Making the rounds today was this piece by George F. Will, a smart fellow whose work I have read and enjoyed for decades. It pains me to write this, because it reminds me of the times we woke Grandpa because he fell asleep smoking, and his column of Winston ash was in danger of toppling into his lap. But Mr. Will should be gently guided away from the keyboard when he decides to winch himself down from Olympus and write about popular culture.
In this installment he decides to go after “denim,” a newfangled fabric that has been scaring the horses and causing scandal on the Boardwalk. Adults shouldn’t wear “demon denim,” as the title calls it. Gentle advice: when you have a pointy head, donning a dunce cap just doubles the problem.
Writer Daniel Akst has noticed and has had a constructive conniption. He should be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has earned it by identifying an obnoxious misuse of freedom. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he has denounced denim, summoning Americans to soul-searching and repentance about the plague of that ubiquitous fabric, which is symptomatic of deep disorders in the national psyche.
I think his tongue is lodged partway cheek-wise because calling the choice of a comfortable fabric “an obnoxious misuse of freedom” is akin to demanding people rip out their iPod earbuds and partake in the glorious impromptu symphony of modern life. You can certainly use the words repentance, plague, and deep disorders in a column about modern ills, but insufficiently stiff trousers doesn’t seem to merit the big guns.
Perhaps it’s a humor column, then.
It is, he says, a manifestation of “the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby.”
There are two points in the quote. For one thing, undifferentiated dressing was the hallmark of the past: take a look at the old photos of baseball games, and behold the sea of straw boaters. You could express your individuality with a tie, but otherwise men wore a uniform. I agree that the old days of mandatory suits tended to push the fashion standard up, not down – the old suits may have been thin and shiny around the elbows, but they were still part of a code, and belonged to a style that encouraged sophistication. If you could afford it. There’s something to be said for the suit, the way it seems to infuse the occupant with a sense of duty and adulthood, however dim and tinny they may be nowadays.
It’s the difference between the Ought and the Want cultures, as David Gelernter put it, and it’s something I’ve argued with myself about for some time. I yearn for elements of the Ought culture, but I don’t want to wear a suit in an era without air conditioning. I’m soft as a grape, it seems. I love the era of fine hats, but I know I would have looked like someone in a Munchkin production of “The Maltese Falcon.” Like most, I want a little more of the old cohesion, but want it loosened up here and there to accommodate the things I like. Buffet conservatism, I suppose. I think we’d have been better off if the Great Thinkers of the 60s hadn’t been so eager to upend the Etch-A-Sketch, and we had evolved towards certain positions instead of having the norms dynamited. Ought has power; if the boomers were vampires, Ought was their cross, dewy with holy water.
As for contemporary undifferentiated dressing: We all may wear jeans now, but judging from my recent trip to Disneyworld, we all wear different shirts with an astonishing array of logos, corporate identities, slogans, pictures and other examples of personal expression. No one strives to look equally shabby. Shabbiness may be the end result, but people are keenly interested in carving out a particular niche identity on the front of their shirts.
Denim reflects “our most nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings — the ones that prompted all those exurban McMansions now sliding off their manicured lawns and into foreclosure.”
God, what nonsense that is. No one wears jeans because they want to emulate the Humble Yeoman, or they’d be tromping around in Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls. The last time we had nostalgic agrarian longings was the early 70s, and that resulted in sack dresses and Earth shoes. Nostalgia for the farm was long ago replaced with forward-looking reverence for the Earth, a deified and idealized organism in constant peril from our viral existence. No one wears jeans because they want to harken back to the agrarian past, but they wear jeans made from organic fibers because they want to point the way to a sustainable future in which the planet is not imperiled by chemicals designed to neuter the boll weevil.
As for the “McMansions” – a lazy term that means “houses I don’t like” – I’d guess that the stats show foreclosures are highest in those new developments that packed expensive houses close together, not the exurb developments built for people who had the credit and the income to qualify for a good loan. Around here, the majority of the foreclosure are in the old inner-city neighborhoods, but that’s another story. Although I’m sure they wear denim there too. For that matter, I’ve seen pictures of George Bush in jeans; the Crawford ranch ought to be on the auction block soon.
Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not — authentic work clothes for horny-handed sons of toil and the soil.
Acid-washed! It’s the latest style! Now, here’s a tune from Poison that’s heading up the charts.
In this century, if you go to the “Gap” or other dry-goods merchants, you will find mostly ordinary jeans, with a few that have been treated to look as if they’ve been broken in. Not because the wearer wants people to think he just got off the farm – a sure path to popularity and respect, that – but because they don’t look like stiff serge-pipes Mom bought for the first day of school.
Akst’s summa contra denim is grand as far as it goes, but it only scratches the surface of this blight on Americans’ surfaces.
At this point I’m thinking this might not be humor. If you’re bringing down Latin to excoriate the evils of jeans, you must be kidding.
Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults (“Seinfeld,” “Two and a Half Men”) and cartoons for adults (“King of the Hill”). Seventy-five percent of American “gamers” — people who play video games — are older than 18 and nevertheless are allowed to vote.
