Urban Schlub: Redux

Yesterday’s April Fools post was, we hope you realize, firmly tongue in cheek. Satirical though we were being, we also hoped to make a point as well. Recent releases in the “tactical” clothing market, and some of the corresponding cool-guy marketing, have left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths. Not that any of the people involved are bad people, or that the clothiers make poor products, but some approaches run to silliness. There is a notion in this arena that some combination of overtly “tactical” and mundanely civilian is possible in clothes. Every so often one or another company comes out with some new clothing line, in flat dark colors, replete with velcro and cut very much like uniform wear or overt tactical garments, but marketed as discrete or covert. They use terms like “urban” to describe colors, and then load their marketing with pictures of “cool guys” in Oakleys, standing around trying to do their best to look like bad asses. Often these shots feature the supposedly discretely dressed heroes rocking sub-guns and other highly obvious hardware. And of course, everytime some new garment or ad campaign like this drops, the crowd goes wild. Facebook, Twitter and the blog circuit fire up with photos and commentary on how cool it all looks. Guys start talking about what a great concealed carry jacket this or that new item will be, or how much those new tactical pants will blend in with the hiking crowd.
Reality is that most of this genre of clothing is not, in fact, discrete. Discrete is not something that is cut like a uniform, colored like a uniform, and bedecked in velcro, pockets and d-rings, particularly not when said garment has a muscular Oakley wearing swivel-head stuffed into it. Color has less to do with it than design, and no color can make up for the inherent features in the design of a garment, or for the failures of the person wearing it.
We spend far too much time fussing about color and appearance while continuing to make less than discrete garments, and promote less than discreet behavior. The industry spends a lot of time marketing overt items, and overt behaviors, to people who actually need just the opposite. This encourages some of the worst behavior in regard to how armed individuals carry themselves and behave. It is behavior makes the man, not the clothes. Playing dress-up is all well and good, but we need to be honest with ourselves about how we look and how what we do makes us look.
Want to be discrete? Ignore this gray, or that flat dark earth, and wear whatever color garments you want. Everyone else does. And what should we do if we want to blend in, be discrete? Do what everyone else does.
At my local REI store, I took a survey of the colors of clothes (particularly outerwear and pants) hanging on the racks. It’s a rainbow, with lots of earth tones, lots of blacks and lots of flamboyant colors. Go to the clothes rack in a big box store, you’ll see much the same trend of colors all over the map, with more patterns thrown in.
People will tell you that only the earth tones are discrete, others will tell you that flat greens and tans look too military. Still others will say black clothes and gear screams “tactical”, while different folks will insist that black is the only thing that blends. Still more will tell you the only working middle ground is gray. Everyone has an idea of what blends into the urban environment, but no one seems to be actually looking around. Instead, we’re looking within a very small circle. We look at what trainers, guys we work with, and the guys in the adverts in tactical media are wearing, and we copy that. Of course, no matter how cool it looks (on that other guy), uniform cut urban-gray jackets and pants are not discrete. An generic brand jacket in whatever color your please over a checkered shirt and blue jeans is discrete, particularly if the guy or girl in it does their part.
Part of the point with Urban Schlub, even being a gag, was to show some less than tacti-cool clothes, colors and behaviors, while actually engaging in sound practices. You can look anywhere in the media for this industry and see guys with sub-guns and gas masks stalking around like bad asses, but other than making you want to look like a bad ass too, such broad gestures and simplistic images have no real value. How much more valuable is it to see a guy in a baby blue jacket, working some actual concepts of discretion and misdirection with his handling of tools? While showing a guy scratching his crotch may be gauche, did it occur to anyone that such a gesture is mere inches from an Appendix-IWB pistol? A gun under the arm is about as simple as “deceptive kinesics” can be, but did you miss it because it wasn’t a recognized form of cool? Did it occur to anyone that the newspaper is a discreet place to keep a knife, ready in hand?

We are often lead around by our noses by the media. Tactical media is no different. Much of what is put out does not foster consideration, and is often antithetical to good mindset. It encourages us to judge based on labels, colors and cool-guy markers, rather than more valuable cues. More, it encourages us away from recognition of subtlety, and towards only committing and perceiving very broad gestures. This is not good.
As consumers, we must start thinking more about what we’re fed, and how it influences our behavior. As producers (trainers, gear makers, all are producers) we must start thinking more about what we’re feeding our audiences, and how it’s getting twisted. We need to encourage, within ourselves, our students and our customers, more thought based action. More earnest, and grounded, evaluation of environments and practices. More sensitivity to, and ability to perform, the subtle. Cool names for stuff, and looking cool while doing cool things to make cool marketing campaigns remains, well, cool, but can’t we promote good ideas at the same time?

