“Man is a creature who who is designed to live on the surface; he lives in the depths at his peril.” Susan Sontag
I was inspired by a wonderful blog called An Affordable Wardrobe to write my own admittedly idiosyncratic thoughts on dress. Where I agree with that blog is in the writer's belief that there is something childish about contemporary dress. This childish attitude was best expressed by an indignant woman I overheard complaining about having to dress like a grownup and wishing she could be a child. One upon a time, people aspired to maturity and it was considered a real ritual when a boy first wore long pants. But as we shall see there is something rather darker in our dress than a desire to regress in age.
Everyone really does dress the same today and for the most part its dreadful. Tom Wolfe put it best when he quipped, “people wear rags practically and they look like the are fleeing an invading army.”
Indeed, we can usefully draw out an implication in Wolfe’s comment (whether he intended what follows or not). What has happened for about thirty years or so is that people choose for everyday leisure wear clothes originally intended for the roughest of menial labor - in the dirt, factory or farm etc. - and sport (football). And in a semiotic sense it does seem that fleeing the invading army is an apt metaphor as this is clothing for apocalyptic minded times (global warming and terrorism). This is clothing that must be low maintenance in the extreme and have about it an air of indestructibility. The denim revolution of the nineties, with its newer fabrications certainly did not help matters.
But the worst offenders are, at least in matters sartorial, as always, the males of the species, befitting that portion of humanity historically and biologically geared towards hard physicality, adventure and combat. Not only do they affect a uniformity with their sculpted facial hair, buzz cut, and the obligatory tight t-shirts to better show off their gym induced upper body charms. But when a man dresses up, there is scarce improvement. They tend to opt for a garish printed shirt and insist on it’s being worn outside the pants, so that the tails flop about. And the pants are tight black trousers of a sort that could only go by the name of slacks, at least the associations of the word slacks in, say, 1975, as the terms trousers or pants seem off the mark for so low lying, hip hugging a garment.
One of the worst features of fashion in recent history is its penchant for the extreme gesture: if twenty years ago clothing was too large and oversized; today, as if in reaction, it is far too tight and fitted. But neither mode looks good on most real human bodies, as it has been designed not for anyone in particular but rather for some abstract Platonic ideal of sexual fantasy. All the hoopla over metrosexuality and queer culture hides the fact that contemporary gay males, in their designer hoodies, are wearing clothing scarcely better their clueless, straight male brethren, or indeed their little brothers. They just have slightly better haircuts, have showered more thoroughly, paid more attention to nails and nose hair and so on.
One of the most striking historical developments is a kind of devolution in dress. For men, as recently as forty years ago, the minimum uniform of presentability was at the very least an odd sport coat. Now, in some of the most affluent offices in the developed world men go about in their shirtsleeves, a decision of public presentation that in that earlier time would have been viewed as almost equivalent to going about in one’s underwear. Now the mere shirt is considered dressing up. The lounge suit has replaced formal wear, and formal wear appears all but extinct, save for some very special and temporally specific ceremonial occasions.
It is no small matter that clothing is in a bad way. For one thing, our clothing is a major thing with which people are faced in dealing with us. Unless our onlookers are blind, much of what they see will be the raiment that covers our nakedness. For another, the degree to which people push the uglier side of go-to-hell casualness, suggests something more disturbing. One could blame Punk and Grunge and other musical movements in this regard, but in truth the spirit of ugly clothing is not anti-fashion but more specifically anti-beauty. It is clothing that wants to exclaim and announce its resentment of and hatred for anything associated with the beautiful. In the past clothing aspired upwards, essentially to royalty. For men this meant they wanted to dress like Cary Grant or their fathers. The reverse, dress copying the style of the street, is relatively new, and forgets that once the poor would wear bad clothing because they had no choice.
All of which leads us to conclude that this extreme dreadful casualization of dress is in a generous spirit, that it is a product of the left politically. In short, that it offers a humbled, homely clothing as a rejection of the rich man’s wares and a statement against what seems economically wasteful in an unequal society.
But I remember a cover of the New York Times Magazine which complicated this sensible intuition. It was a story on fundamentalist and evangelical Christian youth and wouldn’t you know it, but all of the teens on the cover looked identical to the sort of secular youth you would see at a Phish or Radiohead concert. They both don the same worn jeans and t shirts. This is quite a revolution in dress. Recently we had grown to understand that dress was a semiotic indicator of a clan, tribe, or identity and affiliation. What does it mean when opposing or distant identities wear identical dress? What does it mean for people to reject the surface so completely as being of any consequence? Or perhaps the far left and right are identical in a puritanical rejection of finery and consumption more generally and this bonds the Christian to the Hardcore Punk. This last conclusion seems to make the most sense since both the secular far left and religious right are united in being generally against that which is "this-wordly", and look to a world elsewhere, either after some kind of revolution on an earthly basis, or disembodied eternity on a heavenly basis.
But as Sontag reminded us, (and Oscar Wilde before her) the surface is far more important that we realize. Indeed it is the one thing, much like architecture, which we cannot escape.