We can gather much from this, aside from the fact that the tea was tepid when served that morning, which always puts one in a querulous humour. We can assume he hasn’t seen more than two seconds of “King of the Hill,” a very clever show that’s firmly on the side of the folk who share his instincts and understands their culture far better than Mr. Will does. (Hank Hill is a man haunted by Oughts of all sorts, constantly parsing the demands of modern life with the Oughts that arise from being a middle-aged Texan father who deals with propane. And propane accessories.) The self-contented sneer against animation suggests no disrespect for the thing itself, but rather the moving drawings aimed at adults. They should content themselves with the amusing engravings in Punch, which stay in one place and do not excite the blood.
As for allowing gamers to vote – well, tart, puckish disapproval noted, and keenly felt. I admit that I have used my computer to construct large theme parks, defeat Jedi masters, secure nuclear material in rogue states, and slog through Hell itself. Imaginary pursuits all, and hardly befitting an adult. I should sit myself in a large stadium and watch men in striped suits stand around and spit while waiting for another man to hit a ball with a stick, and I should do this 100 times a year, and I should also issue rhapsodic encomiums to the timeless American nature of watching men stand around and sit an wait for another man to hit the ball with the aforementioned stick. This is what adults do. Unless they are doing it in a simulation on a computer, in case the franchise should be withdrawn. (The vote, not the major-league endorsement of the game.)
I should go the game in a suit, of course.
In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies (the six — so far — “Batman” adventures and “Indiana Jones and the Credit-Default Swaps,” coming soon to a cineplex near you).
The Indiana Jones reference is as incoherent as it is dated, and if a writer is lumping the sixth Batman with the fourth, he’s not exactly demonstrating a nuanced grasp of the culture he purports to critique.
Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling — thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly.
No one believes this. Find me the most bleeding-hearted social worker who deals with the sullen flotsam all day long, and she’s wearing a nice outfit with sensible, but smart, shoes. But let’s walk that sentence backwards – forget the final commandment, which is nonsense. Is there not an element of leveling in democracy, inasmuch as we share a common set of values that scales up and down from AMERICA F*CK YEAH at the bottom to a qualified but deeply-felt patriotism at the top? Sure. Is this a catechism? No. Does it have priests? Well, depending on the situation, yes; conservatives and liberals alike will celebrate the breadth of the UNUM when it suits their mood. It’s part of that grand vague unmodified civic religion that defines America. But if Denim was its clerical vestment, the President address the nation in Levis, and the First Lady would stand at his side wearing Daisy Dukes.
As for the “thou shalt not dress better” strawman:
To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism — of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.
Mind you, we’re talking about pants. Blue pants. Blue pants I wear often, along with their brethren, black jeans. I iron the jeans; I choose a good clean shirt; I put on sneakers – yes, I admit it of my own free will, sneakers – with clean laces and clean sides, because I like them. If “casual” = slovenly, then I am slovenly. But it just seems absurd to put on a suit when I’m working at home.
I agree that some people may say that all standards of sartorial comportment are social constructs, but they still put on a clean shirt when they go on CNN. And Will is smart enough to know the argument isn’t about an elitist desire to demolish the distinction between good taste and bad; it’s between old taste and new, with the latter accorded more moral importance than the former. Every new movement gains its authority by inhabiting and supplanting the authority of the previous movement. It only pretends to deny the legitimacy of the previous idea’s authority. Modern art is all about insisting that THIS IS NOT A PIPE right up to the point where it owns the pipe, at which point it is most certainly a pipe, and the most important pipe ever.
This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don’t wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.
I love Fred Astaire, but I’m not going to wear a tuxedo to the grocery store. Fred was a paragon of style, yes; Fred never had a job that required a camera, a cell, a video camera, extra batteries, and other items that need many pockets. I hate to say it, but Fred’s job consisted of dancing, a profession for which “roominess in the seat and leg” is important. Does this mean I can blame him for the moral decline that lead directly to the Zoot Suit Riots? As for Grace Kelly, yes: loveliness, great style. It helps to be Grace Kelly, of course. My wife wears suits to the office. Minnie Pearl wore a dress. Guess who looks more elegant?
Gird up your slackly-clad loins for this next one:
Edmund Burke — what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted “the decent drapery of life”; it is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim — said: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
Okay, it is humor. The remark about the straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim cannot be intended as anything but gentle, winking hyperbole, and no doubt intended to cause a wry smile among those who know the French origins of the very word Denim. One could make the point that the radical egalitarianism of the French Revolution was a poisonous worm that drilled through Western Civilization, eventually poking up its head in the rich loam of the boomer psyche, so eager to perfect the world it would dismiss without question everything that had been built up and handed to them.
But I think they would have been content to do it all while wearing khakis, too.
A confession: The author owns one pair of jeans. Wore them once. Had to. Such was the dress code for former senator Jack Danforth’s 70th birthday party, where Jerry Jeff Walker sang his classic “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Music for a jeans-wearing crowd.
Once a year, Manfred the servant removes them from the glass case, takes them outside with tongs, and airs them out. After which they go back in the case with the label that says “break glass in case of Jacobins.”
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