The bright pink camouflage bikini on sale at Old Navy would likely do little to help Canadian soldiers blend into the dusty surroundings of Afghanistan, but on the beaches in and around Toronto it's an entirely different matter. "Camo," once the fashion fave of hippies, anti-Vietnam War protestors and punks, is now a mainstream uniform in Canadian and U.S. cities.
We're not talking about old-style clothes from army surplus stores (those are far too authentic to fit well), but fashion-machine spinoffs like Old Navy mini-skirts, Sportchek pants and shirts, Bluenote hats and accessories, Gap Kids shorts and schoolbags and so on. The soundtrack for all this is provided by MTV and MuchMusic, where camo-clad celebs like Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé Knowles set the tone.
So why, in a culture where young people are so hostile to armed intervention, has the military look caught on? Is this another case of mass irony, a conscious form of peace protest, or just another mindless fashion recycling operation?
At Ryerson's school of fashion, technologist Lana Storto tells me it's no accident that camo's on the runways again. "Fashion is really closely related to what's going on in the world. It's definitely all about collective consciousness," she says, pointing out that the current trend gained momentum as the U.S. mounted its "war against terror."
Jay Barrigar, designer and buyer for her own Toronto fashion company, Quip, remembers that during the first Gulf War, over a decade ago, international couturiers such as Ralph Lauren showed complete lines of military-style clothing.
"It was just - boom! - military!" she says. Now the big companies have picked up that camo is cool. The fact that camouflage is in so many mainstream stores now suggests it's considered a solid style, not a flash fad.
But if it's a zeitgeist thing, a reflection of CNN war obsessions and far too many images of soldiers in the line of duty, is there any chance the trend owes some of its pull to the residual peace movement? Not likely, says Marcel Danesi, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and author of My Son Is An Alien: A Cultural Portrait Of Today's Youth. He sees faux soldier fashion as an example of youth mocking the prevailing order rather than protesting it. Camouflage is "just a style," he says, similar to the hiphop trend of wearing big, baggy pants without a belt, a fad that originated in the prison system, where belts aren't allowed. Lou Schreiber, marketing rep for Bluenotes, says the gear is still sitting pretty on shelves after more than three seasons (two is considered good), a sign that it may be in a "slow" fashion cycle as opposed to a "fast" one.
"It's a trend we forecast from what we saw in Europe and the U.S. But it's changing in the colouration now. It's not so literal, like khaki, olives and browns. We did pinks for girls."
Rebecca Nixon, owner of Girl Friday, a Queen West women's clothing store, and a former designer for large fashion firms like Le Chateau, touts the endless adaptability of military garb.
"Camouflage is all about how it has been twisted," she says. Aside from colourful swimsuits, Girl Friday is now "bringing in camo superimposed on tweed. It's a little dressed up," she says.
Of course, there are limits on where companies manufacturing military-style gear can go with their creations. Strict camouflage copyrights can cramp styling. Take the Canadian armed services. According to the Canadian Department of Defence's Heather Brunner, "Major items of clothing and equipment are not authorized for reproduction without prior DND approval." So don't look for Canuck peacekeeper apparel at a mall near you.
I joined an exclusive club last week, whose membership has no privileges. Citytv's Dwight Drummond and the Toronto Star's Morgan Campbell apparently have close links to it. Ever heard of BJMFC (Black Journalists Mistaken for Criminals)? Well, neither have I, but if there is such a group, its membership has just grown by one. It's last Friday (July 9) at 4:30 am and I'm taking a shortcut home up Winona after a Harbourfront concert. A police cruiser, 132B, pulls up behind me.
The first question officer number one asks me is, "What are you doing here?"
"Uh, I'm going home."
"Do you live around here?" I get asked twice.
I reply, "I live up the street." I suspect they're confused as to the makeup of this particular community. It's diverse; it's not Forest Hill. And not only do I live here, but I know one-eighth of the shopkeepers, went to high school down the street and know a good chunk of the residents.
At this point, they both jump out of the cruiser, size me up and ask for ID. Cop number two yanks my expired licence out of my hand as if it were a dime bag of weed. The questions continue.
"Where were you born?"
"Er, Toronto Western Hospital."
Constable number two goes back to the car and sits looking confusedly at his monitor (those little machines they plug info into), wondering why nothing's coming up.
He stays there for a few minutes, looking like he's trying many variations on Higgins. As he starts writing down my contact info, I naturally ask him why, considering I haven't committed a crime in my life. His reply? He says he's writing me up in a contact sheet so his supervisor won't think he and his partner are hanging out at donut shops all night.
The next question he asks is, "What do you do?" I say I'm a journalist. Then everything changes. Officer number one interrupts the proceedings and chimes in, "If we seem a little jittery, it's because one of our men got shot the other day, a few days ago." He informs me that it was a white guy who did the shooting, as if that's supposed to ease my pain.
Now, it's obvious that what I'm describing bears no comparison to the over-the-top treatment of Drummond and Campbell - yet I feel deeply aware throughout that I'm only one badly uttered phrase away from handcuffs.
It's a sentiment I try to convey to them in a 15-minute conversation, explaining that I have every right to be suspicious of this encounter after growing up at Eglinton and Marlee. The sheer number of unlawful interrogations I witnessed as a youth is absurd. Officer number two fires back, "You don't know why folks up there got stopped? Marlee is filled with drug dealers."
Officer one then says sarcastically, "Oh, it's a black male thing, right?"
Uh - yes it is, actually.