Appeared In
Special Issue
Menswear issue 09/22/2014


Things change whether we like it or not.

This rule applies not only to the natural world and our everyday lives but also to works of culture, from music to literature, from film to fashion design.

This story first appeared in the September 22, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Maybe you are a romantic who misses the crackling repartee of 1930s screwball pictures and bemoans the blunt edge of modern—day comedy; or maybe you pine for the grand novels of Tolstoy and Hugo and find yourself left cold by Karl Ove Knausgaard’s solipsistic My Struggle series, which is lately all the rage.

Maybe you liked the humbler days of episodic television, before the advent of time—consuming serials that suck up so much of your attention, often for not much payoff.

Maybe you just want to eat your dinner without having to snap a picture of it.

And maybe you were content in the age of print, with your newspaper or magazine on the café table, and you find it a hassle whenever the phone in your pocket buzzes with the news that your latest Twitter musing has been retweeted.

Too bad. Things change. Consumers get weary of the same flavor, just as those who make works of culture grow tired of turning out similar products year after year. Beautiful things will be tossed in the trash as we bump along; but, eventually, working in unspoken tandem, producers and consumers of culture are likely to hit on works that capture the new moment.

Pictured at left is a unit of the French Army known as the Zouaves. It was originally composed of volunteer tribesmen from the hills of North Africa who made themselves into the stuff of military legend, famous worldwide, for their daredevil exploits in the nineteenth century.

This picture, more specifically, is a color autochrome taken at the outset of World War One, in September 1914, by Jules Gervais—Courtellemont (who was born in 1863 and ended up a photographer for National Geographic). It appears in a new volume of unusual images, from Taschen Books, edited by Peter Walther, called The First World War in Colour. For me, it represents the all-too-human desire to cling to a beautiful—seeming past, even when it is dangerous to do so.

A hundred years ago, as the conflict entered its terrifying first month, France was the only nation to trot itself onto battlefields in nineteenth—century-style uniforms, with the majority of its men dressed in red and blue. The Zouaves were the dandies of the French military, in their ballooning canvas pants, sashes, vests, turbans, and fezzes. Their garments had stirred fear in the hearts of their opponents in a gentler age; they had precisely the opposite effect in the late summer and fall of 1914.

France paid in blood for its failure to change with the times. Given the presence of heavy artillery and machine—gun fire, the beautiful uniforms were easy targets.

By the middle of 1915, the once-dashing Zouaves wore plain khaki. Form had given way to function. The romance of the bygone century was gone for good—but a fair number of those who replaced the garish uniforms with muted garments lived through the bleakness of trench warfare and mustard gas to tell the tale.

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