Oct 172010

Fussell, Paul. Uniforms: Why we are what we wear Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Fussel is a snob, a crank and a square (he refers to “skate-board enthusiasts and other pseudo-degenerates”), and he would probably agree with all those adjectives assessments. He fully admits that his book is about surface impressions, but that’s what a uniform is: a surface, a membrane between the world and the self. It covers up the flawed individual and makes the wearer represent an ideal. Fussell contends that, despite the status accorded to individualism, people like wearing uniforms, even lowly ones. However, one of the first thing people do when given uniforms is to customize them for comfort, utility or style. In extreme cases, this produces the paradox of the unique uniform; WWII-era leaders, like MacArthur, Patton, Montgomery, Hitler and Eisenhower, had distinctive uniforms made for them.

It’s also more anecdotal than scholarly. For example, he refers to the story that the Ku Klux Klan’s white robes and hoods were intended to make the wearers look like ghosts and terrify superstitious blacks. This may have been somewhat true, or “retroactively true,” as the 1915 film Birth of a Nation propagated this myth into a new generation of the KKK. There’s also the interesting theory that the exaggeratedly male silhouette of modern football uniforms (shoulder pads, tight pants) raised collective expectations of male bodies in film and television and created modern bodybuilding culture.

In the erotic realm, the romance writer Barbara Cartland said that her notion of a truly sexy man was “fully clothed and preferably in uniform.” Another quoted author wrote:

Marines on parade, marching purposefully while making our safety their business, are bound to go straight to our hearts. That their thighs look irresistably taught in their just-pressed pants is gravy. Since we surrender our safety to the skill and courage of these guys, we just can’t help imagining surrendering ourselves to them sexually.

What about uniforms with a less positive connotation? Taken to the extreme case, we get the classic black Nazi SS uniform, which Fussell suggests Himmler based on the dress of the Jesuits. Black clothing had a totemic power long before the Nazis, just as the swastika was a potent symbol across the world and even in Germany as a good luck charm, but the connotation of totalitarianism and genocide is now so strong that it may never be erased.

Recently, a Republican candidate for Congress from Ohio had to explain his involvement in WWII re-enactment group while wearing an SS uniform. Rich Iott also wore American uniforms in other recreations. He cited the military accomplishments of Germany in WWII. (If they were so great, why did they lose?) As Fussell observed acidly, “It must be great fun to imagine yourself a soldier without risk of physical, mental or moral damage. This sort of military romanticism you’d the think the Vietnam War had put a final stop to, but no.” (Pg. 126)

He also writes, “Intimately connected with the fantasy workings of the sadomasochistic imagination are uniforms associated with official cruelty, like those of the German SS….” (Pg. 127) That Fussell lumps historical recreation people in with sexual fetishists in a chapter titled, “Weirdos,” indicates some sloppy thinking. The historians and the fetishists both feel the pull of the uniform, but in very different ways. Although I can’t discount the possibility of fetishists passing among the recreators, or vice versa, or other forms of overlap.

Three Nuba women with glossy skins dancing outdoors.

This brings us to Susan Sontag’s much referenced 1975 essay Fascinating Fascism. Sontag reviews two seemingly unrelated books. The first is Leni Riefenstahl photo book, The last of the Nuba. Sontag objects strongly to the book’s white-washing of Riefenstahl’s deep involvement in the Nazi regime, and considers the photo essays on the African Nuba people, an instance of kind of “noble savage”, “mystic warrior”, “perfect body/perfect soul” thinking that fed into Nazi-ism.

Fascist aesthetics include but go far beyond the rather special celebration of the primitive to be found in The Nuba. They also flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort; they exalt two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication of things and grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, “virile” posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender; it exalts mindlessness: it glamorizes death.

The idea seems to be that because we buy Riefenstahl’s coffee table books instead of ritually shaving her head on national television (a la les femmes tondues), we are in danger of falling into fascism again.

The second book Sontag reviews is SS Regalia, a cheap paperback whose title says it all.

Photographs of uniforms are erotic material, and particularly photographs of SS uniforms. Why the SS? Because the SS seems to be the most perfect incarnation of fascism in its overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards. The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful.

If the message of fascism has been neutralized by an aesthetic view of life, its trappings have been sexualized. This eroticization of fascism has been remarked, but mostly in connection with its fancier and more publicized manifestations, as in Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask and Storm of Steel, and in films like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Visconti’s The Damned, and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter.

In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a reference of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. More or less Nazi costumes with boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, have become, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. In the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear. But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic? How could a regime which persecuted homosexuals become a gay turn-on?

Unless Nazi imagery was far more prevalent in mid-70s porn than I thought, I think Sontag may be mistaking the Tom of Finland leatherman look (itself strongly influenced by militarism and influential even in heterosexual pornography) for Nazi symbology. (Then again the first Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS was in 1975, and Salon Kitty was in ’76.)

The rituals of sadomasochism being more and more practiced, the art that is more and more devoted to rendering its themes, are perhaps only a logical extension of an affluent society’s tendency to turn every part of people’s lives into a taste, a choice. In all societies up to now, sex has mostly been an activity (something to do, without thinking about it). But once sex becomes defined as a taste, it is perhaps already on its way to becoming a self-conscious form of theater, which is what sadomasochism—a form of gratification that is both violent and indirect, very mental—is all about.

Sontag has little good to say about BDSM: “The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.” I have a suspicion she’s basing this only on the previously cited films, not any direct experience with the gay or straight scene as it existed in the mid-70s.

When we restage the battle of good and evil, purity and impurity, sacred and profane, somebody has to play the bad guy.

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