I’ve long been afflicted with a kind of reverse snobbery about clothes, inclined to boast about how cheaply I got something at Savers or Value Village, or to flaunt the fact I got my pants at Kmart, or to proclaim proudly my plans to reduce my wardrobe to a uniform, what I like call the Mormon missionary look—short-sleeve off-white button-down shirt, tan khaki pants, brown shoes; or light-blue button-down, gray pants and black shoes. I have items in regular rotation that I’ve owned since Bush I’s administration, and I’d be happy to freeze my closet in its current state and continue to wear these same clothes forever. I pretend to be baffled by any notion that wearing clothes can be anything other than utilitarian and aspire to a perfectly authentic existence entirely free of fashion.
Of course, I’m affected by fashion in more ways than I can even admit to myself, and one of the reasons I hate being photographed is an effort to prevent there being a documentary record of the incremental ways my style has changed. And my feelings about the subject aren’t driven by a sense of superiority or any kind of contempt for frivolity or anything like that; it’s driven by stark fear, fear of people like Dov Charney, the impresario responsible for American Apparel, profiled in this largely entertaining article from the NYT Magazine. Here’s someone who lives entirely in the surface world of style, of snap judgments based on inexpressible and seemingly arbitrary gradations of charisma and hipness.
What Charney is seeking is an elusive quality he can refer to only as “style.” When you have it, it’s immediately evident; you’re “on point.” Among other things, people with style are good at sussing out other people with style, and Charney counts on a small style council to keep him apprised of good locations for his stores, to scout models and to help him know when and how to introduce new clothing items or modify existing ones.
In practice this means identifying this type: “In an updated 21st-century way, the American Apparel ideal is Charney’s Young Metropolitan Adult, the hottie (male or female) from the ‘hood, whom you might see walking down the street, at the local coffee shop or working behind the counter at an American Apparel store.” Charney calls them Young Metropolitan Adults. I tend to call them hipsters, or something with expletives in it, because these people when they infiltrate a neighborhood you like to go or live in, make you uncomfortable there. They ruin the spontaneity of life by making spontaneity seem like a packaged product. They operate as if they are always on display, always being evaluated by the fashion police, the cool hunters Charney hires. Whether conscious of it or not, they serve to make others feel like losers (if not merely old and irrelevant); this gives them their own social purpose and value. Though you might be going about your business blissfully unaware of yourself, the presence of these YMAs make you feel like you are suddenly being scrutinized as well, they remind you of the essentially arbitrary unfairness of social judgment and how difficult it is to escape it and how it can really ruin your life despite being plainly unjust. (Is this injustice merely the inevitable fact of aging and mortality? Perhaps. But there are elder hipsters too.)
Think of those creepy ads American Apparel runs—they are seductive and wholly repellent at the same time. Both smug and sleazy, the ads present hormonal youth as something strictly cynical and exploitational—as though youth itself were created by marketing wizards. The world pictured is both preposterously intimate and totally exclusionary; you’ll never be on that ratty couch with that sweaty girl in guy’s underwear even though her expression beckons you—or is that mockery? Who wants to be like these people? Who finds these people benign?
In my nightmares, the world is run by people like this, a fashion gestapo who decide who is in and out of society. Style becomes some kind of predestination, and culture is a quasi-Calvinistic realm where one must constantly display the grace you secretly hope God has granted you, which would make your grace then unquestionable. One must forever work hard to seem effortlessly natural—to me this is the ultimate in anxiety, a spiraling abyss of self-analysis and shame and pretension and phoniness and endless humiliation. To guys like Charney and his youth goon squad, this is utopia.
Charney seems to believe that the style he markets—the article’s author calls it “pervy”—is an expression of the liberating energy of the next generation that, just like the Boomers had, will change everything. At the end of the article Charney offers this manifesto: “This is the way the adult generation is going to live. They’re not preoccupied by monogamy. Exciting things can happen. They’re mobile; they can travel; they’re willing to take chances; they’re open-minded and ready for change. That’s what the boomers presented for America, and that’s what this new generation presents for us. I want to be in business with them.” For this generation, as Charney imagines them in his ads anyway, everything seems to boil down to a sexualized offhandedness—“Oh, I’m in my underwear? Whatever. Want to have a threesome?”—that is supposed to pass for progressiveness.
My fear of fashion in general, which often wants to pass along the timeless rituals of sexual attraction as innovative novelty, as something that young people have a monopoly over, stems from this. Fashion relies on youth to enchant its wares with the allure of the impossible, with a desire that is unquenchable and ever-renewable—we can’t ever be young again or remain that way, but fashion continues to promise access to youth while configuring youth as superficial and sexual and at the same time entirely complete, itself without desire. Fashion is the means by which the old try to revenge themselves on the young, by turning young people into “youthfulness” and encouraging them to think of themselves as being without desire, as being sexual automatons. I want no part of that generational warfare, but when l’m confronted with fashion I start to feel like I’m already a casualty.