Sunday, February 3, 2013

Fashion & Football

our obsession with violence, the history of heraldry, and the pagan precedent of body adornment
Along with sex, violence is a tantalizing subject in popular media discourse. Real danger, of course, is the most exciting: war, invasions, torture, rape, slayings, and shootings take up daily newspaper headlines, followed by the potential-violence-parlance of gun-control or the threat of nuclear attack. This is not new news. People are violent, and fiercly protective of their own yardage. I mean, territory. Until really very recently in human history, assumed international policy was war – unless there was a specific (and usually temporary) peace treaty on the books, usually due to a politically negotiated royal marriage. But now we’re much more civilized. Torture is not nice, war is wrong, the death penalty is questionable, and even the simulated-violence of video games and blockbuster movies is being questioned as a healthy practice (as in this Huffington Post article) in our terribly civilized society. The decline of violence in human history is nicely illustrated in Steven Pinker’sfascinating book “Better Angels of our Nature” which shows by way of many charts and graphs just how civilized us barbarians have become.

In the fashion for violence, it seems, Sports is the new War. Here is a socially acceptable practice of our strongest and bravest, marching off to “battle” their “enemies” in simulated war-playing activities, where each side challenges the other for what has been fought over by men for millennium – land, and honor.

But what is truly important, I hear you saying, is: but how do they look when they’re doing it? 
But of course! I say. The Fashions for Battle have remain fairly unchanged, season to season, for roughly 5,000 years, if not ten times as long. (For recent history, see this database with the history of NFL uniforms since the 1920's. For contemporary fashion, see this Fox news reports on Nike's new look for NFL uniforms)

 Here are the basic rules:
-       Have your team pick a color. Two contrasting hues are best.
-       Protective gear helps safeguard your ability to fight again another day, and also contributes to your fierce appearance in order to intimidate your enemy.
-       Body paint is highly encouraged, for both participants and spectators.
 Back when fighting was done by people, in person, it was important to distinguish your team from that of your opponent, so as not to accidentally stab the wrong person in the face. Colors were a good way to distinguish loyalties, and pictures were a good backup, for those who were either non-literate or too busy with their broadswords to do light reading during battle. This evolved into the heraldic system, popular with knights from the time of the Crusades up through modern military uniforms. Early coat-of-arms helped identify both countries and great families in easy pictorial format, much like contemporary mascots for sports teams. Having pictures was a good backup, as many of the early dyes – especially bright colors – were not color fast, and would run in the rain and fade in the sun, leaving you with a fairly washed out version of your honor. Any Olympics meet will demonstrate this historical precedent – as most countries incorporated before the 1856 discovery of aniline dyes tend to stick to white, red, and blue – since madder and indigo were both readily available and the least likely to fade.
Once you recognize your teammates for important group issues like retreat or throwing a touchdown, it helps to look as fierce as possible for intimidating your opponents at a distance, as the ancient Greeks found with their highly virile molded body armor. Today’s body padding tends to run to the advanced-plastic-cooling-shock-absorbing-type (see this CBS report on The Tech Behind the Game), which does seem an improvement over heavy plates of bronze worn over a simple woolen chemise, though the gym-hard-bodies of the players today are no relaxation in standards of physical perfection. And perhaps they need to be - NPR discussed recently if Football Hits Are Getting Harder and More Dangerous. In a similar vein, Esquire looks at the Worst NFL injuries - from the player's perspective.
 But long before armor was invented, body paint was a way to prep soldiers for the thrill of the hunt. There is evidence that this was happening by 40,000 bc (here's an article on that from Archeology Magazine) even before the Ibex and Snuffleupagus showed up on the walls of the Chevaux caves. Pliny writes about the Ancient Celts painting themselves with blue derived from the woad plant before storming ferociously into battle (as demonstrated in the movie Braveheart). Many Native American tribes used their “Indian War Paint” as both a scare tactic and shamanistic device when heading into battle, and indigenous cultures all over the world today still use the rite of body painting in ritualistic ceremonies. Contemporary sports fans take this ceremonial rite to the next step, and by taking on the colors of their teams, they too are participating in this almost religious act of showing allegiance. Not sure about this? Check out this Atlantic article Just How Much Is Sports Fandom Like Religion? Of course, our most obvious usage of the ancient rite of body painting is…makeup. There are countless youtube videos demonstrating eye shadowtechniques in your favorite team colors.
One of the simplest forms of body painting is the Eye Black worn by football players to cut the glare of the sun, just like the Ancient Egyptians used kohl as eyeliner. Some players - notably Vikings players John Randle and Chris Hovan – have taken their eye black to extreme degrees, and the eccentrically smeared, stylized designs that result were clearly used as intimidation tactics. I imagine this is just as important in the dressing rooms, ritualistically smearing your face in the mirror, psyching one’s self up for the extreme physical concentration and aggressive mentality needed on the field. Here's a Sports Illustrated photo spread of "Memorable Eye-Black Moments".
Taking body painting to the other extreme is tattooing, of course. Another ancient rite, used by cultures all over the world, from deepest Africa to Otzi the Ice Man, permanently inking your skin may be a tribute to a rite of passage, commemorate an event, or just show your ferocity and willingness to suffer extreme pain. Today’s sports fans and players alike participate in this social ritual. A "Niner Insider Blog" features a photo spread: 49ers players get inked up. At the Baltimore Sun, you can take a quiz matching Raven's players with their tattoos. You can even weigh in: which team has the better tattoos?

