Is ‘Peshmerga chic’ offensive?

Female Peshmerga have genuinely inspired people, offering an alternative image of Muslim women to ma

Military styles have been co-opted by both haute couture and youth culture for decades, writes Ismail [AFP]

No sooner had the image of a tall, impossibly slim model wearing a khaki jumpsuit been dubbed “Peshmerga-chic” than the global press officer of fashion behemoth H&M had to be dragged out to make the standard corporate apology: We sincerely apologise for any offence caused, it was never our intention and so on and so forth.

H&M’s apology was rapidly cobbled together in response to a minor outcry on social media when “dozens” of Kurds were offended at the apparent appropriation of Peshmerga clothing. Instantly this became the dominant narrative, a quick search on Twitter now turns up dozens of tweets not of people who are actually offended themselves but who are referring to online articles describing the “offence”. In the interest of providing a counter-narrative, it seems only fair to point out that as a Kurd, not only do I think it misplaced to be offended, but that the mere fact that “Peshmerga-chic” exists should be a source of pride.

Not that the fashion world is echoing the designs of Peshmerga uniforms benevolently or in order to make a moral statement of support of course: Military styles have been co-opted by both haute couture and youth culture for decades as per the symbiotic relationship that fashion thrives upon between high and low culture, wealth and youth, rebellion and capital.

Staples of military chic

Cultural theorist Angela McRobbie claims in her book “Second-Hand Dresses and the Role of the Ragmarket” that military style was a by-product of second-hand style, where young people who could not afford mainstream stylish clothing could instead easily create their own style from the cheap selection at their local Army Surplus store. Staples of military chic have since long become an enduring part of youth culture: from Dr Martens boots to Che Guevara apparel via the keffiyeh associated most prominently with the Palestinian struggle.

In recent years, however, military influences in the fashion world have lessened. The military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, reviled by youth culture in the West, and the accompanying coding of the guerrilla aesthetic as terrorist post-9/11 has led to a drastic decline in the appeal of military apparel. The fashion world has thus sought its inspiration elsewhere.

A brief blip occurred after the 2008 financial cash, where fashion houses capitalised on the popular reaction against the excess that had led to the crash by introducing military-style clothing redolent of hard work and strict ethics, but even then a house like Chanel (itself no stranger to cultural appropriation controversy, having designed a dress in 1994 covered in verses from the Quran ) did not riff on contemporary conflicts in its militaristic pre-fall 2008 show, but rather harked back to Prussian and Soviet motifs, aesthetic markers that have since long lost the power to shock.

According to the artist Richard Fung, appropriation permeates every part of what we call culture: Everything from our food to our religions have been influenced by other cultures, sometimes as part of an exchange, other times as a consequence of domination. When discussing the appropriateness of appropriation this nuance tends to be lost. Mutual inspiration in haute cuisine between France and Japan is entirely different from, say, Rodarte’s Fall 2010 RTW collection inspired by the working conditions of Ciudad Juarez (working conditions that first world purchasers of commercial goods profit from directly). The Rodarte show was an example of a dominating force appropriating and profiting by fetishising conditions that it enables or partly reinforces (similarly, if H&M were to indulge in sweatshop chic for instance, that would then be truly offensive).

Dominating cultures

The choice to make Karlie Kloss wear a Native American war bonnet in the 2012 Victoria’s Secret show is another pertinent example of a dominating culture appropriating the cultural markers of the oppressed. Appropriating ritual Native American garb is especially insulting given that it is a culture that has almost entirely been destroyed by European settlers, the descendants of whom are now using Native American markers for commercial gain.

In a mediatised landscape where Muslim women are almost exclusively presented as subjugated or Burkha-clad, female peshmerga seem to have genuinely inspired people, offering an alternative image of the Muslim woman to a mainstream audience.

Similarly, though Saddam Hussein did not profit financially from dressing in traditional Kurdish clothes as he did for several photo-ops, he was an oppressor appropriating the signifiers of those he was doing his very best to eradicate, adding another element to his practice of ethnic cleansing: That which he could not destroy, he could simply take and claim as his own.

The case of a multinational fashion house using the aesthetic of Peshmerga fighters, however, has nothing to do with domination. It is, rather, a response to the overwhelmingly positive media coverage that female Peshmerga have been receiving, fighting an enemy as brutal as it is universally detested.

That the focus is on female Peshmerga in particular is, of course, not entirely unproblematic with regard to gender bias and sexualisation of women. In a mediatised landscape where Muslim women are almost exclusively presented as subjugated or burqa-clad, female Peshmerga seem to have genuinely inspired people, offering an alternative image of the Muslim woman to a mainstream audience.

For as long as I can remember I have had to explain who the Kurdish people are, giving scattershot lessons in Middle Eastern and colonialist history to people who assumed that the question “where are you from?” was mere chitchat and not the start of a laborious 40-minute conversation complete with crude maps drawn on napkins.

Controlling the narrative

When Kurds do make it into the public eye on a slow news day it is either as victims of various atrocities or as villains – both roles that they were cast in by outside forces. That Kurds are now presented as having agency is a sign that we are finally able to control the narrative, and the fact that Peshmerga are well-known enough to inspire designers, if even for the most momentary of trends, is something that should therefore be celebrated.

That H&M apologised was ultimately the right thing to do: A Western corporation is better off erring on the safe side when appropriating elements from other cultures rather than wave it off with postmodern notions that everything is appropriation. However, as this entire “controversy” (if we have to call it that) was caused by a mere handful of offended people, I would like to point out that far more people have tweeted that they think that kittens are ugly and that they hate ice cream than that they were offended by this piece of clothing.

The echo chambers of social media allow you to find people who have just about any opinion, and though they are entitled to them, it becomes all too easy for the offended few to speak on behalf of everyone else. Every Kurd that I showed the picture to, including actual Peshmerga both current and retired, have been without fail pleased that H&M has done this, regardless of whether or not it was an intentional homage.

There are so many pressing issues that Kurds desperately need to draw advocacy and attention to, including the lack of international assistance in Kobane, some nations’ ongoing financial support of terrorist organisations intent on destroying everything we hold dear, world leaders making grand statements of solidarity while not providing Kurds with the weapons and training we need to defeat ISIL, and myriad other challenges. In light of these more pressing issues, demanding an apology from H&M over a jumpsuit seems frankly ludicrous.

Agri Ismail is an Iraq-based author. His work has previously appeared in The White Review,  the Chimurenga Chronic, the Outpost, the Swedish art journal Glanta and the anthology Uncommon:Dubai.