One of the great ticks of modern vernacular speech is our use of the word ‘obsession’. If we remove it from speech, obsession signifies something pure, searing, unrelenting. Ahab was obsessed by the whale; a man seeking revenge is obsessed by the wrongs he imagines have been committed against him.
The word has its roots in the Latin word obsidere, meaning ‘to sit before’; in this case to obsess an enemy is to lay siege, to sit before a fortification. The word has shades of haunting, of possession: ‘to actuate from without,’ is the formulation used by the OED.
These days we are obsessed with things, not by them. So when I sat down to write to you about this jungle jacket, I started my first attempt at the letter by writing: ‘Dear Ralph, for the last year I have been obsessed with military clothing.’
It felt so untrue as I wrote it that my mouth filled with a metallic ting. I’m not obsessed with military clothing; in truth I am just interested in it. I am obsessed by the fact that I want to incorporate a couple of military-style articles of clothing into my rotation, but just can’t find a way to feel comfortable doing it.
As you’d guess, this obsession (that haunting feeling that activates from without) has resulted in more than a couple of bad purchases and a handful of genuinely confused outfits. Such is the modern answer: trying in vain to outspend the thing that obsesses you.
I’ve been intensely interested in the deranged meaning of words lately, not in the way that cranks who worry about the degradation of the English language are (the fact that it is a mongrel tongue is what makes English so wonderful) but in what these changes can tell us about ourselves. The fact that our “obsessions” tend to be fleeting interests in commercial cultural products might be secondary to the fact that the use of “obsession” has spread through speech like a virus. The use of obsession with as opposed to by points to a desire for agency; this use seems to imply that our compulsive reductive recoil to a commercial solution to any problem is a mutual entanglement. With seems to imply that we enter into this relationship in agreement, with the terms of battle set ahead of time.
You know by now that I think of clothing as a language – one in which the same deformations of meaning take place: shifts from the purpose of the original happen over time, until the origins are obscured under calcified layers of fashion and commerce.
With some more distant military items (the navy blazer, pea coat, khakis, trench coat), these changes were natural and, in retrospect, feel inevitable. But the standardization of uniforms in the 20th century, combined with the explosion of photography and photojournalism, seems to have frozen the mutability of clothes intimately associated with Vietnam. Despite being as omnipresent as the blue jean, an army green jacket has yet to wrest itself free from the full connotations of battle. Here is Troy Patterson in The New York Times Magazine, in words I could never muster, getting as close as possible to the ambivalence these clothes should inspire:
Thoroughly disconnected from the military-industrial complex and the wearer’s place in it, the garment announces allegiance to only a broad conception of contemporary style. To wear an army green jacket while remaining innocent of the consequences of donning the genuine article for its dedicated purpose is the definition of luxury.
I wish I was principled enough to say that this is the reason why I don’t feel good wearing military-inspired clothes, but the sad truth is I just don’t look good in them.
Borrowed words, borrowed phrases. I know what I want to get from military clothing, but it is almost too embarrassing to put into words. None of the virtues that are signified by an army green jacket – be it the courage and bravery of a soldier or the committed belief of the counter-culture – belong to me. In your book, you wrote:
When you wear an old military jacket there’s some connection to those qualities – to being strong, to being tough, to being a warrior. Aspiration for me wasn’t about money, it was about being somebody, standing for something, being an individual.
I wish I could get there, but I can’t. I’m excessively concerned with meaning and crippled by it. My field of battle is my own monstrous ego; could anything be more base or contemporary.
The rugged appeal of an army green jacket continues to speak, but the meaning of what it says is deformed by time. If we listen we can learn about the age we live in, our values and ourselves. So I’ve learned that if I am obsessed with an article of clothing, it is a small factor of being obsessed by a constant feeling of not being who I want to be.