A Peace of History
The historical evaluation of a fashionable symbol
We know it as one of the most easily recognizable symbols in the history of the world; a circularly encompassed vertical line that is separated into three branches toward its base. It is a symbol of harmony, of reconciliation and of Cultural Revolution: It is a peace sign.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the symbol is now a prominent motif in popular fashion. Making a revival since its initial North American breakthrough during the 1960’s, the peace sign is best known as an emblem of a socio-cultural transformation. During this decade, the image was used as a badge of protest for a generation of anti-war activists. Fashion became a medium of personal expression and the peace sign was a prevalent embellishment. Although it was featured on the apparel and accessories of the time, the image was first and foremost an indicator of the counter-cultural revolution. More than 40 years later, the symbol is still recognized as such, however, it has since undergone a shift in its application. Rather than being worn as a banner for change, it is printed on scarves, hung off of bracelets and studded on the behind of jeans as a fashion trend. This re-appropriation marks one of several throughout the history of the peace sign; however, it is seemingly the first instance where politics have been removed.
According to the book A Biography of a Symbol written by Ken Kolsbun in 2008, the peace sign was originally designed in London, just after the Second World War as an image to protest nuclear warfare. The symbol itself is an artistic interpretation of letters from the semaphore alphabet; the inverted “V” to represent the letter “N” and the vertical line to represent the letter “D” (Nuclear Disarmament). Both of these letters are surrounded by a circle to represent the globe. Its history is entrenched with contestation, struggle and conflict; so what does this mean for the wearers of these jewel-studded jeans? Does the contemporary fashion industry have a responsibility to acknowledge this history? Or has the symbol become an image of pop-culture wherein the power of its meaning diminishes over time as a result of over-saturation?
Katherine Westcott’s article for the BBC News in March 2008 proclaims that “the real power of the sign [...] is the reaction it provokes – both from fans and from detractors.” At a point in the history of its use, the symbol met strong resistance by social critics who believed that it represented communism and/or anti-religious movements. For these reasons, the symbol was prevented from re-creation in mass-fashion, and as a consequence of fears and allegations, the peace sign befell a powerful reputation. Its use in today’s apparel provokes the question of whether the contemporary fashion industry’s use of the symbol (as an aesthetic motif) has eradicated its power, or has the industry simply exposed that the peace sign is no longer as socially and politically esteemed as it once was?
Conversely, Westcott also exclaims that the symbol “is in danger of becoming, to many people, a retro [...] item” and that its modern use has deviated from its original purpose. With this being said, the fashion industry can perhaps be regarded as a social platform and accredited with reviving the peace sign and re-arousing communal interest. The re-production of the symbol for a mass audience places it once again in the domain of public awareness. Nevertheless, does lack of a negative counter-reaction conclusively indicate that the mark is simply a fleeting, fashionable fad rather than a socio-political message of hope and change?
Regardless of its longevity, and as A Biography of a Symbol goes on to explain, the peace sign was never registered as a trademark by the CDN (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) after its initial adaptation in the 1950’s. As a result, the symbol is technically open to several uses because as Westcott’s article indicates, “a symbol of freedom is free for all.” Therefore in spite of the current fashion industry’s fleeting visual interest in the sign, its application will continue to contribute to the ever-changing history of such an extraordinarily rich symbol.