Whatever happens on the field, players and fans alike are acting out the theater of violence, practicing these ancient rituals through one of the most prehistoric practices of all: fashion.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Be Mine.

Valentine’s day is like, soooooooo romantic, don’t you think?

Sure it is. Evolved from a pagan festival, Valentine’s Day (called Lupercalia by the Romans) initially involved the town’s population chasing a couple of human sacrifices around the walls of their city, who flogged women in a strangely violent fertility rite and then they all copulated in the streets. It’s possible that the bloody stains on the robes of those women are what evolved into the red hearts all over the place these days.

 Like, totes romantic.

c.1250, Roman martyr St. Valentine
On the other hand, birds and sheep do tend to start looking for their mates about now. So, that’s pretty, you know, loving. 
See or NPR for more details on the orgiastic origins of this fertility rite, pagan festival, holy day (holiday, whatever you want to call it) set in the the doldrums of winter.

There were also two or three different Christian dudes named Valentine, who all fell blindly in love with the wrong girl and then were stoned to death and eventually martyred. So, all in all, a really sweet time of year to commemorate, historically speaking. And we celebrate by supporting the über-commercial American Holiday Industry, where (at least traditionally) men are obligated to purchase one or more of the following for their female lovers: cards, chocolate, roses, and/or jewelry. For now I’ll ignore the implicitly un-romantic messages of pre-written sentiment in Hallmark cards and the giving of flowers that won’t be seen in bloom in regular nature for another 4 months; for now, let’s talk about jewelry.

When you think of “jewelry”, do you think of decoration, or of money? Historically, it meant money. It really wasn’t until Coco Chanel introduced the idea of “costume jewelry” to the world in the early 1920’s that we started thinking of jewelry as an individual mark of personal style – before that, jewelry was one of the clearest signals of wealth you could put on your person.

Mrs. Jay Gould in 1903, wearing pearls then valued at $500,000
The fashion for men wearing any sort of jewelry – rings, pearl ear drops, large gold chain necklaces – went in and out of fashion over time, but for women it was pretty consistent. The styles changed, but from Bronze Age maidens to Elizabethan Duchesses to Victorian Debutants, a female’s jewelry was there to broadcast to the world how much capital she was entitled to. Which, of course, really meant her father or her husband. But traditionally, the jewelry belonged to her, instead of being entrusted to an estate. This was one of the intentions behind the tradition of a husband gifting his wife with jewels on the occasion of their wedding or birth of their children (i.e. her job) – in the unfortunate occasion of his death, the Manor and its attached income might transfer to a distant (and male) relative, but that emerald necklace was hers to keep. She might get kicked out of her house, she might have to give up the silver, the furniture, and the paintings of her ancestors, but at least she was guaranteed whatever funds she could get for her precious gems.

When you put it into a historical context, the gesture of jewelry as gifts can’t help but start to smack of the patriarchal possessiveness of traditional marriages, and the vestigial sense of ownership of a woman’s life.  Romance, after all, is partly a tradition regurgitated to us by media and commerce, in the same way that gift giving at Christmas time is as much a marketing scheme in a consumer driven society as much as it is an inherited gesture to charity and togetherness.


Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “wow, you’re sure dealing from a dated and hetero-normative deck here”, and it’s true. There are plenty of couples (of any variety of gender) who celebrate Valentine’s Day without any traditional baggage, just as there are plenty of people who don’t celebrate it at all. Many people enjoy the affectionate sentiment of the day, but there are also people (men, typically) who are only acting out of obligation, and feel a great deal of pressure to do the right thing, and since the ‘right thing’ in this instance typically involves buying stuff, the anti-consumerist in me gets all riled up and wants to take apart the should. Because that’s what I’m trying to look at here: what elements of clothing and fashion are we in charge of, and when are we blindly following outdated traditions of a capitalist market that wants to control our purchasing power. And they do so by turning sentiment into a commodity, until we associate love, romance, and kindness with spending and gift giving.
The  ugliest necklace ever designed: may be purchased now at Tiffany's for $10,500
A recent Forbes article on Valentine's Day spending (quoting a survey by the National Research Federation) claims gift purchases will be double that of last year. Total expected spending: $15.7 Billion. Sign of a growing economy? Sure. Sign of many happy couples? Hard to say. Sign of a lot men expected to pay up to play out their role of provider, whether or not they want to? You can count on it.

c.1905 "I'm a fool to believe in you"

 More than half of the money spent next Tuesday will be by men, and $4.1 billion dollars will be spent on jewelry.

What are YOUR plans for Valentine’s Day? How do you feel about what you think is expected of you? How does your partner feel about what is expected of them?

Piero della Francesca, 1465

And, hey, everybody - Happy Valentine’s Day. I hope it’s like, totally romantic.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Renaissance-Retro Mid-Knuckle Rings

At what point does a popular way of wearing something become a ‘trend?’

Say that trend goes out of fashion for 20 years, or 60, or even 90. When it comes back, we call it ‘retro.’ Don’t we? But what if there’s a gap of 600 years? Is it still re-fashioning an old fashion? Or has the time limit on ‘retro’ run out, has it become a ‘new’ fashion all over again?

In the mid-15th century, it was all the rage to wear rings down on the second knuckles of your fingers. Now, I’ve never read this in a book on fashion history, never heard of any contemporary accounts of this being the case. But the proof is in the art history: Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach, Fra Filippo Lipi – they all painted portraits of fashionable young ladies sporting this unusual way of wearing jewelry. By the time of Hans Holbein, it seems to have vanished.

But the trend appears to be back. In the fall of 2011, there were hints here and there. Mixed in among fashion photos of cool nailpolish on A Cup of Jo, hinted at in a blogpost about wearing rings on every finger, included but not mentioned in posts about other kinds of eccentric 'hand-bling'. But all of a sudden, it seems as though 2012 is the year for the trend to hit. Fashion trend blog Refinery29 wrote about it, fashion photography blog LoHi Fashion picked it up, and then the MTV Style blog ran with it

The question is: will it stick? Will we see it last as long as it did 600 years ago?

I’m no fashion forecaster. I’m more interested in looking back at what clothing has meant to us in the past than what is or will be ‘cool’ next season. But…will this trend ‘hit’, or will it simply fade back into oblivion? According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point, every trend needs that vital moment of critical mass to become an epidemic. Is January 2012 the threshold moment for mid-knuckle rings?

The thing I find so interesting about this potential trend is that it’s not a new object. Rings are rings. It’s not a new color. (Though for the record, I hear Pantone’s Tangerine Tango is the color of 2012.) It’s not a designer, or a brand. No celebrity has worn it on the red carpet. (Yet.) It hasn’t been featured in a movie, or a tv show, or gotten a spread in any major fashion magazine. It’s just…how something is worn.

To me, this bodes well for its future success. Because it’s safe. It’s not a radical restyling of the way we dress or act or think. Kurt Andersen wrote a fascinating article in last month’s Vanity Fair, where he postures that this is the first time in centuries that style hasn’t changed significantly in the past two decades. But this design rut that we’re in still craves new things. Fashion is based on New. And at least this trend doesn’t involve any cumbersome headgear or stifling corsets.

Back in the 1400’s, jewelry was about wealth: rings were the smallest objects worth the most amount of money that you could keep on your body as a sort of constant advertisement for how much you were worth. In addition to that, an undercurrent to the message would be that the more rings you wore, the less likely you would be to do any sort of work with your hands. These mid-knuckle rings I find underline that message, as they’d be even more likely to slip off your fingers if you were kneading the bread dough or hanging the laundry up to dry.

What do these rings say today? That the renaissance is soon to bloom into fashion? That you’re rich, or not a manual laborer…..or maybe just that you’re, you know. Hip. With it. On trend. Like, totally fashionable.

If you want to get with the program, there are – at this point - only a few jewelry stores that seem to be at the forefront of this trend, from the delicate bands at Catbird in Brooklyn to the chunky gold knuckle dusters at Sunahara, also based in New York. features a few of them, along with a number of other ‘unique’ styles of rings like full-fingered rings and brass knuckles.

