I’m waiting for the era of jeans to end. I really hope I live to see the glorious day when a thousand sartorial flowers burst into bloom on a billion boring blue legs. Skirts, kilts, sarongs! A brash, zigzaggy salwar kamiz! Sailor pants that play the hornpipe, metaphorically, in modal scales!
It’s not -please understand me- that there’s anything inherently wrong with blue jeans. Sure, they’re a bit tight sometimes, and have uncomfortable truss-like seams and studs in them. And, sure, you do have to wriggle your fingers painfully past the harsh tight fabric to delve into those funny, totally pointless inner pockets. No, it’s the cultural associations of jeans I dislike. Their very success poisons them for me.
Whatever jeans once were -the clothing of peasants from Nimes, the cowboy’s rawhide- they have now become the conformist uniform of the monoculture, universally acceptable… Except to me.
To wear jeans is to conform, to opt out -apparently- of sartorial choices, colour coordination, individuality. To wear them is to seek invisibility, to fall effortlessly into line with the values of that great weary empire, the global neoliberal monoculture: convenience, informality, and pseudo-individuality covering spineless conformism. The appearance of street savvy covering a terror of actual visibility on the street. The lack of any code of honour, any sense of personal aesthetics.
TO WEAR BLUE JEANS IS, TO PUT IT BLUNTLY,
A DERELICTION OF ONE’S VISUAL DUTY
TO PROVIDE SOMETHING INTERESTING
OR ATTRACTIVE TO LOOK AT!
But this is where my assumptions rear up and open themselves to question. Do people really have a duty to be interesting, to stand out visually, to make a statement? Is that how we all define sartorial success? Surely not. The opposite is more likely: by wearing jeans, most people are striving -and this is their idea of success- to blend in, to look and be as normal as possible.
What does it mean to be ‘normal’? It means to find a job, attract a partner, reproduce. It means to go with the flow, to expect approximately what others also expect, and to be rewarded for fitting smoothly in. It means getting from A to B without catcalls or commentary. It means not being singled out or questioned, not getting curious or hostile looks, not being attacked. Jeans are a passport to all this. Let me be normal: let me pass!
My definition of successful dressing is confused, tangled up with my positive ideas about art. Make a statement with art, make a statement with dress! One must surely lead to the other! Originality is prized in artists, and by extrapolation it must also be prized on the streets, as one cuts a dash in one’s Japanese carpenter jodhpurs that taper sharply at the calf, complemented by orange or purple socks and blue tabi shoes!
But, deep down, I know that these assumptions are all wrong. The street is not an art gallery. Being original actually gets you very few points. It might even ruin your life.
To dress outside the norms might attract a few admiring glances, a few more puzzled stares, and -most likely- outright hostility from sour-faced bigots and malicious teens. I know this because I went to a rather tough boarding school where dressing well was, quite literally, beaten out of you. I know it because I’ve been punched in the face for wearing velvet flared trousers a couple of amateur fashion critics, back in 1972, decided were ‘poofy pants’. And I know it because the drivers of unmarked commercial vehicles frequently roll down their windows to tell me how ridiculous I look.
The fact is that -while I’m quite a weak and soft person, really- I’ve become, in some ways, as hard as fuck. Because when you dress a bit differently, you invite appraisal from everyone you pass. You throw down a gauntlet. To dress ‘differently’ represents a conscious decision to enter into cultural battle with every bozo, thug and dead-eyed, self-appointed fashion policeman in the modern neoliberal city, from its anxious immigrant suburbs to its cruel, tower-encrusted hub.
What does it mean to ‘fail sartorially’? For me, the answer would be something like: “You fail if you buy stupid, boring pre-fatigued jeans for $100 and look like everybody else”. But, to many, the definition of sartorial failure would be, precisely, me: that weird guy with the eyepatch who looks like he’s arrived from a completely different age or culture. That guy who stands out like a sore thumb, and will either soon learn -perhaps if we rib him gently about it- or never learn.
Everybody hates hipsters. We know this because in lifestyle features and blog discussions everyone disavows being a hipster, and declares them contemptible. So it’s just as well that I am also not a hipster, or claim not to be one. What I will do, though, is stand up for anyone who is a hipster. My usual argument is that one should think of the hipster as a kind of medieval knight, bound by a sense of honour.
As part of our convenience culture we’ve largely abandoned notions like honour, but let’s say that such a thing, if we were to re-invent it, would contain -as it has historically contained- an aesthetic dimension. As well as, say, paying off debts or fighting duels against those who malign our integrity, we -the honourable- ought to make, as a matter of principle, a strong and proud visual impression, a legible correlative to our value systems.
Now, I don’t say that jeans-wearers aren’t already doing this. I once met a girl who worked for Levi-Strauss. She couldn’t stop talking about how jeans were more than just a trouser, they were a way of life. She loved her jeans so much that she never took them off, she told me, even in bed. She had sex while wearing them! She ceaselessly evangelised on their behalf, partly because a major global company paid her to, but also because she really believed the whole package. She’d quaffed the blue Kool-Aid.
Jeans destroy sexism because you can dress like a man, even if you’re a woman! Jeans liberate you from the slavery of ever having to iron or dry-clean! Jeans are so relaxing and free! When they rip or fray they just look cooler! When the fabric gets thin and discoloured it’s even more sexy! Jeans bring us all together! Because, as Andy Warhol said, Pepsi tastes exactly the same whether you’re a pauper or a millionaire! Jeans are a great leveller, a great unifier! Jeans bring us together! Hallelujah!
These were the evangelist girl’s values. If I had to spell out mine -the ones I’m dressing to express- they might be a lot less positive. I want to be different, and better. I want to create art, not with paint or marble but with clothes. I want to differentiate, distinguish. I want to create ghettos, schisms. I want everyone to become an eccentric, and everyone to become an artist, but how could that be? A universal originality would just become a new kind of conformity. A world of tiny schismatic groups would be a world, probably, of tribal warfare, of fractious -even murderous- disaffections. It would be Freud’s ‘narcissism of minor difference’, which the father of psychoanalysis told us leads inevitably to internecine slaughter.
But there’s no need to extrapolate a world in which everyone is like me. The mad contradictions in that world exist because the truth is that I’m engaged in a strategy of differentiation which depends, precisely, on a world in which everyone is not being an artist, nor an eccentric, nor even particularly visually interesting. Although I’m loathe to admit it, I dress in a way entirely determined by denimworld. Negatively determined, perhaps, but determined nonetheless. I am the sartorial exception that proves the rule. I am complicit.
It’s easy to imagine a parallel world in which my baggy Korean pants -so carefully sourced in the street markets of Seoul to communicate my contrived otherness, my superior global reach, my visual creativity, my years of baggy-trousered identification with David Bowie- are the universal trouser design, and I’m wearing jeans.
Yes, I’m wearing blue jeans in that world. Of course I am! To be different, to stand out, to make my statement. I’m wearing jeans, with their too-tight pockets, their dragonhide loingrip, their unnecessary double seams, their pointless studs that stick into my groin. I’m going through all that suffering to make my statement. And I’ve probably sat down -carefully, because these things are tight- to write an article for a magazine explaining that a little clique of us -the Beats, maybe- has taken to wearing these workwear trousers as a truly radical gesture. One which communicates our values, conveys our sense of honour, and even gets us beaten up on the street, from time to time, for looking like ‘cowboys’, ‘hayseeds’ and ‘country cousins’.