Over the summer I received as a gift a beautiful silk Anne Namba scarf (the one at the left is not it). I love it—it’s at once modern and evocative of the past, both “western” and Asian inspired. It now belongs with a small collection of my scarves, mostly coloured or patterned, though one that was my grandmother’s has block numbers on it. I think of them as accents of colour, imparting a bit of warmth and dare I say flair to my simple Hawai`i fashion.

But the scarves now on display at the Honolulu Academy of Art, alongside kimono and other textiles as part of the exhibit “Wearing Propaganda: Textiles on the Home Front in Japan, Britain, and the United States, 1931–1945” have a markedly different aim and function:

“The American and British examples were produced almost exclusively for women and were worn prominently in public as headscarves, blouses, and dresses. In Japan, most of the clothing incorporating textiles with propaganda images were worn by men and young boys. … Many of the pieces in the exhibition are kimono for young boys and omiyamairi (shrine-visiting kimonos, comparable to christening gowns) that include potent military imagery. …

“Over 100 works of art will illustrate how civilian textile design helped to promote wartime agendas in the three countries. The material on view will include clothing and accessories, textile samples, cartoons for textile designs, posters, and photographs. …

“Wearing Propaganda” also provides an in-depth examination of the most prevalent themes and motifs to be found in the propaganda textiles: modernity, empire, militarism, patriotism, sacrifice, heroes and leaders, text (slogans, words, and songs), alliances (Allies and Axis), and victory. The use of national symbols most closely allied to the concept of patriotism, such as national flags, stands out in some of the designs….”

An obi replete with bombs, a scarf with a patterned Churchill caricature, a sack printed with a food ration list, a summer kimono decorated with Japanese and Nazi flags, and a scarf with “Keep it Under Your Hat” and other war-time slogans are startling in their audacious and market-driven collusion with nations’ motivations and justifications for war.

As I viewed the collection, which I highly recommend seeing, I wondered what our modern propaganda textiles and objects are during this time of protracted war. What is the propaganda of today? What came to mind immediately were Bush’s massive marketing efforts, such as the infamous “mission accomplished” banner. Then I thought about the Support Our Troops magnet car decals, Osama Bin Laden tees, and the patriotic version of Lance Armstrong’s Live Strong bracelets.

My imagination sparked, I contemplated the frightening and I’m assuming thus far imaginary situation wherein the Bush Regime distributes Defeat the Axis of Evil scarves for all women and men to wave at returning soldiers, and In the Name of Freedom sheets to replace the American flag laid over caskets of soldiers killed in action.

I would have said that imagined scenario was improbable, but this exhibition suggests that it’s not so ridiculous at all.

Photo on the Honolulu Art Academy web site. Click photo for credits and original location.

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