You might have heard it hear first, people, but I give Rogier van der Weyden all the credit.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

So Smart A Little Maid

The Below Stairs cast of Downton Abbey

Seems like everybody’s talking Downton Abbey these days. Even the gushing NewYork Times has mentioned that book editors are using the multi-national obsession to market Edwardian, wartime and servant-related books. And why are we all so hooked on Anna and O’Brien? The gossip, the drama, those starched black uniforms and white aprons. Because who doesn’t like a good maid’s costume? And why do we? Let’s go below stairs, and see what’s under that smart little uniform.

A “maid” (which was a shortening of  “maiden”) originally referred to a virgin – or at least an unmarried young lady, and the first maids were of the less-wealthy nobility, and brought to the palace or castle or manor house as a sort of hired best friend for the Lady of the House. They weren’t so much servants as companions, and could stand in for their mistress on occasions where she was indisposed. These women were much too high in rank to wear clothing that would have pegged them as servants – and those who were actually doing the serving were so far behind the scenes they didn’t require any sort of unified dress. By the 17th Century, this idea of service to one’s – not quite peers, but at least similar social class – started being thought of as demeaning, and it became more desirable for one to have one’s own servants, even if it meant living in slightly less glamorous circumstances. 

The House Maid, William McGregor Paxton, 1910
One of the benefits of being a Lady’s Maid had always been the noble swag – in other words, the hand-me-downs. Once a Lady was tired of a dress or was ready to move on to a new fashion, her nearest and dearest would be the beneficiaries of her last-season finery, which unlike today could last and be worn for years, if not entire generations. This was a serious perk of the job in a world where money didn’t buy you much, because there wasn’t much to buy, and wages often came in the form of goods, like lodging, food, and a few pairs of stockings or new pair of shoes every year.

The complaints came from the guests. For nearly 500 years leading up to the turn of the 20th century, a frequent complaint of visitors came from not being able to distinguish the lady from the maid. This was no doubt an additional perk for a social-climbing maid, but presented potentially serious embarrassment in a world obsessed with social rank. One shouldn’t need to ask for introductions, one should be able to judge one’s fellow guests by their attire. Proper people felt very comfortable with this set of social signifiers, and it caused enough consternation when these rules were broken that they were often underlined with sumptuary laws, which governed things like the color of ribbons you could wear, and were often based on your yearly income. Out of this grew the need for a more uniform method of dress for the “hired help.”

Though it has roots in the 1700's, the maid uniform really grew out of the popular dress of the mid-20th century. It’s not likely a coincidence that this uniform crystalized at the time of the height of the Industrial Revolution, where the mechanization of textiles and manufactured dyes made both fabric and clothing newly acquirable and affordable for more and more people – which was great news for the have-nots, but devastating for those who had started out on top, and wanted to stay there, thank you very much. In 1861, the death of Prince Albert sent the British Nation into mourning, and the dour Queen Victoria never left. The resulting fashion for black multiplied with the availability of aniline dyes after 1865, which made dark colors easier to both attain and maintain. The prim modesty of Victoria demanded high necklines and long sleeves, so one of the few ways to express any individuality was in your dainty little prim starched collar. This was also a place to show off your delicate and expensive lace – and it had the added benefit of being practical, as one dark dress could become many with the easy change-out of different collar and cuffs. 

illustration by Cole Phillips for Life Magazine, 1921
It was this fashion that, over time, slowly crystalized into the maid’s uniform. Practical because the dark colors showed no dirt, easy to remove, scrub and bleach the dirty linen collars and cuffs in a world before drycleaners or washing machines, it was modest and plain, but allowed enough style to be appropriate for a grand house. In other words, it was fashionable – but last season, if you know what I mean. You want your maid to look pretty, but not…..too pretty. You want to show her off, but you don’t want her to upstage your daughters. You want her to present a good face of your house – but not so much that somebody steals her away from you by marrying her.

Perhaps it was because the “uniform” was primarily about the color – and the contrast of the black dress with it’s white collar and cuffs that it had such a lasting life, because it allowed for endless variation of silhouette. This gave the maids the option of following the fashions of the day without straying too far from their place. Maids wore hoopskirts in the 1860’s and bustles in the 1870’s, they had tightly laced corsets in the 1890’s and dropped waists in the 1920’s. They had elaborate hairstyles at the turn of the century, and bobbed cuts two decades later. They had aprons that were cut to button around the bottom of the shelf bustles popular in the 1880’s, they had mobcaps and headbands and starched caps with peaks.

This is why the uniform worked: it allowed for enough variations in fashion to appease the vanity of both the maid and her mistress, but still retained a clear enough uniformity to signal to participants and visitors alike exactly who was working for whom.

