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Lynsey Addario photographs SLA rebels in Darfur, Sudan.
ahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Why War Reporters Wear Flak Jackets and Fake Wedding Rings

Female conflict journalists dress for safety, for culture, and for comfort.

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After war correspondent Marie Colvin was killed in Syria in 2012, Vanity Fair ran a profile about her life: “Her nails were a perfect scarlet, and her double strand of pearls was a gift from Yasser Arafat… she wore a Prada black nylon quilted coat as camouflage.” But Colvin’s most memorable accessory wasn’t designer; it was a black eye patch worn after losing her sight to shrapnel.

Marie Colvin, in stylish cocktail attire and an eyepatch.
Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

Dismissed as a class, female war correspondents are often mythologized as individuals– their personal appearance included. Women were officially banned from the frontlines during WWII, but that didn’t stop trailblazers like Martha Gellhorn (portrayed by Nicole Kidman in 2012’s Hemingway & Gellhorn). When the Vietnam conflict started, more women reported from the field due to a loophole – the U.S. never officially declared war.

''Why should I be a footnote to somebody else's life?'' Gellhorn famously asked, refusing to be overshadowed by her relationship to Ernest Hemingway. But there was also the danger of Gellhorn becoming her own footnote: a woman in a man’s world first, and a reporter second.

War is not glamorous. War is not a style; ultimately, what you wear will preserve your life. And yet, the public is hungry to know the habits of women like Colvin and Gellhorn, even at the expense of rewarding their work. I talked to several female conflict reporters to find out what women really wear when covering war– and what these choices reflect about the rigor of their reporting.

“So much of how we communicate is in what we wear. There’s the cadence of your voice and your posture, the context in which you meet somebody, but I think what you wear is super important,” says May Jeong, who has reported on Afghanistan for the last five years. The award-winning journalist is currently a Visiting Scholar at the New York University Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Hostile environment training courses teach women to pay attention to their wardrobe, but can’t cover all regional specifics, Jeong says.

“They teach you the importance of dressing conservatively, but they don’t teach you how to wrap a hijab,” adds Erin Banco, my former International Business Times (IBT) colleague, who has reported from Syria, Iraq, and Gaza. She is the author of The Plundering of Iraq’s Oil Wealth (Columbia Global Reports, 2017). Women at risk for kidnapping are advised to bring a fake wedding ring and baby pictures to create empathy with the kidnappers, says Banco. Regional knowledge gaps are filled by more experienced reporters and local women – often the female family members of the drivers and fixers that are integral to a foreign correspondent’s safety.

“If you want to actually pass as an Afghan, you need to undo everything that you’ve been taught,” says Jeong, “Most Afghans will say they can tell whether someone underneath the burka is a Westerner or an Afghan just by the way women carry themselves.” Like local women, Jeong uses a plastic duty-free bag to carry her phone, notebook, passport facsimile, money, and a snack — blending in just as easily as a New Yorker with a Trader Joe’s tote.

However, there is a common denominator across all conflict reporting – the flak jacket. These armored vests, which can be difficult to obtain, are often passed down from freelancer to freelancer. They are typically labelled with the wearer’s name and blood type (over duct tape, if it’s a hand-me-down.) “I signed my first will in a flak jacket, holding my helmet in my left hand,” award-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario writes in her memoir, It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War (Penguin Books, 2015).

May Jeong in a head wrap in front of historic Afghanistan fortress Chehel Burj.
Photo: Graeme Smith

Banco has her own darkly humorous image involving a flak jacket: “I was living in Istanbul and I went back to Iraq. My mom had to buy a velcro thing that said ‘press’ on it and hot glue gun it onto my flak jacket and then send it to me in Istanbul.” A lifeline prepared with the casual ceremony of a Girl Scout badge.

Physical courage, despite its central position in American culture, is still treated as an aberration in women who put themselves in harm’s way. This effect is amplified by conservative norms abroad. “I was androgynous, a third, undefined sex,” Addario writes.

In 2003, when Kim Barker volunteered to go to Afghanistan, she told her editor at The Chicago Tribune, “I have no kids and no husband, so I’m expendable.” Barker was later portrayed by Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a movie based on Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle (Anchor, 2011). Forthcoming portrayals include Carey Mulligan as Kate Webb – who survived 23 days of captivity in Vietnam – and Rosamund Pike in a movie about Marie Colvin, a depiction based on the aforementioned Vanity Fair article. Addario’s memoir will be directed by Steven Spielberg; she’ll be played by Jennifer Lawrence. But the glorification of individual correspondents by Hollywood just makes snubs to their cohort offscreen even more obvious.

