Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Immaturity of the Wardrobe

George Will apparently thinks that the problem with America is that we all dress like kids.
Long ago, when James Dean and Marlon Brando wore it, denim was, Akst says, "a symbol of youthful defiance." Today, Silicon Valley billionaires are rebels without causes beyond poses, wearing jeans when introducing new products. Akst's summa contra denim is grand as far as it goes, but it only scratches the surface of this blight on Americans' surfaces. 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. 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). 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. 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.

Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.
Denim has waxed and waned repeatedly in my memory. In grade school it was merely an option. In high school one was judged not merely by whether one wore jeans but by the label they bore: Levis were egalitarian and eternal, Jordache and Calvin Klein were trendy, anything else smacked of poverty. At university the labels changed but the trend continued. Grunge and hip-hop gave baggies street cred. But in each instance denim was the default casual wear.

Part of this is cost-effectiveness. Jeans are perceived as more affordable than pants of other materials (frequently true), and more durable and forgiving than their counterparts. Levis jeans are comparably priced to their dressier Dockers, which require pressing to look their best, and far cheaper than even casual slacks from other makers (which also require more care). the US Bureau of Labor Statistics had an interesting breakdown of household expenses. For an average household pre-tax income around $60,000 (which assumes approximately $42,000 after tax), those surveyed spent less than $2,000 on "apparel and services," versus around $3,000 on healthcare, $8,000 on transportation, over $6,000 on food and roughly $5,500 on "personal insurance," and a 'blog post here (regardless of the methodologies for the rest of the item, which assumes a 3.5$ income tax rate) pegs housing costs at around $17K. Another study indicates that uniforms in the workplace actually lead to an increase in spending on apparel. Will is right in that it's a careful calculation, but not necessarily the one of taste that he suggests: with expenditure numbers such as these it's easy to understand why the US is dressing down. It's not that we're dressing down out of fashion; it's that we are increasingly unable to afford dressing up.

Another part is the ready distinction that denim affords a closet. As our free time has shrunk, and as the demands of work and life have increased over the years, it has become increasingly rational to minimize time spent deciding less important things. Sorting out one's healthcare, taxes, family decisions etc. should take priority over figuring out what to wear. Denim provides a clear dividing line between work and home. I will freely admit to owning several pairs of jeans, and wearing them regularly when out of the office. But my closet also holds three tailored suits and a dozen ties for businesswear, and several pairs of Dockers for less formal business and social events. Colour and texture are easy guides in choosing what to wear out Saturday morning to the coffee shop and what to put on for weekdays in the office. Taking the time required to sort through appropriate garb has been a luxury our society has grown unable to afford to all but the extremes of the employment and wealth scale: the supremely wealthy, because they either work fewer hours or employ staff to assist them with their choices, and the struggling because they can't afford the separate sets of clothes for work and play and lack the time required to choose between them.

Certainly if we all dressed better the nation would be a more attractive place. I've seen more than my share of folks in grubby t-shirts and ragged jeans in the shopping malls, people in ill-suited and ill-tailored attire out for an evening at restaurants and clubs, and business attire that suggests colour-blindness and dressing in the dark far more than any sense of style. But suggesting that sort of pride of place in the current environment smacks of privilege. Apparel is costly, time is scarce, and too few of us have enough resources and free hours and closet space to afford to make the kinds of distinctions Will clearly desires.

1 comment:

  1. And don't forget the fact that some people just look hot in jeans... :)