This is also perhaps why the uniform has had the longevity to last into our own time, showing up in both high and low-brow settings. The “sexy maid” is a standard costume in both Halloween and “bedroom” usages. The fetish element that comes along with the association of sado-masochism to the very literal master-servant relationship inherent in a traditional domestic servant is perhaps why it continues to keep popping up in contemporary fashion iconography, from the recent “UpstairsDownstairs” spread by Karl Lagerfeld in Harper's Bazaar to the Fall 2011/Winter 2012 collection of Mark Jacobs for Louis Vuitton: inspired, he said, from the idea of the Louis Vuitton handbag being a “fetish”. There was even a specifically  Downton Abbey photo shoot in Vogue. Maid-inspired outfits are showing up everywhere from Japan’s Cosplay-inspired "maid cafes" to designer bride's maids dresses.

Partly the costumes for Downton Abbey are fun because the show conveys the last period of truly extravagant dress in the pre-war heyday of the ‘teens – but the following decline of decorum in dress goes hand in hand with the decline of the domestic servant. When one is at war, one’s maids might have more important things to do than starch your sleeves; much less her own. Such a pity.

detail of The Squire, Frederick Elwell, 1931

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Boys Don't Wear Pink

 Everybody’s heard last year’s JCrew “scandal” about the boy with pink toe-nail polish and the story about the mom who let her son dress up as Daphne for Halloween. There was even a segment done by ABC News asking if boys were going to start wearing pink. But this idea that boys don’t wear pink has only been around since WWII - before that, it was opposite. Here's why.

In 1865, the use of aniline dye was first successfully marketed and manufactured by Sir William Perkins. Before then, any time clothing was a color, it was hand dyed by a substance made out of plants or minerals. Dyes were stinky, expensive and labor intensive, and you could tell a lot about how much money somebody had by what color they were wearing; because different colors had different costs.

Purple was the most expensive dye. Made from the mucus secretions of the Murex shellfish, it was only produced in certain places and was carefully regulated as to who was allowed to wear it.

The next most expensive color was red. The easiest way to get red dye was from the roots of the madder plant, which unfortunately wasn’t particularly stable or reliable; the color could easily fade or wash out, and it could produce anything from pink to orange to yellow. Then, in the early 1500’s, the European nations started noticing a true, deep, colorfast scarlet that showed up all of a sudden.

This scarlet cloth was made from a dye that came from the crushed shells of beetles raised by indigenous people in Peru and Argentina, a colony of Spain. The Spanish, (despite taking forever to realize what a cash cow they had on their hands) finally ended up making a killing by protecting their secrets and dominating the cross-Atlantic dye market, all of which contributed to the success of their “Golden Age.” Called the cochineal beetle (literally meaning “grain” or “berry” which the beetles were initially mistaken for), they lived on the cactus plants native to the area. (There was a similar source of red dye called the kermes beetle, which fed on oak leaves, and is where we get our word “crimson”.)

The labor-intensive process with which to breed the beetles, tend the cactus, extract the dye, and ship it to Europe without getting in a shipwreck or attacked by pirates meant this red dye was outrageously expensive, and therefore IMPORTANT. There were laws about who was and was not allowed to wear red, and it very quickly got to be associated with royalty.

Pink, of course, is just a lighter version of red. It was seen as the “junior” version, and was worn particularly by the young sons of the nobility and wealthy, thereby fulfilling two important functions: the color of the dye showing off the wealth of the household, and the lighter derivation of the "adult" color reinforcing the “boyhood” of the heir to the throne (also accomplished by infantilizing terms like the Spanish infanta and the French dauphin).

Blue, on the other hand, was super easy to come by. The indigo plant (native to India, hence its name) was easily manufactured, and dyes were fairly reasonable to come by. If you weren’t in the general proximity of India (or its trade routes), woad was an acceptable substitute (and was the source of the blue body paint worn by Scots, like in the movie Braveheart). Easy to come by, relatively inexpensive and colorfast, blue was a great addition to the usual earth tones you could get from either different colored sheep or your basic earth-tone ochers.
In other words, blue was cheap. It was also a color associated with the Virgin Mary, and was therefore worn by girls as a sign of their innocence and virginity (which were a girl’s greatest assets).  Seen as a “cooling” color, it was thought to be good for girls, to temper their passions and ensure their demure nature.

Boys, being the more important children in a world of patriarchal primogeniture, got the expensive color, which was fiery and passionate and would therefore encourage strong, manly natures.

