Ivory Tower Style
Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1. 

Our flock finally gathers in a vestibule at the top of the stairs. Eventually I realize that we are all waiting to check in at a bank of fold-out tables mashed together like 8-year olds arriving at summer camp. The harried interns behind the tables probably have cousins in Vermont doing this exact same shit in front of a log cabin by a lake. 

There’s a wait to check in but no apparent effort to stop people from just walking past the check in area and straight into the show. I spend the entirety of my wait in line considering doing exactly this. By the time I had decided to make a go at it, I was already giving my name to harried intern number 3, who found me on “the list” and handed me a card marked “ST”. The guy next to me got an “ST” as well. “They must hate us,” he says to me. So I assume I’m in the standing section. We leave the fluorescent purgatorial light of the check-in area and dive into the dark glow of Studio B. 
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Let me try to describe what I see as the difficulties and opportunities involved in designing a runway show, and how they differ from those involved in designing a collection for a store. When you design clothes for people to wear IRL, you are forced to consider the environment in which they will wear them. Not just things like if the garment is practical or versatile. But how it will look in a sea of jeans and sweatshirts, or business suits, or workout gear, or whatever setting you want to nudge or shove or tickle by placing your design in the middle of it. Your understanding of the world in which your garment lives is a fundamental part of the design of the garment itself.

A runway show is completely different, or at least a very special and pathological case of the problem described above. A runway show is an abstracted, artificial environment. You can, and must, design not only the clothes, but the world in which they live. Humans are present not to work and travel and work out and go on dates but to look at clothes. And ONLY your clothes, without the backgrounds and foils of the crap other people wear. Even the smallest scale, most humble designer is granted no pardon from a sentence of megalomania. He must consider a world in which everyone wears his clothes.

All of this artificiality and grandiosity contributes to the public’s justified perception the whole thing ridiculous. The histrionics that surround the production of a runway show do not show, but they are almost foisted upon the designer. He is forced to have a “vision” - how else can he create the self-contained world that is the runway show? 

The show’s program, left waiting on every seat (some front row types didn’t show up, so I was pulled from the standing room area into a really top-hole seat right across from the blonde mentioned in Part 1; maybe they don’t hate me so much) begins portentously, “What is modern? could be the question that prefaces the Robert Geller Spring/Summer 2015 collection.” It’s easy to be cynical reading this. First of all, given that this is the first sentence of the program that greets us on arrival, not only could this be the question that prefaces the collection, if there is any meaningful way a question can preface a collection, this one has already done it. But beyond that, is this a question that needs to be asked? By a clothing designer? The program continues:

“Robert Geller offers an answer to that question by pulling back from past seasons narratives, allowing himself to focus on essential shapes and colors, hence carrying out his interpretation of modernity.”

My first reaction is that, my upgraded view notwithstanding, they must really hate me after all. But my second is a deep sympathy for the plight of the fashion designer. 

Coming Soon: Part 3.

Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

Our flock finally gathers in a vestibule at the top of the stairs. Eventually I realize that we are all waiting to check in at a bank of fold-out tables mashed together like 8-year olds arriving at summer camp. The harried interns behind the tables probably have cousins in Vermont doing this exact same shit in front of a log cabin by a lake. 

There’s a wait to check in but no apparent effort to stop people from just walking past the check in area and straight into the show. I spend the entirety of my wait in line considering doing exactly this. By the time I had decided to make a go at it, I was already giving my name to harried intern number 3, who found me on “the list” and handed me a card marked “ST”. The guy next to me got an “ST” as well. “They must hate us,” he says to me. So I assume I’m in the standing section. We leave the fluorescent purgatorial light of the check-in area and dive into the dark glow of Studio B. 

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Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 1)

So I went to my first fashion show. It was Robert Geller. It’s a little bit strange that he was my first, since I don’t own anything from his brand, nor could I have told you anything about it before the show. Maybe I should have held out for someone I really cared about, but whatever. I guess I’m easy and don’t even care if everyone knows it.

