Obsolescent tanks and fighter planes that are falling to bits... but the Canadian soldier can at least expect (and appreciate) top-quality combat clothing and personal equipment.
Every consideration about extremes of weather, concealment, and simplicity of maintenance has been incorporated in this new combat gear. Part of the research and development process even included canvassing troops about what they liked in underwear, and what female soldiers appreciated in a good comfortable bra. Alas, there may be one thing that the Department of National Defence has overlooked -- has the impact on the fashion world been considered?
The uninitiated may sneer at the idea of a relationship between fashion and the military; but what do they know?
In fashion, one must sometimes look for the little things. Admittedly, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani might not currently be flogging trench coats and bomber jackets, or even Wellington boots or Cardigan sweaters. Nevertheless, their suit jackets still have buttons on the cuff. This originated in the 18th Century to keep musketeers from wiping their faces with the sleeves of the lovely new uniform coats provided for them by their rulers. Is a shirt meant to have the top buttons undone? This style began with RAF fighter pilots in WW-II who showed how free and unconstrained their short lives were by being a little unbuttoned in uniform regulations.
In the fashion world, good ideas are shamelessly copied -- often from sources that have impressed the designer. The necktie's stranglehold on men's dress began with the fearsome Croatian cavalrymen of the 17th Century. While serving the Austrians, the Croats' skills and neck-scarves made a strong impression on the French. Hence, the cravat's appearance in men's fashion. Despite an occasional appearance in lady's wear, the Turkish Dolman sleeve never really caught on beyond Hussar circles.
Going back to the early 16th Century, the ruffed and puffed fashions that combined many different fabrics had an even more sinister origin. The hardened Landesknechts and Swiss pikemen got first pick of the booty off the dead on a battlefield: Good quality clothing was valuable, and these troops preferred to wear their loot. Several layers of clothing can be a bit binding, so they would slash the fabric at the joints to give them flexibility. Eventually, even the Courts of Europe began to copy the new style.
Sometimes fashion has to be functional... In everyday dress a Plains Indian or a New Guinea Highlander looked quite simple and unadorned. The prospect of a battle and a chance to display individual courage and prowess brought out the best beads, feathers and face-paint. With the gunpowder age, the discipline needed to stand in ranks that were being flayed with grapeshot and musket balls brought in polished boots, pipe clayed belts and powdered hair: Disciplined dress for disciplined fighting.
The simple and stark lines of the modern “power” suit are copied, of course, from elite soldiers. The British SAS, the American Delta Force and Soviet Spetsnaz were clad in plain-dark overalls (and Balaclavas... a legacy of the Crimean War) for counter-terrorism before the corporate and political elite cottoned on to the style.
Of course, in a power suit or dark fatigues, the accessories are more important than the uniform in determining status and function. Who is carrying the briefcase, who has the laptop, who has the most exclusive watch? In the military sense, who has the binoculars and who is lugging the .50 Caliber sniper rifle? What you carry says who you are.
The new Canadian uniform has a camouflage pattern -- which shows that Canadians can be a little slow in picking up the latest trend. In the Second World War, elite units such as Waffen SS Panzergrenadiers, British Paratroops and American Marines were in camouflaged smocks... but Canada's army stuck to simple utilitarian wool. With the outgoing generation of combat clothing, we still stuck to plain dull green when most of the rest of the world explored a variety of more colourful patterns.
However, not only has Canada's new uniform caught up by being camouflaged, we have gone to set whole new trends by applying new principles to the clothing. The Canadian edge in ergonomics, materials science and the experience of our outdoor heritage (i.e. sleeping outside in a freezing rainstorm or Black Fly season) has all been applied to the new uniforms. This clothing itself might be unobtrusive -- hard to spot even -- but will represent the cutting edge in terms of comfort, practicality and convenience.
Soon, one should expect Canadian runways and catwalks to be crowded with similar garments. We shall not look like much, but we will wear well.
John Thompson is Editorial Director of the Mackenzie Institute which studies political instability and terrorism. He can be reached at: email@example.com