It’s somewhat difficult to assess through art history how these colors were used because:
·      Children were often painted naked as an allegory of Madonna and Child and to show off the skills of the painters in their use of flesh tones.
·      The relative costs of fabric dyes were different than the relative costs of paints, so the artists may have used colors not true to life. For instance, while blue was a relatively inexpensive dye, in paint it was derived from lapis lazuli, and therefore one of the most expensive, which both the painters and the wealthy nobility or merchants commissioning portraits wanted to show off.
·      Unless a painting’s title clearly denotes its subjects, it’s not always easy to tell who was a boy or girl, since both had long hair and were clothed in dresses until puberty.

Once again: is it possible to talk about fashion without addressing the concepts of “masculine” or “feminine”?


Because one of the primary function of clothing has always been to define gender. But with our modern views of marriage, sexual orientation and gender roles changing at a rapid pace, people are more and more interested in looking at how clothing helps us hang on to – or let go of the typical gender identity.

But let’s be clear about what we mean by “typical”. For hundreds of years, boys wore pink. It’s only been about 60 years that the opposite has been true, and yet we cling to this modern social convention as though it were written in our DNA.

1910 Walther Brehm: illustration of Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rock’n’Roll Rebellion

how alternative music starts street fashions that annoy us

What’s up with this boxers-baring saggy-pants thing? And why does the trend so infuriate people? Is it the prudish taboo of modesty - are we are shocked to see more than a waistband of underwear – and actual curves of the male derriére? Is it the impracticality of these young men strutting down the street with their hands on their pants so they won’t fall off? Or is it the swagger and air of irresponsibility?

            There is a push by lawmakers – particularly in the south - regarding this style, which is seen as setting a poor civic image. What happens when fashion moves from being objectionable to being illegal? Are we solving the problem, or are we trying to rid ourselves of a visible manifestation of what the real issue is? They are not new concerns – either the uproar over new street fashions or the way that styles of young people have infuriated the masses and conjured horror in the minds of polite society - determined that the new fashions can only lead to juvenile delinquency.

If we take a look back, even just for a few generations - we’ll see that this is how almost all iconic fashions are started. Think of the most typical depiction you can of any decade… You’d wear a zoot suit in the 1940’s, a leather jacket and blue jeans in the 1950’s. You’d be a hippie in the 70’s and a punk in the 80’s, and if we’re far enough away to remember the 90’s you’d probably look like Kurt Cobain. Every one of these styles ended up in mainstream fashion – every price point and market from high school kids to high-end designers to Middle America malls. Those styles are now the archetypes for their decade, and every one of them came from the street. They started as rebellion – with young people from poor economic backgrounds with insurrection on their minds.

Zoot Suits

Zoot suits came out of Harlem Jazz Clubs in the 1940’s and quickly took hold in the African American population. The country was listening to Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Benny Goodman – mostly at segregated clubs where non-whites were not admitted, despite the fact that most of the musicians were black. Born of Afro-American and Afro-Caribbean cultures, big band swing expanded to include Latino musicians like Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti, who incorporated boogie-woogie with rhumba rythyms. Caló (the Spanish jargon of young immigrants, often used in pachuco swing) used rhyming slang, much like African American jive, and is where the term “zoot suit” was born. 
Zoot suits were comprised of knee-length suit jackets, often double breasted, with wide lapels and heavily padded shoulders. The extremely wide-legged trousers had cuffs so narrow at the ankles you had to use a shoe horn to get them over your feet.
The offensiveness of their baggy clothing wasn’t just because the fashion police thought they looked dumb – after 1942 they were actually illegal. Once America entered WWII, the War Rationing board passed laws about virtually every aspect of fashion – including how many yards of fabric could be used to make a suit, as every extra scrap of wool was intended for soldier’s uniforms. To mainstream Americans, young black and Latino kids wearing the oversized suits was an un-patriotic slap in the face.
Zoot-suiters were mostly poor, inner-city, second-generation children of manual laborers. They had rejected the “American Dream” chased by their parents, but were alienated by the same blatantly racist society that herded Japanese and German American citizens into internment camps. A potent component of fashion is its ability to project an image of its wearer constantly; it lets you claim allegiance to – or rejection of - a group without having to say a word. The zoot suits claimed an illegal, offensive, even violent allegiance to their proto-gang culture; it was a deliberate and public way of flouting the law. The “Zoot Suit Riots” of 1942 were proof of their power, as thousands of sailors on leave in Los Angeles attacked, stripped, and beat anyone seen wearing these baggy suits…or at least the suits were the initiation; like the Rodney King Riots 50 years later, it quickly became an excuse for indiscriminant and widespread racial violence.
            What strikes me about the photos from the Zoot Suit Riots is how young they all were. These were not hardened gangsters  - these were young kids embracing a counter-culture look – a uniform as a symbol of rebellion. Octavio Paz called them “a symbol of love and joy, of horror and loathing, an embodiment of liberty, of disorder, of the forbidden”.


