With the Football World Cup behind us (and I admit I watched most of the games), it’s time again for some fashion-related reflexions. With regard to the Cup, one thing that I found interesting from a sartorial point of view was the insignias on the teams’ uniforms to indicate their nationalities. Many teams used the badge of their respective national football associations, but a few seemed to prefer more politically charged symbols. One that caught my attention (its size made it rather hard to miss) was the Russian insignia which consisted solely of the Russian Imperial double eagle. No mentioning of the Russian Football Association at all.
The Association itself also includes a rather large double eagle in its emblem, perched on top of a football in the colours of the Russian Federation, which is framed below bythe associations Russian name:Российский Футбольный Cоюз.
There are some interesting politically charged semiotics in play here. The team clearly represents more than its national federation; instead, it plays for a particular, ‘imperial’ notion of Russia, as promulgated and supported by the Putin regime. The imperial double eagle is also displayed on the Presidential Standard and on the Flag of the Russian Armed Forces. Its use in the emblem of the Russian сборнаяat the World Cup therefore symbolically links the team with the militarized and fairly aggressive nationalist project of the Russian President.
How far this transfer of official symbols of the Russia state has gone can perhaps be appreciated when looking at the social media images posted by Alina Kabayeva after a TV appearance in which she opened a children’s festival. Ms Kabayeva, a former Olympic athlete, is rumoured to be President Putin’s paramour.
The conflation of symbols of state authority (and authoritarian rule) and fashion is indeed stunning here, albeit not in a very flattering way. I leave it to the gentle reader to decide whether this dress warrants attention beyond its nationalistic tackiness. But this sartorial strategy, i.e., to transfer state symbols into day-to-day life also echoes earlier developments in Russia. As I wrote in the Introduction of The International Politics of Fashion,
in the wake of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula (which itself was interesting for its use of ‘little green man’, i.e., combatants wearing unmarked green ‘uniforms’), the Russian Ministry of Defence teamed up with Leonid Alexeev, a Russian fashion designer, to create a new clothing line called “Army of Russia” which is ‘inspired by the “Crimean spring”’ (Noack 2015). In the words of the designer, ‘I do not sew army uniforms, but I can help make the army attractive to people. This is my personal form of patriotism’. And Vladimir Pavlov, the general director of the military supply shop voentorg, reveals the defence ministry’s motivation behind this fashion strategy, stating that the collection is designed for people ‘leading an active lifestyle and sharing military values — patriotism, camaraderie and mobility’ (Beard 2015).
It would be interesting to see if other authoritarian regimes have used sartorial strategies like these to normalise and aestheticise their rule. That is to say, not be creating national uniforms, but rather by investing day-to-day dress codes (including sports uniforms) with the emblems of state power. But perhaps it would be equally interesting to investigate what Michael Billig called some time ago ‘Banal Nationalism‘ in Western societies too, where baseball caps, T-Shirt and other sartorial items constantly produce and reproduce a symbolic and ambiguous discourse on national identity. Nationalism, he writes, ‘must be reproduced in a banally mundane way, for the world of nations is the everyday world, the familiar terrain of contemporary times’. And placing a Union Jack or a Stars and Stripes (or, more noxiously, a Stars and Bars) onto clothes seems in a way a similar move to the one in contemporary sartorial Russia. Perhaps the slightly more ostentatious use of state symbols in Russia points to a less banal nationalism, though?