Friday, August 2, 2013

Youth culture, clothing, and context

Thought experiment: if sagging pants on young people—particularly young black people—signal degrees of availability for prison-style homosexual sex (yep, I'm looking at you, Don Lemon and Bill O'Reilly), what else do clothes signal about their wearers?

Do button down collars on dress shirts signal you're not in fact headed to the office, but to a polo match (the buttons on those collars come from real polo shirts from the turn of the 19th century, on which the buttons were meant to keep the collar points from flying in a rider's face)?

The selvedge strip one sees on any $350 pair of Japanese-made jeans once was the hallmark of the ultra-affordable clothing of the working class (leaving the selvedge on denim was a way to use the whole bolt of fabric and save money). What in the world does it mean when you roll your jeans to show it off?

Or what about the legendary IBM salesperson who was once sent to buy real shoes after breaking the rules by showing up to work in Gucci loafers (“bedroom slippers,” his boss called them)? That’s a story we now repeatedly laugh off as a sign of natural change in cultural norms around dress. (And now the billionaire mayor of New York brags about only wearing black loafers.)

Why, then, are the clothes and sartorial sensibilities of youth culture (especially black youth culture) the only ones pundits are at pains to repeatedly insist still "mean" exactly what they meant when they began? Why do the rules apply rigidly to them?

Forgive me if I can't take seriously someone (Don Lemon, again; above left) who argues "if you're sagging, your self esteem is sagging" while wearing an outfit that, as it was originally worn, meant, "I'm on vacation at our place on the Cape. Care to meet me for martinis before dinner, Old Boy?" (The man is wearing suede bucks,  green socks, and a pink shirt!) Why is he allowed to sever that outfit from its very specific original context and its original "rules" and repurpose it for his own use, but a kid who wears his pants low must unknowingly be buying in to whatever his outfit might have meant in another time and place altogether unrelated to him?

Of course the answer is Lemon’s argument is not serious. It’s nonsense. It’s nonsensical when he makes it. It’s nonsensical as a Facebook meme.

I think Jay Smooth does a good job of rebutting Lemon’s argument in terms of race. Watch it here.

But there’s also a question of youth culture and dress that I find fascinating in all this, particularly as it relates to the unfettered exploration of teenageness that should be a goal of all of us in YA. Do I even need to argue how important teenagers severing clothes from their contexts and their rules is to the wider world? Isn’t it obvious how much cultural influence teens and their dressing transgressions have in that regard?

Annex - Dean, James (Rebel Without a Cause)_01

If you’re wearing a plain T-shirt  to work and calling it “casual Friday” rather than “showing up in your underwear,” thank youth culture.

And is this severance occasionally scary and disturbing for adults? Yep. And do the clothes often seem ridiculous and impractical and a bit like costumes? Of course. They’re supposed to. And it always has been this way as long as there have been teenagers. As they say, it’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

Not surprisingly, the American Ur-Teenager has something very important to say on the matter of severing clothes from context:

“I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning. It was this red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks. I saw it in the window of this sports store when we got out of the subway, just after I noticed I'd lost all the goddam foils. It only cost me a buck. The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back—very corny, I'll admit, but I liked it that way. I looked good in it that way.”

Simple as that.

I understand that getting rattled by the sartorial choices of teenagers is as much a part of being old as rattling adults is of being young. One hopes, though, as an old person, to occasionally step back and appreciate the spectacle. One hopes not to reveal a sadly withered imagination. And one sincerely, pleadingly hopes not to delude one's self into believing that the problems of race in America hinge in any part on the height of any young man's pants. That is indeed a pathetic, deeply phony state.