Propaganda Straight Up & Stylish

Propaganda Straight Up & Stylish|Propaganda Straight Up & Stylish

The seduction and power of good design

These days just about any cheap article of clothing you can imagine has been fabricated out of camouflage. Long gone are the T-shirts emblazoned with grotesque caricatures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden that appeared directly after 9/11. It seems oblique references to war are much more commercially viable when most consumers remain undecided as to the purpose of invading Iraq in the first place. Instead of the ubiquitous American flag lapel pins, wouldn’t it be more to the point to see government officials wearing ties tastefully imprinted with slogans such as “The N.S.A. Is Listening” or with portions of the Patriot Act?

The current exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts harkens back to the days when citizens were much less conflicted about their propaganda. They liked it stylish and straight up. “Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain and the United States, 1931-1945” tracks a small slice of history when consumers were encouraged to literally wear their colors on their sleeve. Grouped under thematic headings such as “Empire,” “Militarism,” and “Alliances,” a small but choice selection of World War II-era textiles examines the seduction and power of well-designed propaganda.

An array of Japanese kimonos for men and boys provides the leitmotif for the exhibition. Framed by solid blocks of warm brown, gray and black, impressionistic panels depicting troop landings or battle scenes stretch across the backs of the adult garments. Elegant drawings of airplanes and torpedoes swoop and dive over the long lengths of fabric. For the child patriot, the patterns are light-hearted and brave. Brightly colored kimonos are decorated with a variety of different vignettes depicting chubby boy soldiers in action.

By contrast, the British textiles are as witty and clever as their American counterparts are earnest. With the exception of a single necktie, there are no examples of British or American wearable propaganda designed for men. It seems the adage, “duty as beauty,” only applied to women. Handwritten injunctions such as “Switch Off the Light, Darling” and “Is Your Journey Really Necessary?” create a whimsical pattern on a pink rayon scarf, transforming it into a directive on war preparedness. To protect Rosie the Riveter’s hair on the factory floor, American companies produced kerchiefs emblazoned with graphic renditions of the Constitution, Pledge of Allegiance and Star-Spangled Banner.

“Wearing Propaganda” comes at an opportune time, when art, design, and commerce haven’t quite figured out how to visualize the war in Iraq. I shudder to think how much further to the right this country could go if Bush had a good graphic designer on his team.