3 responses to “Urban Schlub: Redux”

  1. You know it has reached the heights of absurdity when ads for “tactical socks” and “tactical underwear” appear.

    Beyond the aspect of discreet or not discreet, a lot of the marketing seems to tout the supposed “ruggedness” of these “tactical” garments. Given that I manage to destroy 5.11 and Woolrich Elite pants in under a year, doing nothing that extreme, this is just another hyperbolic claim. Besides toning down the look of them, I wish manufacturers would use something more rugged than 100% cotton. If it’s no more durable than a pair of denim jeans, why not just buy a pair of denim jeans? If Filson pants have a reputation for lasting many, many years of weeks long hunting trips, why not buy a pair of them? If ruggedness is the aim, they seem like a more feasible option. Yes, they will look more like grandpa’s sunday slacks, but if looking discreet and durability are the important factors, they seem like the better option than all the “covert elite tactical special ops” pants out there.

    • BFE Labs says:

      The other aspect of “tactical” garments I’ve run into is that many of the designers must not be active people, because the fit ends up being uncomfortable during prolonged activity. I am more inclined these days, if even considering “rugged” cotton pants, to spend the $50 on a pair of REI or Kuhl rather than 5.11, because I know I’ll be able to walk, hike, climb-about and similarly have an active day in them in comfort. This is not true of all the “tactical” garment labels, I am sure, but it raises a question of confidence: If outdoors labels have proven designs, that really do the same things, why not buy those instead? This explains a lot of the success of Arc’Teryx in this market, to me.
      My rugged go-to pants are 90% blue jeans. Throw in a few pairs of Dickies dungaree carpenters jeans, and some desert-weight hiking pants in this or that super-fabric from REI or Mountain Hardwear, and I’ve mostly replaced my “tactical” pants. Am going to have to try ArborWear and the double-fronted Carharrts eventually, as I am quite fond of heavy-weight denim/canvases for rough use (particularly the abandoned mines, which are murder on 5.11 and their ilk).

      I have long felt that across the board, tactical clothiers are playing catch up with the major outdoor labels in terms of performance and design. There is a reason that real cool-guys have so long shown up in the same stuff serious outdoors nuts wear, Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia, and even the REI house-labels. This may be changing, but how long has it taken? 5.11 were great when they were climbers pants for rocky environments, then after the Colorado FBI got crazy about them and the designers saw a market, they were a nifty subtle pant for guys with guns, and then in short order, overdone fishermans/photographers vests that were passe and a solid tell before 5.11, and *poof* they were a monster crashing open the flood-gates. That all started about ten years ago now, wasn’t it?

      My view is skewed, I’ll be the first to admit. None of us here at BFE Labs are “tactical operators” or whatever. Our concern and POV is not from the environment where of course one looks like he or she is there to shoot people and break things. The overt “tactical” look is fully appropriate for such environs, and the worlds recognition of what that look even is comes from what is necessary for those individuals doing those things. Where we get our “tactical man-panties”(TM) in a bunch is when that look bleeds over to the “wear this everyday” segment. If you’re a plainclothes officer, a concealed carry permit holder, an outdoorsman, or even an honest-to-god sneaky-guy doing sneaky shit, you don’t need to look like the latest 5.11, Woolrich or LEAF cover-model. That look is as much a uniform as ACU’s, or a patrolmans blues.
      I think you’re right on with the Filson pants. I’d extend that to a much wider range of garments, upper and lower, outer and inner. If you’re serious about being subtle, you break the mold of your industry. Wear an oilskin jacket, rather than the latest bad-ass shell with a big name-brand logo right on the front. Guy in hiking boots, Oakleys and 5.11 jacket is probably carrying a gun: Guy in Filson pants and an oilskin, is probably some hapless fashion victim weirdo even if he is wearing Scarpas and Oakleys. I’ve got a real thing for mix and match elements that just present a confusing picture, rather than dressing to fit any particular image.
      And of course, behavior. Act like someone up to something, or trying so hard to be “covert” that you bleed, and people will notice you. Act like every other schlub, and they won’t. This tends to transcend what one wears, so long as one isn’t wearing a shoot-me-first suit of one sort or another.

      Of course, I am not an “operator”, just a guy who carries a gun and spends a lot of time in the woods and wildland/urban interfaces. My opinion is, perhaps, worth exactly the paper it is printed on: Nil.

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