The next time you put on your favorite hoodie, ask yourself, “Would this sweatshirt stop a bullet?” While it may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, bulletproof fashion – ordinary-looking clothing that contains a hidden layer of Kevlar or other bullet-resistant material – is available to the general public through a number of online retailers. In her new book, Bulletproof Fashion: Security, Emotions, and the Fortress Body, UAlbany Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Professor Barbara Sutton explores what this new frontier of personal security means for the individual and what it says about current U.S. society.
Q: How would you describe bulletproof fashion?
A: Bulletproof fashion refers to armored garments and accessories for civilians that combine security and style. There are a wide variety of armored products, including colorful backpacks, stylish jackets, professional bags, hoodies, vests, suits, pants and shirts, among others. While there are some bulletproof products that are conspicuous — for example, body armor for those with an affinity for “tactical” gear and aesthetics — what caught my attention was the kind of apparel that looks like regular clothing.
Q: How are these products marketed to civilians and what type of people are buying them?
A: Though the market for bulletproof apparel for civilians can be considered “niche,” companies still aim to reach a broad array of customers. While some businesses such as the one started by Colombian entrepreneur Miguel Caballero have boasted of a VIP clientele, including politicians and celebrities, these are not the only kinds of customers that companies aim at. One can see on various companies’ websites in the United States that ordinary people, not only the rich and famous, are also the targets of bulletproof fashion marketing. Products are advertised for different groups, including children. They are also marketed for men and women interested in using protective clothing that fits with work activities, recreation, formal events and everyday life more generally. Through emotional appeals, clothing styles and connections to cultural, gendered and ethnoracial identities, companies speak to different groups of consumers. The public may also be reminded of scary events, such as mass shootings, or warned of unforeseen dangers and catastrophes that may cause widespread fear and unrest.
Q: You write that bulletproof fashion is steeped in emotions and part of a larger “fashion of fear.” Can you explain what that is?
A: I call “fashion of fear” the practice of dressing the body in ways aimed at maximizing personal security. While I focus on clothing that is bullet resistant, we can think of other types of clothing that also belong to that universe, for instance, clothing for civilians tailored to carry guns, which is another way of “forting up” the body. The wearer’s body becomes a mobile fortress of sorts. There are various types of fortressing approaches that take place in contemporary society. I think about them as concentric circles with the body at center, from the fortified national border, to gated communities, to secured residences, to the armored body itself. I see fear as a central emotion that the security industry mobilizes to promote the fortification of bodies, spaces and society. Still, other emotions, beyond fear, are also invoked through the marketing of this type of apparel: We can find appeals to love and care, the desire to feel and look beautiful, a yearning for freedom, and feelings of pride of belonging to specific groups or the nation, among others.
Q: In many cases, bulletproof clothing is not effective protection against violence but is a powerful symbol. What does it say about the wearer?
A: Rather than focusing on the particularities of bulletproof product wearers, I have been more interested in taking a closer look at what the existence of this type of clothing might say about society. I consider the proliferation of guns, the contexts of violence, the prevalence of militarism, the role of consumer culture and marketization, and common attempts to address societal problems via individual “solutions” available for purchase.
There is not a single type of wearer, and when looking at the customer reviews on some of the websites, one can find concerned mothers and fathers, worried grandparents, loving husbands, former law enforcement members and others who see in these products a way to protect themselves or their loved ones and find “peace of mind” — which itself has become a precious commodity. Some speak with resignation, wishing they did not have to resort to such products, but they do not seem to imagine other ways of addressing the violence they fear.
Q: Have you ever tried wearing any of these items yourself?
A: Thanks for asking this question; it prompts me to highlight a key question I raise in my book: What does security mean to each of us? I have not worn these items myself, nor do I wish to do so. This is partly because I do not wish to live my life in armor, and I do not want to relate to others in armor (both literally and metaphorically). Rather than fitting ourselves in armor, I would hope that as a society we might collectively find other ways to care for one another and to change the social structures, ideologies, injustices, and policies that enable violence in the first place.