Peace Out

It’s the hand gesture of choice for thousands of Intstagrammers, but where did the ubiquitous two-fingered peace sign come from?

Winston Churchill, John Lennon, Japanese teenagers in the 1980s, Barack Obama and Miley Cyrus all have one thing in common: they share a preferred pose for the cameras. But this two-fingered (and, crucially) palm-out hand gesture is a master of reinvention, signaling different things to different people throughout the past century.

The most solid sources date the non-sweary palm-out rendition back to WWII, when in January 1941 Victor de Laveleye, formerly Belgian Minister of Justice, urged the resistance movement to use “V for victoire” as a rallying emblem. “The occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, understands that he is surrounded,” he declared in a BBC broadcast. The BBC promptly launched a “V for Victory” campaign and by the summer of 1941 Winston Churchill was giving the salute at speeches and rallies. Then in 1942, French military general Charles de Gaulle followed suit. Anytime there was an allied leader and a news camera in the same place, the two fingers shot up.

A couple of decades later, President Richard Nixon used it to signal victory during the Vietnam War. Victory, of course, proved elusive, so he got a lot of practice at this. And along the way, the signal was appropriated by anti-war protestors. Quite how this happened is murky, lost in the haze of pot smoke and incense, but by the late 1960s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were employing the V as a gesture of peace. It wasn’t the ‘V-for-victory’ sign anymore; it was the ‘peace sign’.

The gesture had always been associated with mugging for the camera, a reliable visual motif and means of getting your political message across in the press. And in the 1970s – as Nikon and Konica began manufacturing cameras for the mass market – the pose popped up on advertising billboards, most notably in a brilliantly cheesy commercial featuring the popstar Jun Inoue.

Around the same time, Japan found its poster-girl for all-American cuteness in the figure skater Janet Lynn, who fell on the ice during her bid for gold at the 1972 Olympics in Japan. She and a TV audience of millions immediately knew she’d blown it, but the 18-year-old blonde in a coral leotard scrambled up as gracefully as she could, smiled and continued her routine – and promptly stole the hearts of Japanese viewers. Overnight, Lynn became a celebrity in Japan, her sweet smile and blonde pixie-cut epitomising charm and cuteness for an entire generation, and the two-fingered anti-war gesture she employed as a form of mild activism in press photos was widely copied. This coincided with a boom in girls’ magazines in Japan, peddling a strong “kawaii” (cute) aesthetic; cuteness rapidly became the feminine ideal in Japan.

And so the hand signal morphed from a wartime rallying call to a plea for peace, only to be stripped of all political meaning and repackaged as ‘cute’ – something to alleviate the awkwardness of posing for a camera. But in Japan, looking kawaii is a big deal. Danny Choo, the British-born Malaysian Chinese pop-culture commentator (and son of Jimmy) puts it simply: “I find it awesome when cute girls do it.” The meaning of the peace-sign may have changed, but it’s always been associated with one thing: posing for pictures. And in Instagram’s age of overexposure, the peace-sign is everywhere, a visual hand-shake. It’s been rendered into an emoji, it’s on slogan tees and album covers. But will it ever mean more than a posing prop ever again? Given its shape-shifting past, we’d be unwise to underestimate it. Give the peace-sign five years, and let’s see what it means then.