniform at vintage events
Paul Glavey Lecturer in Contextual and Theoretical Studies (London College of Communication)
The dancehalls of Second World War Britain, places of escape and entertainment were in themselves in a way a battleground. The invading jitterbug, popularised by the famously ‘overpaid, over sexed and over here’ (Harris, 1995, www.nytimes.com). American GIs threatened the more sedate and organised ballroom dancing styles which dominated social dancing of the time. Space in the busy wartime dancehalls was at a premium and the exuberant ‘libidinous physicality’ (Baade, 2006) demonstrated by some dancers demanded more space. This ranging dance upset the rhythms and movement of the ballroom styles and set up a territorial battle which at times was settled with a line of compromise, a separated area offering a section of floor for the jitterbuggers which made it safer and calmer for all. The battle with civvies and soldiers alike demanding space to move and to dance mirrored a larger battle over the acceptance of the ‘primitive, un-English’ foreign invader (Jitterbug), and even the definition of ‘dance music’ itself (ibid). Naturally, through this period the presence of military uniform in these social spaces was a fact of life, a reflection of the realities of the time and a central element of day to day wartime Britain. This military presence is one that has effected long lasting connection with the period and become, for some, an indicator or marker of not just that time but also has emerged as a marker or template for wider cultural reference like the music and dancing has.
The immediate post war period is generally referenced as the point where the teenager appears. The emergence of youth subcultures in this period are typically considered through the analysis of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Traditional treatments of subculture focus on participants and members as youthful actors in these scenes (Gelder, 2007). The early youth cultures from this period; Teds, rockers, are marked by their connections to class distinction and association, and the degree of separation they carved from the dominant culture. Their music, clothes, attitudes etc. were seen as deviant and a challenge to the established social order (ibid). Though these groups have been superseded and developed through the decades there remains and continues to be a core of participants wedded to the music, style and ‘living out’ a 1950 inspired and guided lifestyle. Now, as then, in these subcultural or scene spaces there are a number of conflicts in play. Dick Hebdidge held that, “Style in subculture is… pregnant with significance” (1979, p. 18)and the fashions and style of these scenes match that assertion. Marking oneself as a member of a group, a subculture or scene one exhibits particular taste and knowledge. The idea of capital connected to class (Bourdieu, 1984) or subcultural capital (Thornton, 1995) contribute to the way members are viewed and classified. The facility to present oneself as an authentic member of the group is linked to a set of knowledges which are objectified and embodied (ibid). This demonstration of the ‘correct’ taste and activity establishes authenticity and credibility and furnishes ample opportunity for competition and conflict (including in some cases literal competition; best dressed, best dancers etc).
In the context of current 1950s centred scene activity the music, the dress, the dancing, cars etc. are aspects of current and continuing subcultural engagement and seen as welcome and central parts of this. There is a growing body of research which addresses and considers the significance and place of older members of music scenes. (Hodkinson, 2011) (Hodkinson, 2016) This research considers other longstanding music communities (punk, metal, Goth, Northern Soul) and attempts to situate them into the landscape of post-subcultural theorisation. There is an attempt to demonstrate the significance and validity of aging music cultures not simply as a matter of academic interest but importantly, to recognise the contributions to the self and to one’s identity of these interests into adulthood.
The rocking and swing scenes are frequently conflated and overlap into events centred on music from the 1940s and 1950s (and more contemporary musicians and music in the attendant styles). At many of these events we can see different elements of these eras in the same space. As with other music scenes there are a set of ideas and expectations of participants. Any analysis of these scenes will highlight the significance of dress, the continued connection with the styles of the past and centrality of the ‘correct’ sartorial choices. Dancing is also a central aspect of the social events connected to this scene and the styles of dancing draw on those that emerged through the 1930s through the 1950s. Further, a recurring presence at events that centre on, or include this period of the past, are people who attend in military uniform, principally British or American World War Two uniforms.
The fundamental nature of the outfit- uniform- and the implicit and explicit idea of sameness seems on the one hand to fit the expectation for convention, and a prescribed look within a group. But more than that the uniform, standing for predictability, respectability and unity ties the wearer to a set of expected behaviours. There is a sense of an obligation that is inherent in the choice of a uniform as dress. The wearing of uniform in the context of re-enactment offers “empowerment” (De Groot, 2009, p. 107) ; the audience gaze gives them a certain authority. A uniform offers a double character. These identifiers of rigidity and authority are matched by their inverse; uniforms offer opportunity for subversion through informal wear and their presence in a range of transgressive and subversive contexts. (Craik, 2003) At these 1940s/50s events the uniform is worn as a historical identifier, a sartorial marker with explicit and immediate reference to the time. For some the uniforms worn are original and the authenticity of the pieces serve to demonstrate a fuller and considered connection to the time. But not everyone seem this temporal reference as appropriate in these circumstances. For many, seeing others wearing a military uniform ties the event to ideas and allusions both unexpected and unwelcome on a night or weekend’s entertainment. There is a sense that the introduction of uniforms creates a weight of historical connection which, while obviously directly connected with the music, dancing etc. is not the function of these events. It suggests a rejection of the currency of the scene in favour of this explicit historical connection. Additionally for some people the perceived ‘militarisation’ of the event is seen as a parodic rather than a respectful act, or an attitude that demonstrates an overly light or cursory treatment of a weighty subject (Anonymous, 2013). The adoption of approximations, poorly presented or incomplete uniforms, ‘sexed up’ uniforms, unearned rank or plastic medals, arguably render the choice of dress to be more closely tied to poor cosplay than any accomplished re-enactment or scene participation as it might be expected to be.
