Umar Rashid, a 29-year-old painter and musician, was standing outside the Grand Star nightclub in Chinatown one night after the start of the Iraq war when he came face to face with the potential perils of militant chic.
A "soldier-looking dude" glared at Rashid for a moment and then said angrily, "People died wearing that in Iraq." The guy was referring to Rashid's kaffiyeh, the versatile Arab head scarf, often with a checkered pattern. Rashid brushed off the comment because he had heard it before. People in the U.S., it seems, get testy around the kaffiyeh. It recalls Yasser Arafat and Islamic fundamentalists. For some, it suggests militancy and menace.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Barbara's at the Brewery: The caption for the photograph that accompanied Sunday's West magazine article on "fear fashion" misidentified the location of Barbara's at the Brewery. It is in Lincoln Heights, not downtown.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 23, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 7 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
The caption for the photograph with the article "'Terrorist Chic' and Beyond" (Men's Fashion Issue, April 9) misidentified the location of Barbara's at the Brewery. It is in Lincoln Heights, not downtown.
It also goes great with a vintage sports coat.
"I just like the look of it, the style of it, the pattern," said Rashid, who is neither Arab nor Muslim and has been wearing kaffiyehs--sometimes around his neck, sometimes around his entire head--since childhood. "It's a multipurpose, beautiful scarf."
Invariably, it's also a political statement. "We feel the need . . . to look like warriors," Rashid explained, "because we physically can't be warriors."
The donning of kaffiyehs is not exactly new. Left-leaning urbanites and activists all over, not to mention countless millions in the Arab world for whom these scarves are as commonplace as baseball caps, have been wearing them for decades.
But since last year, the kaffiyeh has begun showing up more and more on the streets, appearing suddenly in hip neighborhoods in New York, throughout Europe and here in Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park. Even hipsters in Israel are wearing it. "Want to make your parents angry and want to be provocative?" said Jerusalem Web designer David Abitbol, co-founder of the blog jewlicious.com. "Wear a kaffiyeh."
For many, the kaffiyeh is just one piece of their ensemble. Often, it is paired with draping scarves, military prints and heavy boots. In this way, the kaffiyeh is part of a look greater than its parts. It has been dubbed "militant chic" and "terrorist chic." But that's not enough.
Something far wider and weirder is going on. Let's call it "fear fashion."
On the runways of the world's fashion capitals, designers are cloaking their models' faces to evoke mystery, anonymity and intrigue. This phenomenon is playing out on the streets, too, with kaffiyehs, hooded sweatshirts and, for women, flowing veils.
Kathryn Garcia, a 27-year-old artist who lives and works within a two-block radius in Chinatown, wears black veils draped seductively over her head and a gaudy gold crucifix dangling from her hip. I met her last fall and promptly nicknamed her "the post-Apocalyptic death disco Virgen de Guadalupe."
"It's kind of a feminine thing to me," Garcia said of her veils. "What's hidden is erotic; what's hidden is sexy."
But her choice of attire, she added, is also a response to the culture of fear. "Our society is nourished on fear. Everything is fear, fear, fear. We're kind of playing into that and provoking it, and it works because people do get scared."
There were threads of it here and there, even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The previous summer, Britain's now-defunct the Face magazine ran a fashion spread, with photographs by Terry Richardson, that featured models holding automatic weapons and blood-soaked machetes, their faces concealed by deep hoods, kaffiyehs and masks.
Then, after the initial shock of the attacks faded, fashion designers returned to the theme. Some, such as Raf Simons and Bernhard Willhelm, played with Western concepts of terrorism and war in their clothes: dark colors and gothic lines; kaffiyehs and other Middle Eastern prints; hoods and layered scarves that obscured faces; pieces referencing turbans and the pointy head coverings that conjured the most sickening images from Abu Ghraib.
After Abu Ghraib, after Seattle '99, after the Zapatistas in Chiapas, after anthrax, after eco-terrorism, after the SARS scare, after 9/11--it somehow all made sense.
"I feel like a lot of it started in the '90s, when everyone was wearing camo and cargo pants, and a lot of things started being made with really high-tech fibers and modeled after survival gear," said Aay Preston-Myint, a 24-year-old artist and teacher who lives in Chicago. "That was when militias and separatists and cults were getting a lot of press, and people were all hyped up about the end of the millennium. Gang warfare was a hot topic as well. So maybe there's a sort of fetishization of all that, and we're still holding on to it in the 21st century because now we're all wound up about 'terrorism.' "
Preston-Myint picked up his kaffiyeh, a lavender number, in London last January. At least in Europe, he said, it seemed like the look was starting to become overly commercial: "People in street markets were selling kaffiyehs with peace signs and yin-yangs and spiders" on them.