In some ways the fashion show experience is a metaphor for the fashion world as a whole. The core of it is that some people walk around wearing some clothes. That’s it. But because wearing clothes is such a banal activity, and therefore watching someone wear clothes, by the Law of Indirect Exponential Banality, is at least twice as banal, there has be a lot of hubbub and brouhaha to make the event and all the people involved in it seem Important.

The first step in this process is waiting. I arrived at showtime right on the cuckoo but found only a bunch of people milling around in the ground floor lobby area. I ask someone with a clipboard how to get to the Robert Geller show and he looks at me like it was it was the second day of school and I had just asked him to senior prom. “We’re not letting people up just yet.” So I become one of the people milling around in the ground floor lobby area.

Let’s just get a couple of questions out of the way first, because in my experience this is what people are most curious about. How hot are the girls, and how gay are the dudes? The answers are that the dudes are pretty gay and the girls are not that hot (NTTAWWT). There was exactly one truly attractive woman there, a beauteous blonde wearing white hot pants, boots, and a baseball cap with “NEW FREAKING YORK” printed on it, just like that, in big bold capitals. The other women there were in dresses and heels and looked like they wanted to be models but had to settle for listening to the gay guys call them “fabulous” for the last twenty years but still loved every second of it.  
To be honest I don’t know if the fashion people assembled here consider themselves part of something Important, which understanding is nurtured by the whole royal antechamber scene here and the glossy magazines and New York City and the New York Times allocation of staff writers to the Style section. Or if they just like clothes like I do, only they feel less guilty about it. In either case, they all seem to be having such a good time that it feels downright misanthropic to question how seriously they do or should take themselves. 
For me, dressing for a fashion show is an odd exercise. IRL, you can manipulate how much attention people pay to your clothes, and how much attention people think you pay to your own clothes. At a fashion show, both are automatically turned up to 11 because fashun. So does this mean you should wear your wildest shit because you can now close the curtain on the charade of pretending that you don’t care about what you’re wearing? Or is “dressing up for a fashion show” just the kind of thing an overeager neophyte would do? But then for the same reason maybe wearing a simple T-shirt and jeans is the most insistently and pathetically delusional thing you can possibly do, like following Phish around for a summer but insisting you’re “not really that big a fan.” Most of the other dudes at the show had had probably spent enough time watching people wear clothes professionally not to feel this tension.  
Anyway, I wore a white seersucker shirt and linen pants because it was hot as a rhino’s asshole outside. Don’t think anybody cared. 
After a half hour, everyone started herding up a flight of stairs to where the show will be. We don’t know exactly on whose authority we have started this migration, nor exactly where we are going, but nobody seems to question whether we’re doing the right thing. Like I said, the whole thing’s a metaphor. 

Part 2 to come soon.

Blinded by the Light: My First Fashion Show (Part 1)

So I went to my first fashion show. It was Robert Geller. It’s a little bit strange that he was my first, since I don’t own anything from his brand, nor could I have told you anything about it before the show. Maybe I should have held out for someone I really cared about, but whatever. I guess I’m easy and don’t even care if everyone knows it.

In some ways the fashion show experience is a metaphor for the fashion world as a whole. The core of it is that some people walk around wearing some clothes. That’s it. But because wearing clothes is such a banal activity, and therefore watching someone wear clothes, by the Law of Indirect Exponential Banality, is at least twice as banal, there has be a lot of hubbub and brouhaha to make the event and all the people involved in it seem Important.

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Therefore my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out - bear with me - and let me go on, and tell my story my own way - or if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road - or should sometime put on a fool’s cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along - don’t fly off - but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside - and as we jog along, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do any thing - only keep your temper.
Laurence Sterne, Tristan Shandy
The Unbearable Politeness of Being
I have been politely nudged no less than five times in the last week to read this well-polished gem of humblebraggery on ‘How to be Polite’, by Gentleman Paul Ford. So I have, and have been duly regaled by the author’s lamentation of our current impolitic times, and how far ahead in life and love he has gotten by sending thank you cards, “turn[ing] the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker”, and not touching anyone’s hair without permission until “at least six or more years of marriage.”
I will try, though my editorial muscles twitch with vituperative energy, to refrain from mentioning the many ways in which this article is poorly written. (Okay, allow me just one as a proof of concept: “at least six or more years” reduces to simply at least six years. The “or more” is superfluous.) I want to focus on the message, since it bothers me more.

