Mil-Chic - Army Surplus Ain't What It Usta Be

By Henri Montandon

When I was a kid, I liked to dress in army clothes. The army surplus store was my haberdashery. Every town had one, awash in the flotsam and jetsam of the Second World War. In those days, clothes came in only three flavors: cotton, wool and silk. (For you who haven't heard of the Second World War, it occurred sometime before the Design Revolution.)

For the most part, the colors, like the styles, were drab: olive drab. There were a few exceptions, of course. The Eisenhower jacket was a doozy, and the leather bomber has never been really outré, although I could not afford one as a kid. Only with my adult earning power could I purchase one, at age 41, and even then it put a dent in my budget.

But childhood passes, and with it the fancies of childhood, and so it was I had not been inside an army surplus store for 42 years. Until this year. And even then, I did not actually enter a store. No. By then the planet had gone through one of its convolutions, and the Internet had been born. So my more contemporary, more postmodern, more now, excursions into the protean world of military surplus fashion happened in a virtual world.

Let me clear up one thing. I am not, nor have I ever been, a fashion professional. I view that world, like many people, with a mixture of fascination and disgust. That is to say, I am obsessed with fashion, but only willing to spend a certain amount of time, as much time as it takes, to requisition and maintain my wardrobe.

And as long as I am in this quasi-confessional mode, let me say one other thing. I have always liked the color black. I regard black as the natural color of my religion, which is Existential Technofetishist. I also like black because it looks elegant even on me. You can't go wrong with black.

So when it came time to procure what is everywhere called a Battle Dress Uniform (BDU)--but which I think of as my regular clothes--I was pleased to find that not even the commodification of camo has killed off black. This despite the fact that camo is haute couture, and available in Woodland, Desert, Night Desert, Tiger Stripe, Green Tiger, Desert Tiger, Tactical Tiger, Urban, Flektar, Winter and Ghillie. Black is everywhere in military surplus clothing, as if the people world-wide who design clothes for the military, Goths, punks, the Amish, and myself had all come together in an astonishing fashion epiphany.

My black BDU pants come from Brigade Quartermasters. Made of "combat cloth" (a super-fast drying synthetic cotton blend) with double reinforced seat and knees, six pockets, 1-3/4 inch belt loops (just right for your Assault Rescue Belt, of which more later), and drawstring cuffs to "seal out bugs, drafts and grime." All this for only $32.99.

Of course, the BDU pants come with the de rigueur BDU shirt, but I prefer a black T in summer, and in winter a long sleeved turtle. Both of these can be had nearly anywhere, but fabrics and styles are legion, so I will not presume to recommend. To each his own for T's, turtlenecks, and underwear.

Boots are an important part of any BDU kit, and a quintessential fashion entity in their own right. BQ came through for me here, too, because they were introducing a new line of Commando Tactical Boot, on sale for only $35.99. Leather with 1000 denier Cordura uppers make the boot both very light and nearly indestructible. Not only that, they are incredibly comfortable. In fact, I would rank them right up there with my Air Nike Tim Duncan II basketball shoes (in black, of course) as far as comfort. The boots lace up about four inches above my ankles, and I find the ankle support I get from the higher boot reduces fatigue during those forced marches through museums and art galleries.

If you actually plan to walk very far in your boots, then socks are an important consideration. The socks should be long, and come slightly above the top of the boot. I wear a pair of white cotton socks next to my skin, with long black G.I. Cushion Sole Socks covering (50% wool, 30% cotton, 20% nylon), five pair for $12.50 from Coleman's. On anything from a walk around the block in the rain to a ten-mile hike in hot weather, this combination has never let me down.

Two jackets, a three season, black Swat TAC Uniform Jacket ($40.99 from BQ) and the Extended Cold Weather System (ECWS) Parka ($159.97 from Cheaper Than Dirt) and your basic wardrobe is complete! Yeah, that's right, you heard me, I said complete. Before I ring up the total I want to say something about the ECWS Parka. Here is where military surplus truly begins to shine, especially in comparison to days of yore. This guy is a microfiber parka. It breathes, but it's also waterproof, and a heck of a lot cheaper than gortex. And it comes in black.

Now that you have your basics, you want to accessorize, right? Now it gets up close and personal, and I can only tell you what I like. You'll have to insert into one of these sites and recon on your own. The Assault Rescue Belt ($24.99 from BQ) is heirloom, make that archeological, quality. It is rendered in materiel designed to survive until the end of time. A great bargain. An item which is off the cool scale is the (black) Special Operations Light Assault Glove ($37.95 from HellStorm U.S.A. For extra bounce, get the Half Finger style.

Of all the complex semiotics of fashion, watches grab the most bandwidth. My watch hunt was the longest and most arduous in my quest for authentic Mil-Chic. I scouted dozens of styles before finally deciding on the Luminox 200 Meter Seal Team Dive Watch, Series 1. Although there is a choice here of six face colors, there needn't have been. This baby is expensive, retailing most everywhere for around $200. Some I-net stealth work uncovered a super deal on these, $119 from Now whenever I am in several hundred feet of water, I know I don't have to worry about my watch. Best of all, its Tritium-activated self-luminous dial is as bright as a gallon of fireflies.

Since accessorization is endless, but mission time is limited, I will have to end here. Maybe you will want to consider other additions to your Mil-Chic wardrobe, unnecessary for sure, but oh so fun to shop for. Like the Level III Kevlar body armor with ceramic plates, or the Titanium Multipurpose Knife preferred by SEAL teams one and two, or the Gen. III Night Vision Goggles. For you true party animals, show up at your next building clearing or bachelor bash with an authentic looking, AirSoft 1:1 scale MP-5A4 submachine gun, a Bullpup, or even an AK-47. While legal in most jurisdictions (check with local authorities to be sure), these guns are indistinguishable from the real thing, and will terrify anyone who sees you toting one. Yet what is fashion, if not the beginning of terror we are only just able to bear?

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Copyright 2004 by Henri Montandon. All rights reserved.