Writer and broadcaster

The military invades the catwalk. Published in The New Statesman

In the days when I used to be something in the fashion world, the team would sit up all night going through transparencies to pick out the look of the season. And every season, we would pick out models with pointy nipples (one must hook those readers in somehow) dressed in faux-camouflage vests and jungle-green combat shorts that would never see time in the jungle. Every spring, every winter, this look would lurk in some designer’s collection. Even in the past few years, when the feel has been “oh so pretty” for women, there has always been a uniform-inspired offering to act as an antidote. It has been a huge influence for menswear, too. Some young men have difficulty remembering a time before combat trousers (or cargo pants, as the Americans would have them).

“Fashion returns to this look all the time,” says Iain R Webb, the fashion director of British Elle, “because it’s an anti-fashion statement that’s become fashionable. It’s a very potent image. And it’s cheap to copy from Laurence Corner.”

This summer, soldier chic is really, really big news. Beware: it could also be a harbinger of bad news. The military look historically grows in popularity when there’s real fighting going on in the world; it is no coincidence that the last big wave occurred during the Gulf war. It also has a habit of becoming popular when recession is in the air, because it smacks of economy (if you avoid the designer versions) and having to tighten one’s belt.

The new military mood on the catwalk is particularly alarming, given new Labour’s previous aversion to khaki and jackboots. Even when he went off to Kosovo, Tony Blair didn’t try to nod in the direction of the military, unless you count his Gap shirt as a uniform – which it is, in a way. His Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has nothing of the army man about him – though jackboots might give him a few inches more stature. William Hague, on the other hand, would probably need no excuse to don epaulettes and webbing (which is excellent to balance an arm on when it’s holding a pint). But perhaps it is the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who would best suit the soldier’s uniform, a nice double-breasted tunic, say, to corset him slightly and tidy him up. The one pitfall: his girth and manner could easily end up making him look like one of those disreputable, if slightly comical, Latin American dictators.

Here, I must make a confession. Some time before entering the world of fashion, I was a soldier. I wore real combat trousers, proper camouflage (known in the trade as DPM, or disruptive pattern material) and standard-issue, barrack-dress-green sweaters made of ribbed wool, with cotton elbow and shoulder patches, and epaulettes that used to cause no end of grief on the ironing board.

I can “bull” (polish) boots till they shine like William Hague’s forehead during a particularly keen Prime Minister’s Question Time. To me, those many pockets on combat trousers served to hold maps, vital food supplies – or condoms, to stop my machine-gun getting muddy during exercise. (You can still shoot through them, you see.) The thought of wearing a uniform as fashion still strikes me as a bit disrespectful, subversive and a tad naff.

The military look, although it tries very hard to be arriviste and daring, is nothing new. “It’s really interesting to see how women have ‘followed their men to war’, sartorially speaking, through the ages,” says Tamasin Doe, the editor of Harvey Nichols magazine. “Way back in the French revolution, women wore uniform-based costumes – it was a spiritual thing to make them feel close to their men.”

This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds, because uniforms were originally based on civilian clothing anyway, echoing (albeit loosely) the details of the fashions of the time.

Armies didn’t really wear uniforms until the English civil war. That was when they started adapting civilian clothing for military purposes (although they were also identified somewhat by their hairstyles: a Roundhead would have a haircut like Ann Widdecombe’s; a Cavalier would have more of a Heseltine-type barnet).

We may think of army colours as shades of green and putty, but at one time our boys fought in dashing red coats, which were, thankfully, phased out when the powers that be realised something more tactical might be called for. We weren’t alone in this. “The French went into battle in 1914 wearing dark blue coats and red trousers – all this against a green rural background,” says Diana Condell, curator of medals and uniforms at the Imperial War Museum. “The next year, they decided to choose a more subdued colour to make themselves less conspicuous, and chose horizon blue.”

The First World War saw the advent of truly sophisticated uniforms. This was when disruptive patterns started to appear – although, at that time, they were mostly used for dazzle painting on ships and didn’t really make it into uniform until WWII. To the young people of today, DPM may seem like just a jigsaw of colour, but it was based on a highly complex series of patterns, created by the British artist Norman Wilkinson and used to break up the outlines of ships.

All of this rich history is lost on the likes of Billie Piper (pictured left), who wears a US Army foul-weather jacket to go shopping in; or Will Smith, whose entire family has been known to dress head-to-toe in camouflage with combat boots – whose soles, they probably don’t even realise, are directly moulded and therefore very hard-wearing. Everything comes full circle, and whereas these items of clothing would once have been worn to help the wearer blend into the background, today they are worn to help people, who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise stand out, to be seen.

Annalisa Barbieri will be our election fashion correspondent