Poppy Bling

2 Nov

One of the laudable initiatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was that all gravestones for British, British Empire and British Commonwealth soldiers would be the same. So a highly decorated general would have the same gravestone as a lowly private. The standard headstones (in Portland stone) made a magnificent statement: all sacrifices were equal (http://www.1914-1918.net/readcemetery.html). Rank and status did not matter when it came to death.

If you walk among the thousands of headstones in cemeteries maintained by the CWGC in France and Belgium then it is possible to see graves marking people of all ranks next to one another: A major next to a private next to a corporal. All the gravestones contain basic information: name, regiment, rank, number, decorations and date of death. They are usually adorned with a simple cross (other religious symbol such as the Star of David) and in some cases there is a religious inscription along the bottom. Most also have the crest of the regiment to which the soldier belonged.

The standardized headstones are a striking act of egalitarianism and stand in marked contrast to the dominant ethos of the military (highly stratified through ranks) and British society (and the seriousness with which it takes class). They set the tone for remembrance that was humane and saw the loss of a soldier (general or private) as a common tragedy with individual parts.

But over the past few years it is noticeable that the other “equal” act of commemoration, the wearing of the poppy in the weeks leading up to the 11 November Armistice Day commemoration, has become under threat from massive variations in the style of poppy. The wearing of the poppy (signifying the fields of northern France where so many young men lost their lives in WWI) began in 1921 and is very popular in the UK. The standard poppy is a simple stiff card and plastic affair, with the money from their sale each autumn going to the Royal British Legion, an organization that looks after servicemen and women and their families. It has become noticeable, especially on television, that the standard poppy is not good enough. Many “celebrities” and presenters wear modified poppies that are actually fashion jewelry: they (the poppies) glitter and sparkle and compete with one another to be more glamorous than the next. The standardized symbol becomes enlarged, adorned and decorative. In one variation, the green cardboard sprig behind the poppy flower has been replaced by a gold sprig.

With much else in society, many individuals and groups want distinctive materialistic displays. This is what the fashion, and to a certain extent jewelry and car, industries rely on. Yet it seems incongruous that the poppy becomes just another fashion accessory, something to ‘jazz up’ an outfit and add a little sparkle. It may be that the wearer/manufacturer of the more elaborate poppies give more money to the poppy appeal fund. I simply do not know. But the price seems very expensive – a retreat from the egalitarian notion behind a sombre homogenous symbol of commemoration. Despite the high monetary price of the pimped-up poppies, they seem to devalue the symbol.

None of this is to engage with the other debate on whether or not people should wear the traditional red poppy or the white poppy (favoured by pacifists) or indeed on the line between commemoration and celebration. It is, instead, to wonder about the motivations behind ‘poppy bling’ and the reduction of a symbol into a fashion accessory.

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One Response to “Poppy Bling”

  1. Marie Breen-Smyth 02/11/2014 at 6:00 pm #

    Can I just say that I favour the white poppy, not because I am a pacifist, which I am not, but because it offers the possibility of remembering ALL casualties of war, including civilians, who make up the majority of casualties in most cases. It also makes a statement about the increasing militarisation of remembrance which alienates me greatly. Although I am not a pacifist, neither am I an advocate of war. Armed intervention is always a last and reluctant resort and to be be avoided if at all possible. Those who make money and careers out of war should not to be put in charge of decisions to go or not to go to war. And so when red poppies are used by them to drum up business, it offends me. So I wear a white poppy. That’s all.

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