My main professional association, the American Sociological Association, recently referred a freelance writer to me. She is working on a story on the rise of bulletproof fashion for Racked.com, a style and fashion website owned by Vox Media. I asked her to send me her questions and I answered them in writing, as reproduced below.
Question and Answer on Bulletproof Fashion
Q1: We have observed a growing trend of retailers offering bulletproof apparel, sometimes quite high-end, in the United States. What’s your initial reaction to that idea – the concept of high-end bulletproof fashion – as well as to the fact that it’s becoming more popular? Were you already aware of this trend? What do you see as the appeal of a high-end piece of bulletproof fashion, such as a suit, versus a standard vest?
I have heard about bulletproof apparel but it is a niche market so I have not paid it much attention. I do know that bulletproof vests and other accessories (e.g., backpacks with compartments for armor panels) are becoming more common, but those cannot easily be used in many situations. For example, we were all subjected (or treated, depending on your perspective) to the scene of Jared Kushner wearing a flak jacket over his blazer in Iraq. But, alas, no belt.
So, the idea of bulletproof fashion make sense for a person who has to dress up or wear business attire and feels they may be a likely target for criminal attack or especially an assassination attempt. This could be a prominent politician, businessperson, news media or other celebrity, or even a sociologist who promotes certain ideas about gun culture.
Q2: One example is a man who started his bulletproof apparel line in Colombia in the 1990s when homicides were frequent; now that the homicide rate has gone down there, he’s launching his business in the United States, which he sees as a more lucrative and expanding market. What are your thoughts on this? What does it say about our country that a product originally developed in a war-torn country is now more marketable here?
Q3: Statistically, gun violence has been going down in the United States over the past few decades, but this bulletproof apparel trend would indicate that fear of gun violence is increasing. Do you think this is solely due to mass shootings? What other contributing factors do you see?
I think that these two questions are related, because even in war-torn Colombia, bulletproof apparel is not something that is widely accessible to the masses. Both in the US and Colombia, this product is going to be attractive to people who can afford it (e.g., a Miguel Caballero armor t-shirt for 2,000 Euros). These are people, as noted above, who are especially likely to be victims of crime, either in connection with robbery because they have resources or assassination for their beliefs. So the fact that the US is not war-torn as Colombia was is not relevant to the elites who are likely to buy bulletproof apparel.
Beyond elites, within gun culture, people understand that you can lower your risk of being a victim of violence by observing the “Rules of Stupid”: Don’t go stupid places with stupid people at stupid times and do stupid things. However, even someone who follows these rules religiously can be victimized, even during a time when overall gun violence has been declining (though rising in the past couple of years).
This violence could be a random thug in a parking lot or a terrorist attack in a church, at a concert, or on a bike path. Although these events are low odds, they are high stakes or consequence, so some choose to prepare for the worst. With respect to guns, it is a version of Pascal’s Wager: It’s better to have a gun and not need it, than to need a gun and not have it. The same can be said for bulletproof apparel being worn by those who are not military or law enforcement. A common member of American gun culture with sufficient means could turn to bulletproof apparel “just in case.” Those without means who want something similar will probably continue to acquire traditional body armor, which doesn’t do them any good in their day to day lives, but could be useful under certain extraordinary circumstances.
Q4: What does it say about citizens’ perceived level of their own safety? Do you think it reflects a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to keep its citizens safe? Have you found that more people are taking a more pro-active approach to their personal safety?
Beyond bulletproof apparel, the self-defense core of contemporary American gun culture heavily promotes the idea that you are your own first responder. Sayings like “I carry a gun because I can’t carry a cop” and “When seconds count police are just minutes away” reflect this sensibility.
It is why people of means have their own private security to protect them. And whether you fear kidnapping or assassination, or everyday violence or random acts of terrorism, you can’t entrust the police to protect you proactively.
Q5: Do you think the presence of this new apparel category should offer a sense of security to citizens, or should it be reason to be even more concerned?
As a continuation of the many things people do to try to make themselves safer, I don’t think bulletproof fashion should raise any more concern than the longstanding existence of home alarm systems (including the good old K9) or people carrying firearms for self-defense (even before the liberalization of concealed carry laws in the past 30 years).
The real wildcard that has come up since 9/11/2001 is the possibility of a random terrorist attack on US soil. The ability to don bulletproof apparel might offset to some extent the increased sense of insecurity caused by terrorism, but it doesn’t protect you from a plane attack (Twin Towers), a bombing (Boston Marathon), or a car attack (NYC bike path).
Q6: What does it say that the majority of these fashions cater to men? There are also more male gun owners than female gun owners in the United States. In general, do men view/approach their personal safety differently than women? If so, how?
Q7: Specifically relating to gun violence, do men view/approach their personal safety differently than women? If so, how? Are they more likely to believe that a shooting will occur or that they will be targets? Or do they feel a responsibility to protect others should a shooting occur?
Again, two closely related question so one answer. Historically, men have played the role of protectors in society as a whole, in communities, and in families. So, men are more likely to find themselves in harm’s way. They are more likely to be assaulted and killed in everyday criminal violence, and more likely to occupy the positions of economic, political, or cultural power that would make them targets for extraordinary violence. Men are also more likely to put themselves in harm’s way, as armed professionals (military, law enforcement, private security) or as “masculine protectors” of their own families and communities. Therefore, there is good reason for the bulletproof apparel industry to focus on products for men.
In this way, it is like the firearms industry. Most of gun accessories (especially clothing and holsters) are designed by and for men. They simply do not work well for women. There are parallels here no doubt to the bulletproof apparel industry. Women’s fashions are different than men’s AND they change more quickly. So the task of designing bulletproof apparel for women is much harder.
As more women get involved in gun culture, however, there are more companies (frequently woman-led) that focus on products for women. It may be that having some female designers and stakeholders involved will speed the process of designing such apparel for women.
Q8: What do you see as the future of this fashion category? Do you think it will become more mainstream in coming years? Why or why not?
I’m not sure that this sort of apparel is common enough to be considered a fashion “category” but I can imagine that technological developments will drive the cost of apparel like this down and make it more mainstream, even if it never becomes completely mainstream.
I can foresee the cost of some items – e.g., an undershirt or hoodie – coming down enough that a significant number of people would considering buying one or two. But I don’t see them getting so cheap that most people have them. Right now, in terms of fashion I think of bulletproof apparel as being more bespoke (in cost if not in manufacturing). When the costs come down to prêt-à-porter levels, it will probably settle at Saks or Nieman Marcus price points rather than Macy’s. It will never be at the H&M or Uniqlo level, though.