            Rock’n’roll was the next musically-driven form of social rebellion for teenagers. Made sexy by Marlon Brando and James Dean, the “greaser” look of working-class blue jeans and white t-shirts became ubiquitous for the 50’s brand new “teenage” culture. The “bad boys” originally came from low economic standing, and their working class backgrounds were exactly what offended the mainstream. Their cotton twill work trousers or 501’s and rolled-up sleeves made them look like mechanics in a sea of pearls and sweater sets. When blue jeans were adapted by the fashion industry and marketed to teenagers, parents and school boards around the country erupted, fearing that this symbol of cowboys and gold miners would lead their delicate children to lives of juvenile delinquency. Street fashions have always been about liberating people out of their circumstances – taking ownership of the very things that could be used to keep you down. This aggressive stance can bring power and hope to those afraid that luck and privilege are the only means of making an impact on the world.

On the surface, Rock was about sex and fast cars and the awakening of young American culture, which was bad enough, but it was also based on boogie-woogie blues rhythms and found offensive by mainstream American culture for being “black music”. This was part of the appeal of Elvis Presley – mainstream radio finally had a white face to go along with popular tunes.

Hippies / Folk music

As the Vietnam war progressed into the 1960’s, the new “Un-American” was a war protester. Symbolized by their un-soldier-like long hair and beards, the hippies pushed boundaries with their non-violent sit-ins and transcendental meditation. They looked offensive too, with their impractical bell-bottomed jeans and DIY patchwork.
Embroidery has always been a status-flaunting symbol of impracticality – it was all the rage with the satin-clad aristocracy in the courts of Louis XIV, XV and XVI – but after the turn into the 1800’s the world suddenly became wary of men who displayed any signs of overt impracticality. Once a marker of wealth and leisure, it suddenly implied an emasculating deviation from acceptable social standards. Unnecessary patches on pants, floral embroidery on denim shirts, velvet panels inserted into the legs of their hip-hugger blue jeans – all of these things represented a feminized regression from the hypermasculinity of good red-blooded American soldiers, and people found this emasculation terrifying.
            Hippies embraced frightening new concepts like Eastern Philosophy and health food. They were pro-racial-integration, pro-sex, pro-drugs, anti-makeup, anti-bras, and anti-war. They wore gender-neutral clothing with ethnic influences like dashikis and ponchos. Their fashions projected a distancing from “straight” or “square” society and declared their willingness to question authority. High on LSD and strumming to the tunes of Dylan and Led Zeppelin and The Byrds, Hippies were desperately seeking connections – with each other through free love; with their physical surroundings through drug experimentation; with the world at large. “How does it feel / to be without a home / like a complete unknown / like a rolling stone”. Their fear of apathy drew them to sensual and home-grown pleasures: sex and drugs, bright colors and velvety textures, flowers and smiley faces. The arts-and-crafts of tie-dye, macramé, and embroidery had them interacting with their clothing in a sensory-heavy way.


The whole world recognizes punk fashion as black clothing with band patches, splattered with paint and held together with safety pins. Leather jackets, combat boots, multiple piercings and crazy colored hair spiked into mohawks complete the look. The importance of this style (pre-Hot Topic) was its DIY credibility: anybody could attain it in their own bathroom with just a trip to the hardware store. The whole point was to make your own look – and if it pissed people off, so much the better. The music they listened to was The Clash and The Ramones and the New York Dolls and Black Flag and the Sex Pistols: it was loud and it was about misery and death, because that was what could shake you out of your apathy.

The original roots of Punk were in impoverished, working-class inner-cities in Britain and America. Britain was in a recession, and Thatcher-ism and Reaganomics were both conservative backlashes to the free-love hippie culture of the previous decade. Teenagers as a social class had only been recognized for the past few decades, and their lack of a voice in society led to feelings of frustration, boredom and the quest for an outlet for their anger. Punk culture quickly took hold in more affluent suburbs as well, where teenagers felt stifled by complacent affluence. Disillusioned with government and protesting the dominant role of big business, punk kids were pessimistic about their future, and angry music and rebellious fashion was a way for these outcasts to come together.