Politeness, like irony, another overused tool in the modern arsenal, is a way of protecting oneself from any genuine communication or exposure. Gent Ford admits as much:

What I found most appealing was the way that the practice of etiquette let you draw a protective circle around yourself and your emotions.

To further demonstrate that his politeness is not really for serious, Gent Ford tells us explicitly that it’s a sort of game he plays, only everyone else is too self-absorbed to figure it out, or possibly even care:

A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. The two raconteurs communicate using hand signals and keep a tally on a sheet of paper or in their minds. You’d think people would notice but they are so amused by the attention that the fact you’re playing Raconteur escapes their attention.

Gent Ford proudly tells us of one particularly successful episode in which he engaged a “very beautiful woman” in conversation so relentlessly speaker-directed that he “didn’t reveal a single detail about himself, including [his] name.” (If two Raconteurs stumble into a face-to-face, what happens? Does the conversation hover in between them, held in stasis by equal and opposite forces, cat-and-buttered-toast style?)
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that those who aren’t quite beautiful enough to be as oblivious as this particular partner question the sincerity of Gent Ford’s attentions. In fact, the piece begins with a coworker telling him that she at first considered him “a terrible ass-kisser” but later decided to accept his politeness as a productive “strategy.” Gent Ford asides to us that this co-worker is being impolite, then graciously thanks her and moves on with the rest of his story about what a successful life strategy politeness is.
Towards the end of the article, Gent Ford tells us (reluctantly, by his own account, but I have my doubts) about “another aspect of his politeness.”:

I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy….This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.

Can I suggest that there’s a fertile middle ground of interaction between telling a stranger you love them in the midst of a hot run of Raconteur and waiting until a seventh year of well-mannered marriage to touch their hair? Despite having never been married for even one second, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of some quite spontaneous and uninvited hair-touching (even grabbing), and never felt the need to send or demand an apology email the next day. I would also like for the people I meet to get something out of talking to me that they wouldn’t be able to get from a chat bot programmed with state-of-the-art politeness, even if it’s just my name. 
The biggest mistakes of my life have come not from forgetting my manners, but from allowing them to form a barrier between myself and someone I cared about, and prevent us from caring about each other more. Just as irony as a cultural norm interdicts the question of “what do you really mean?” as banal, a culture of politeness interdicts the same question as rude and invasive. In both cases, we are alienated from each other.
I don’t know what Gentleman Ford really means with this article. I don’t know if he is hand-signaling to someone as we read, amazed that politeness and an anecdote about prostitution is enough to win him an Internet. I don’t know if he is genuine when he tells me that he “like[s] and respect[s]” me, or if he’s just being nice. It’s a performative piece of writing on a performative way of living, and therefore both very clickable and completely inscrutable. But I hope its influence is minimal, because the seed of intimacy isn’t politeness. It’s sincerity.

The Unbearable Politeness of Being

I have been politely nudged no less than five times in the last week to read this well-polished gem of humblebraggery on ‘How to be Polite’, by Gentleman Paul Ford. So I have, and have been duly regaled by the author’s lamentation of our current impolitic times, and how far ahead in life and love he has gotten by sending thank you cards, “turn[ing] the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker”, and not touching anyone’s hair without permission until “at least six or more years of marriage.”

I will try, though my editorial muscles twitch with vituperative energy, to refrain from mentioning the many ways in which this article is poorly written. (Okay, allow me just one as a proof of concept: “at least six or more years” reduces to simply at least six years. The “or more” is superfluous.) I want to focus on the message, since it bothers me more.

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SEX, POWER, AND SUITING? 

Cameron Wolf an article in Business of Fashion magazine that has me perplexed. The thesis of the piece is that skinny suits of the sort designed by Thom Browne and Hedi Slimane have re-injected men’s suits with a forceful thrust of sex and power. “The slim suit is where sex and power converge,” says Wolf.

