“Nice Stuff, But Not for Me”
One of the most important skills you can learn as you develop your own sense of style is how to judge whether something fits you. I don’t mean just physically (though that’s critically important), but also whether something properly suits your personality, character, and lifestyle. For example, a cutaway collar might frame your face very well, but if you’re a stodgy academic who is hoping to be thought of as an intellectual, perhaps a button down collar is more suitable.
Figuring out how clothes should fit is one thing; figuring out whether they suit your personality and character is something else entirely. That part requires a lot of self-discovery, honesty, and time. Unfortunately, when it comes to the task of finding clothes that suit your character, you can easily be distracted by barrage of blogs and magazines telling you what’s cool this season, what’s big in Japan, or how to pull off that “Italian sprezzatura” look that everyone is raving about. Couple that with professional product shots and good looking models, and you can be drawn to certain clothes for all the wrong reasons.
One thing I’ve found helpful is to be conscious of whether you’re buying something just because it’s well designed. Remember that there are hundreds of good looking pieces every season. Indeed, there’s rarely a week that goes by where I don’t see at least five or six things that I think look great. However, just because a piece of clothing is well designed, and perhaps even fits you well, doesn’t mean you should buy it. You should stick to the task of developing a focused, coherent wardrobe that clearly express who you are, not just build a collection of good looking clothes.
And although it’s counter intuitive, I’ve also found that it useful to have a very narrow and defined set of style heroes. People you think are maybe more aligned with your personality, character, and lifestyle than others. Of course, inspiration shouldn’t be the same as emulation, and at some point, you’ll naturally find your own voice, but it can be helpful to be clear about what looks you’re going for.
Thoreau once said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” It’s important to recognize when something looks great, but isn’t necessarily right for you. Shop slowly, let your clothes reflect your body and personality, and know when to leave something alone.
A nice collection of illustrations by Laurence Fellows. Many, many more can be found here.
Would I wear a sweater with a picture of a teddy bear wearing Polo business clothes? Or a Polo Golf tie with an illustration of a golfer on it? Or a black leather Polo suit? No way. A jacket that says “SNOW BEACH” on it? Absolutely not.
So why did we feature ‘Lo Heads in our first episode? Wearing clothes that I wouldn’t wear myself, in ways I wouldn’t wear them?
Dressing is a fundamentally discursive act. The most sophisticated dressers are engaged in a three-way conversation - between the creator of their clothing, themselves, and the people they interactive with while dressed. This happens in the context of a broad set of only semi-shared cultural values. The designer intends one meaning, the wearer recombines it, recontextualizes it, and gives it new meaning, and then that meaning is interpreted by the people the wearer interacts with in ways that the wearer could never have conceived.
I think that these guys, deeply immersed in this ‘Lo Heads culture, are incredibly fluent at this discourse. They’re living it. Any of us, no matter what our personal sense of aesthetics, or our personal goals for can learn from their example.
So let’s break it down a little.
The first level: there’s an interesting statement made, of course, when a black or Puerto Rican guy from the hood wears clothes that are self-consciously associated with activities (yachting, skiing, golf) that have powerful ties to whiteness and richness. The guy from the hood is subverting those values. His act is a thumb in the eye to the rich (and white) that says that not only can those symbols of privilege be appropriated by the downtrodden, the downtrodden can rock that shit better.
Dallas describes the Polo-obsessed culture as a function of “Aspirational Apparel.” I think that’s part of it. When you’re “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as one guy put it, you want to represent something for yourself that’s more than that. But here’s the limitation of that description: this is not a literal act. These are not poor people striving to be as much like rich people as possible. This is a symbolic act.
We asked person after person, “would you get on a yacht?” “Have you ever been skiing?” “Do you like golf?” and to a man, the answer was a laughing “HELL no.”
In other words: these folks don’t aspire to be the rich. They aspire to success, sure, like any of us, but they aren’t supplicating themselves before upper-class white culture, asking to be let in. They don’t aspire to join the club. They aspire to take the symbols of privilege and give them new meaning. To rock them better.
In fact, if the clothes are worn in new ways - think of Dallas’ tie-outside-sweater look - all the better. Like hip-hop slang, the goal is to create an insider’s argot, a way of recombining these symbols of privilege into something with one meaning for people who “get it” and one meaning for people who don’t. Alienating the outsiders is part of creating an insider culture.
There’s also something fascinating to me about the specific preferences that Polo collectors demonstrate. I was wearing a corduroy Polo blazer the night we recorded at Lo Goose on the Deuce (“all eras, all styles welcome,” it said on the invite). Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of other guys there rocking corduroy blazers - despite the fact that corduroy has a rich sporting heritage.
Polo collectors like stuff with graphic and textual representations of the abstract class ideas they’re pursuing. Abstractions of abstractions. Ties with pictures of golfers. Jackets with pictures of skiiers. The Polo Bear.
The Polo Bear is the perfect collectible for Lo Heads. He’s a brand icon who appears mostly on annually-released sweaters. A teddy bear who wears Polo clothes. That makes the Polo Bear sweater a representation of a representation of class, through an icon (a teddy bear) that’s completely non-human, for maximum abstraction.
The reason the Polo fans love Ralph Lauren is that while he has always admired the aesthetics of English schools and Great Gatsby Americana, he himself was a poor, Jewish New York kid. His name and brand were made up from whole cloth. His creations are fundamentally (and shamelessly) inauthentic. Their value is in how perfectly they celebrate an idea of Americanness that is both tied to race and class and somehow self-consciously cut off from it. The premise of his work is that he’s going to grab the symbols and aesthetics and rock them better.
I don’t want to get too semiotic on you, but our clothes have very limited inherent values. Warm/not-warm and keeps the sun off are pretty much it. Maybe some portion of our aesthetic values are in-born, that’s an argument for a different day. Everything else about getting dressed is symbolic. You’re participating in a conversation. Learn to speak the language.
For one day, it’ll all be gone because time would have passed us by and we would have lost yet another part of history.