For many other attendees there is a sense of approximation; an attempt to meet perceived expectations of the occasion which failed, rather than a deliberate, considered and applied rejection of convention which might be undertaken through the adoption of military dress as a carnivalesque response to the occasion (Anonymous, 2013) (B., 2015). The informality and indiscipline evident in many of the ‘costumes’ present themselves as incidental and accidental rather than deliberate and considered choices, and as such undermine the intentions further. So rather than meeting the exacting standards of re-enactment or presenting a truly transgressive application of the uniform these approximations fall short of either aim. The move towards an incomplete uniform, or some approximation of a uniform-looking-ensemble becomes a much more tenuous link to the time and the proposed context and as such floats free of expected identifiers. In terms of re-enactment it fails to meet the expected standards of accuracy, authenticity or mimesis, in terms of demonstrating expected subcultural considerations it again fails, in terms of the desired connection we might say it marks a sense of what might be referred to as vintageness or vintagicity as Roland Barthes might have put it; a nebulous notion of some significant, coveted but ill-defined past. More benignly perhaps, we can read these references as making use “of dress as a cultural signal of time and an important component of cultural memory, historic consciousness and imagery”. (Jenss cited in Fischer, 2015) This visual reminder of the period of the Second World War taps into the range of positive associations from the time. This association though becomes less clear and is drawn into conflict with other signals of time in the room when one recognises the active scene and what it presents as its own expectations and its set of ‘correct’ references. The social position of the originators of these subcultural groups and the people making much of the music favoured at these events connote ideas of danger, rebellion, Other, rejection of authority and indulgence; traits and ideas at odds with those of uniformity and adherence to rigidity as exemplified by military uniform. Through this view the adoption of uniform connects the wearer and the event to these historical circumstances, a significant period of national pride and community. It perhaps offers a stronger (often largely British) connection with a sense of its own past and history rather than the wider internationally influenced, more diverse and challenging reflection of the war and post war period.
In these terms this adoption of uniform as an identifier of connection could be tied with a wider nostalgic view of this history. Nostalgia is a strong presence here; this idea, this “imaginatively remembered past, homeland or community” (Tannock, 1995)arguably informs much of the surface connection with the age. The past is made present in a simulacrum for our enjoyment. The more problematic aspects of the period; gender, race, class, sexuality among them are largely swept aside in celebration of this ‘halcyon’ past. Looking round the dance floor we can see this complex knot of signs, these dialects of dress and these competing knowledges all over. Notwithstanding ‘the spectre of trivialisation’ (De Groot, 2009, p. 107) the adoption of uniform in this particular context seems to introduce this nostalgic iteration to the process. Taking a lead from Nicola Smith’s research on the Northern Soul scene the ‘typology of participants in a scene with longevity’ (Smith, 2009, p. 438) offers a useful framework for situating our subject. Within this framework, which breaks down non established and established participants, the presence of nostalgia among participants connects reliving and maintaining scene involvement as well as ‘protecting the specifics’ of the scene. Mapping this to the 1950s scene the presence of military uniform conflates nostalgias; the scene and the wider historical significance of the Second World War. The maintenance of the original contexts is increasingly tenuous and strained due to time. The reliving element becomes more dependent on later, developed iterations of the scene and the specifics of the scene and their protection come more to the fore.
Perhaps we can read these ideas in a wider context in Britain today. This citation of a fondly remembered past is also a key part of recently published The Ministry of Nostalgia (2016) by writer and journalist Owen Hatherley. The starting point for his very engaging ‘polemical rampage’ about a utopian recasting of the past as a means of supporting and framing current government policies is a vintage fair in London. He cites the ‘Make Do and Mend’ and the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ rhetoric being employed to co-opt consent for ‘austerity’ and cuts. He is discomfited by the performance of the aesthetic of austerity and “its historical syncretism”, [in this case mixing the circumstances of post war Britain and the emergence of the welfare state with current neo liberal policies and privatization].
The celebratory nature of these historical references taps into fuller and wider national pride but challenges a lot of what is central to so much of the rest of the scene. The nostalgias at play conflict, and they evidence a mutability and multiplicity of interests and natures that fit with the post subcultural, postmodern appreciation of identity. The international, multicultural influences and inputs sit alongside identifiers of Britishness and significant national pride. The uniforms make explicit connection to ideas and attitudes that sit uncomfortably with many. Hatherley’s demonstration of the recasting of the past and the unironic introduction of uniforms into spaces framed by traditions of rebellion, rejection of authority and challenge contributes to what can be at times an uncomfortable, even hostile, mix. But despite the tension and these markers of combat this conflict is contained, largely addressed in conversation rather than confrontation and while suggesting a sense of division is unlikely to become anything more than a cold war.
Anonymous. scene participant (2013) Military Uniforms and Vintage Events [Interview] (20 March 2013).
‘B’. scene participant (2015) Perception of Military Uniform at 1950s events [Interview] (16 11 2015).
Baade, Christina. (2006) ”the Dancing Front’: Dance Music, Dancing, and the BBC in World War II’. Popular Music , Vol.25, no.3, pp. 347–368.
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