Perhaps tellingly, the article’s only photo is a picture of Barack Obama wearing a suit that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the skinny, or shrunken, suit popularized by Browne and Slimane (pictured above - Browne suits on top, Slimane for Dior in the black and white photos). Because nothing about the skinny suit projects sex or power.

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…irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.
David Foster Wallace

WTF DO YOU CALL THIS THING?

As someone who writes above men’s clothing on a fairly regular basis, you would think I’d have some vocabulary to describe the above object. But I do not. Instead I perform all manner of verbal contortions to avoid naming it. 

You could just call it a “shirt.” This is accurate, but not very precise. In Italian, the word “camicia” means specifically this kind of shirt, one that has buttons on the front and a collar and can be worn with a tie. But in English, “shirt” is a genus, not a species. It can also refer to tee-shirts and Henleys and polos. 

"Collared shirt" is a little more specific but still includes polos. "Button down" might be the most often used, but is inaccurate. Use this term in public enough times and someone will surely take it upon themselves to tell you that "button down" refers to a shirt with a button-down collar, not a buttoned front.

Brooks Brothers uses "dress shirt", but this term used to refer to shirts worn with black and white tie. Maybe that kind of shirt is now archaic enough that we can shift the meaning, but UK retailers such as Budd and Turnbull and Asser still use the term in its original office, and instead use “formal shirt” for the category I’m trying to name, which to this American ear sounds like a tuxedo shirt.

Is the disagreement over the meaning of “dress shirt” broken into British and American sides? Do any American retailers use “dress shirt” to mean a tuxedo shirt? If not, is this dichotomy tenable or should we allow the American side of the “dress shirt” debate to win? 

If we wanted a new word, what should it be? “Button up” shirt? “Button front” shirt? I await your suggestions.

Update:For those proposing “oxford shirt”, oxford refers to the cloth, not the shirt style. 

Photo from No Man Walks Alone.

Nudity is often thought to be the natural condition when we are most simply ourselves, but it is also the state when we can least well tell the social, intellectual, moral condition of the person in front of us. Roman culture, even more than modern society, was obsessed with visible signs of status, honour and position, strongly and clearly marked out. Nudity hides the clothes, jewels and other badges of office which let the world know who this citizen is. A shared space where nakedness in fact concealed a man’s status might well have produced anxiety. Clothes do make the man.
Simon Goldhill, “The Perfect Body
Molapola made the terrible mistake of inviting me to write a guest post on the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney. I tried to make my review at least as vulgar as the show itself. Sample quote:

The blurb next to a shiny statue of Bob Hope tells us that “by transforming his lowbrow readymades into highbrow art and making his historical sources more contemporary, Koons achieves a kind of democratic leveling of culture.” I question how highbrow the art really is (“highbrow” is one of those terms, like “fornication,” that is mostly used by people who have only an imagined relationship with the concept in question), although the Whitney may actually believe that any art becomes highbrow by virtue of its being shown at the Whitney. But leaving that aside, Koons achieves a democratic leveling of culture by selling balloon dogs for $60 mil like Dolce and Gabbana achieves democratic leveling of fashion by selling $900 track pants.

Read the whole thing here.

Molapola made the terrible mistake of inviting me to write a guest post on the Jeff Koons retrospective at the Whitney. I tried to make my review at least as vulgar as the show itself. Sample quote:

The blurb next to a shiny statue of Bob Hope tells us that “by transforming his lowbrow readymades into highbrow art and making his historical sources more contemporary, Koons achieves a kind of democratic leveling of culture.” I question how highbrow the art really is (“highbrow” is one of those terms, like “fornication,” that is mostly used by people who have only an imagined relationship with the concept in question), although the Whitney may actually believe that any art becomes highbrow by virtue of its being shown at the Whitney. But leaving that aside, Koons achieves a democratic leveling of culture by selling balloon dogs for $60 mil like Dolce and Gabbana achieves democratic leveling of fashion by selling $900 track pants.

Read the whole thing here.