Martha Gellhorn talks to Indian soldiers of the British Army in 1944.
Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

“When it comes to winning prizes for their work female foreign correspondents are stuck in the last century,” Christina Asquith writes in The Atlantic. (The recent naming of Christiane Amanpour — who began her career covering the Iran-Iraq war — to fill Charlie Rose’s PBS slot was long overdue.) “Ironically, one of the worst discrepancies occurred in the case of the Martha Gellhorn Prizes, named in honor of the most famous female war correspondent of the 20th century. The organization has awarded prizes to 19 men but only to four women,” Asquith explains.

Recently translated biography Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend (Other Press, 2017) by Cristina De Stefano contains a particularly evocative anecdote about Italian correspondent Oriana Fallaci. Fallaci goes to confront a senior, male colleague about a comment he’s made about her. “[The colleague] jokingly places a revolver on the desk between them. Without blinking an eye, Oriana places her lipstick next to it.” Much like the 5′ 0″ Joan Didion, Fallaci’s diminutive stature was part of her mystique — even to her biographer. “Her voice is low, slightly hoarse from cigarettes, and her physique will remain slender throughout her life, without the need for dieting or exercise,” writes De Stefano. But the incident with the lipstick reveals how Fallaci viewed herself: as a writer armed with something more than brute strength.

The women I talked to have a routine packing list for trips to the field. Their femininity matters little – and yet, their femaleness matters totally. “There is the effort to blend in that stems from a very strong place of wanting to survive,” says Jeong, “But also we are women and we want to look good, and that plays into the work we do in mysterious ways.” She’s developed deep brand affinities based on pieces that fit the demands of her lifestyle – namely, Aritzia leggings, Wolford tights, and Blundstone boots.

Italian journalist and writer Oriana Fallaci smoking a cigarette wearing helmet and flak jacket in the 1980s.
Mondadori via Getty Images

Amanda Sperber, who splits her time between Mogadishu and Nairobi, swears by Elta sunscreen and lotion so that she doesn’t have to wear a wide-brimmed hat that would distance her from her subjects. Stymied by a faulty zipper, she once sliced her beloved Birkenstocks from the top of her hiking backpack to relieve her feet from boots in 110 degree desert heat. Unfortunately, “they don’t make the parts anymore,” so this incision remains. All of the women swear by large packs of wet wipes to combat the sandy climate and maintain good hygiene.

“The only thing I really cared about was bringing comfy pajamas,” says Banco. “I am a creature of comfort with my clothing because my life is not comfortable.” The familiarity of fuzzy socks and an old soccer t-shirt can be stabilizing when the work of confronting trauma becomes mentally taxing. “I think clothing can be a way of self-soothing,” Banco says. “Things that make you feel like yourself. Or make you feel like you’re not a batshit crazy person.” Her typical uniform while abroad is a mixture of tunic-like shirts, jeans, and cargo pants. When she returns home, these items occupy the bottom two drawers of her dresser. Sperber also has a section of her closet dedicated to war zone clothes – including custom-made muumuus that got a surprisingly positive reception from her friends in New York.

After confronting the plight of refugees and the results of famine and shelling, after existing on heightened adrenaline and candy bars, after speaking to family through poor Skype connections — returning home presents another hurdle. Clothing can ease this transition – even as it makes a Western woman acutely aware of her privilege. “If I ask my driver to go out and buy me a pair of two dollar sandals, I can buy ten of those,” says Jeong. To dress like an Afghan woman is a departure from her own wardrobe, not the extent of it. “They’re not playacting; that is their life. And I am intruding on their life for a specific purpose. And then I leave.”

Many correspondents feel a duty to sources, fixers and drivers – whether that’s helping them fill out immigration visas or crowdfunding for medical care. “I had the privilege to travel and to walk away from hardship when it became too much to bear. Most people on earth didn’t have an exit door to walk away from their own lives,” writes Addario. When you’ve chosen an uncomfortable existence for so long, what does it mean to be the type of person that chooses something else?

Erin Banco in Jordan at the Zaatri refugee camp.
Photo: Courtesy of Erin Banco.

Although Sperber has a house in cosmopolitan Nairobi, she still finds herself way behind on trends. When returning to the US or Europe, she orders clothing from Uniqlo, J. Crew, and Anthropologie in advance to wherever she’s staying. “I’m always excited to come home anyway, but I’m excited to get home and open my packages.”

Banco doesn’t like shopping and uses subscription service Stitch Fix to refresh her wardrobe. On the day we meet for dinner she is wearing some of the same pieces she wore overseas. “There’s something about putting on the clothes that you had these big experiences in that makes you feel like your old self,” she says. “My clothes still smell like the desert.”

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