It’s a known fact that much of the menswear styling we see today is based on styles originally developed for military applications. It might initially seem quite odd that the military should have an influence on civilian menswear, until you consider that while a uniform is to a large extent about function, it also has an element of looks about it. The function part is easy enough to understand: it has to fulfil the requirements of duty, such as wear and tear, pockets and carrying, insulation or airing, colour and camouflage, and so forth.
The looks side of it is different though, the uniform must cut an impressive silhouette and look good. A soldier must loom large and make the wearer look fierce. There was an idea behind the native American war paint and the like. No soldier will want to wear a crummy looking uniform, a point that is important for as different situations as making recruitment easier and in situations where looking impressive is key.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to one of my favourite museums when I’m in London, the Imperial War Museum. The museum is a fascinating look into our past, presenting both the social impact and personal experience of war, as well as having an exceptional collection of material. And while war does tend to bring about great developments in technology there is also a menswear perspective in that the IWM is full of interesting examples of military garments.
Which is where the new British company Realm & Empire come into things. Apart from coming up with a superbly evocative name, they are lucky enough to have access to the full archives of the IWM and can dig out the actual originals for their inspiration. So when details are needed, they just grab notebook and camera and head in to the massive collection available.
I found this intriguing enough to get in touch and ask them for more details about what this has led to in the design of their garments. Are there still fragments of vintage designs that haven’t been repeated to death? Is there still valid and useful inspiration to be gleaned from looking at old garments? Can I pretty please tag along for a rummage in the archives as well?
One unusual detail that was divulged from the archival exploration was the cross back detail. On the original garments it was used to provide extra strength to the garment, and also extra comfort during wear. On the original WW1 shirt the back detail looks like this:
Translated into the current AW14 offerings from Realm & Empire it looks like this:
Another archival piece that has inspired a current offering is this unusual looking WW1 piece found in the military archives at the Duxford branch of the IWM. This would have been used by all ranks as part of the layering necessary to keep warm in the trenches.
The Duxford Cardigan takes it’s cues from this, with inspiration showing mainly in the form of the pockets and collar being reinforced with cotton webbing, as used on the hem of the original piece. Not a strict replica, but it certainly looks to be a decent weight of knitted wool, so would likely have been appreciated in the trenches as well.
A more curious inspiration for a garment comes from a piece of wall paper that was found lining the wall of a trench. An attempt at making life a little more bearable in the miserable conditions they endured there? Or was it a scrap of wall paper from home?
The floral design was replicated and used on a t-shirt for the SS14 season.
To add even more of a military touch, every Realm & Empire garment features a vintage shuttle-loom back neck label together with Realm & Empire’s unique ID label, which is hidden by removable strip and gives each piece its own individual number. This detail mirrors the individual numbers given to original standard issue military uniforms.
So there you go, how historical features can inspire modern garments. As we can see, the cues are fairly subtle and unless you were actually aware of them you could easily miss them. Should they be more immediately noticeable? Arguably we could go the full hog and traipse around in full vintage regalia (and ok, some of us would actually go for that), but as a business model I imagine the subtle variant wins of the historical reenactment!
If can find more of Realm & Empire, including some pretty decent looking jackets, here.