FASHION IS DEAD! LONG LIVE FASHION!
The first catechism learned by every aspiring Internet Gentleman (which last year displaced Norm MacDonald’s infamous Crack Whore Trainee as the worst job in the world) is that their interest is in style, not fashion, which is for women, or possibly the gays (NTTAWWT). Style is meant to describe timeless grace, easy elegance, and all that rot, while fashion is about runway shows, new (probably Chinese or Russian) money, and brand whoring. One of the most trafficked menswear blogs is even called Permanent Style in homage to this shibboleth.
The second iGent catechism is that style was brought into its most perfect form at some time in the 30s by men of flawless taste and character, and set down in the pages of the trade publication Apparel Arts so that future generations might receive the good word that the question of what gentlemen should wear had been answered.
Anyone who has ever read even a couple of articles in Apparel Arts knows that this is a ruse.  AA was a trade publication. The main target audience was the retail industry. It was not (mainly) a magazine about how to buy or wear clothes. It was a magazine about how to sell clothes. That’s not to say that the ideas aren’t good or the illustrations aren’t charming. It’s a very well done magazine, the kind that hardly exists anymore. But that’s because today’s magazines are aimed at the customer, not the retailer. Hence the endless coverage of what Ryan Gosling is wearing or which of the fragrances sold at the Duty Free shop are most likely to get you in bed with Kate Upton.
But I digress from my thesis, which is that the first two iGent catechisms are contradictory. Apparel Arts never championed “timeless” dress. In fact, quite the opposite, as shown by this quotation, which I stumbled upon in Gent’s Gazette’s article on the drape cut:

…men have been less inclined to buy new suits simply because, but only when their old ones were worn out. Thus the men’s clothing industry has been in a long decline. For there has been nothing to accelerate suit buying, even when times were good, other than price, pattern, and color—all three very weak as compared to the slate wiping effect of a sudden and complete model change.
The war ended the age of style and inaugurated the age of fashion. That was not apparent at the time, but its truth has become increasingly evident every year since. In other words, the days when manufacturers could with impunity “put over a style,” in disregard of the trend of authentic fashion, were really at an end the moment the period of post-war disenchantment began. Some manufacturers learned the lesson soon, others late, but all learned it, some with greater sorrow than others, as the years rolled by. Fashion, for men, became concerned with minutiae of accessories and embellishments, brooking no change in the basic structure of “coat, vest, and pants”, in which sales, most naturally, lagged behind.
…
Draped clothing must be sold on an entirely new basis. That is the danger—and that is the big advantage. It offers a chance to wipe the slate clean—to batter down all the old conceptions—to make men realize that they need new suits now, not because the old ones are worn out, not because there is lofty economic patriotism in a “buy now” decision, but because, at last, the time has come when one’s old suits are “dated” by something more than wear.

Read carefully here. Not only does the author lament that the basic structure of coat, vest, and pants remains unchanged, he calls this era of ossification the Age of Fashion. And he calls what preceded it - presumably with a rapid churn of different cuts and details, which accelerated suit-buying - the Age of Style. So not only is style not permanent, even the matching of word to concept is not permanent. Apparel Arts, iGent Bible, did indeed advocate for “style, not fashion.” But in doing so it meant the exact opposite of what the phrase means today.

FASHION IS DEAD! LONG LIVE FASHION!

The first catechism learned by every aspiring Internet Gentleman (which last year displaced Norm MacDonald’s infamous Crack Whore Trainee as the worst job in the world) is that their interest is in style, not fashion, which is for women, or possibly the gays (NTTAWWT). Style is meant to describe timeless grace, easy elegance, and all that rot, while fashion is about runway shows, new (probably Chinese or Russian) money, and brand whoring. One of the most trafficked menswear blogs is even called Permanent Style in homage to this shibboleth.

The second iGent catechism is that style was brought into its most perfect form at some time in the 30s by men of flawless taste and character, and set down in the pages of the trade publication Apparel Arts so that future generations might receive the good word that the question of what gentlemen should wear had been answered.

Anyone who has ever read even a couple of articles in Apparel Arts knows that this is a ruse.

Read More