            Less aggressive than punk, Grunge was still about social alienation, apathy, and a desire for freedom. Kids felt confined by “the establishment” and were disenchanted with society and depressed about their future. The rebellion of the jaded 90’s was more about opting out than aggressively challenging stereotypes.
            Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains all came out of Seattle, and the grunge uniform followed in that style, with practical, outdoorsy clothing and thrift store chic.  Grunge rockers took none of the antagonistic artistic license of punks – this look was cheap but durable and its invisibility ran counter to the flashy “look at me” aesthetic of the 1980’s. Nothing was customized or tailored – it was just unkempt and sloppy. Plaid flannels, thermal undershirts, ripped blue jeans and work boots were the grunge uniform, as were scruffy beards, greasy hair and morning-after makeup. The goal was to look like you didn’t care.


            The fashion for wearing jeans slung low around the hips started in prisons, where belts and shoelaces are taken away from convicts to avoid suicides by hanging. The toughness that prison life projected quickly made its way into the streets through untied sneakers and low-slung pants. This was intensified by the poverty-class tendency of young men to wear the hand-me-downs of their older siblings. If your pants were too big, it meant you had a large older brother who could kick somebody’s ass.
            Like all rebellious fashion, there is never just one reason it takes hold – it has to resonate on a number of levels for it to reach the tipping point where it turns into a wide-spread trend. Along with the dangerousness of prison references, many young black men were tired of off-the-rack clothing being tailored to a different body type. Jeans in particular are cut with attention to the rear end (isn’t that what we all check out in the mirror when trying on new jeans?). Until the more curvy-friendly brands like Apple Bottoms and Baby Phat came along, many young African American men were forced to wear too-large sizes that were cut for (as I’ve been told) “skinny, ass-less white boys”. As a costume designer, I will attest to the impossibility of finding a good pair of men’s jeans that fits slim through the hips and legs but that can curve around a little junk in the trunk. By wearing their jeans low enough to emphasize their non-European-standard bodies, these men were refusing to conform to a societal standard that held subliminal racism, and blatantly – if not aggressively – flaunt their differences.
            Born in poverty-stricken South Bronx, Hip-hop culture was MCing, DJ-ing, and breakdancing. Derived from folk poets of West Africa, Rap was lyrical, boastful poetry, rhymed alone or over music or beatboxing. This music and culture was a direct and artistically obvious way to seize freedom from oppressive social conditions and negotiate an identity; to claim an emblem of ethnicity in a social order that had spectacularly failed to contain their energy and differences. Like other trends that start low and reach high fashion, the once DIY nature of rap and hip-hop also birthed an industry, and now rap artists like Jay-Z, Naz, 50 Cent, Eminem and Lil Wayne are mega-stars, and hip-hop influences are all over fashion runways.
            Like all rebellious sub-cultures, it took 10-20 years on the street before it reached the mainstream, and found a style to crystalize its existence. By then, hip-hop had been married to its association with baggy pants, work boots and oversized logos. Many of the design elements still came out of prison culture – skull and skeleton decorations, tattoo- and graffiti- inspired design motifs – and were joined by the clear status symbols of wealth-flaunting, suddenly-rich drug dealers: diamond earrings, large ornamental belt buckles, and snow- and ski- inspired puffy coats and fur coats.


Every one of these groups has been referred to in their own times as juvenile delinquents and threats to social decency. They were made up primarily of young men disheartened with society – the same society who viewed them as anarchists bent on corrupting the morals of the nation. Teenage frustrations may come out in poorly focused anger and unfathomable fashion sense, but they’re often making genuine critiques of government and society. Young people have always acted out against apathy and the impression of being unwanted outcasts. The themes of disillusionment are usually rooted in racism and poverty – the recipe for rebellion throughout history.

When I was a teenager, I never found a musical genre that I felt spoke for me, but I certainly took advantage of fashion’s ability to express frustration with what I felt were society’s shortcomings. When I dyed my hair green and wore combat boots and chains and a biker jacket and shaved my head  - I was telling people that I was pissed off. I was expressing – in the only language that seemed accessible – that I wasn’t pleased with the future that I felt was being offered to me. It was my rejection of what I believed society wanted me to look like or sound like or be like. In fashion, I had a voice.

Perhaps teenagers have much to teach us about the ways our society isn’t functioning, and since fashion is an important visual message system, maybe we should pay more attention to the trends that piss us off the most. It will remind us of the dangers of being absorbed into the establishment, and keep us from getting complacent and self-satisfied. When I see teenagers today with green hair and spikes in their nose and impractical clothing, I can’t help but pity them with an irritating older-than-thou sigh, and an air of “you’ll get over this some day, just like I did”. But to those teenagers, I also make this promise: I will remember your rage. I will try to see through your stupid clothes and recognize that you are like I was: declaring your distinct voice, raging against injustice and inequality and desperately insisting on being heard.