Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Moose in the Coffee Shop

Sometime around New Year’s I was sitting in a coffee shop in Chelsea when a man who looked to be in his forties walked in wearing calf-high leather lace-up boots, into which his jeans were tucked, a red flannel jacket, and a wool cap. He was dressed as if he had just gotten back from a hunting trip in 1955. He ordered a coffee, sat down at the table next to me, and proceeded to read the New York Times. There was no moose strapped to the trunk of his car: I learned from a conversation I overheard that he intended to spend most of the day in that fashion. What struck me about his outfit was that just the week before I had noticed an identical pair of boots in a J. Crew catalog on a friend’s kitchen counter. They were prominently displayed as part of the new winter collection. "Red Wing Shoes® went back to the archives to find this one for us," the catalog read, "the Classic Irish Setter [$325.00]. They even brought back the old-style Irish Setter label and Red Wing logo just for us. You won't find this version anywhere else—unless you hit the jackpot in a vintage store. Put them on, and you'll feel like you've stepped back in time—1952 to be exact, when the original version of this style was first introduced." Then just this past week, I was passing a vintage store in the Village when I saw an entire row of similar hunting boots on show in the window. Is “fifties hunter” the trendy retro look of the moment?

The “retro” element has been an important part of fashion since at least the mid-1960s, when pop musicians started rummaging through second-hand clothing shops for particularly flashy items. This kind of vintage fashion always had as its purpose the re-appropriation of out-of-fashion objects. Wearing a nineteenth century military coat or a WWII bomber jacket looked jarring precisely because it would be juxtaposed with contemporary pants and shoes, and/or with items from a totally different era. A hodge-podge look often resulted. The point of re-appropriation was not to look like anything that had been seen before.

Hipsterism has killed re-appropriation. Now the point of retro fashion is not to integrate out-of-fashion items into a new look, but to recreate an entire “out-of-fashion” look from one era or another, whether the look is fifties housewife, seventies housewife, eighties housewife, fifties greaser, eighties greaser, eighties punk, eighties metal fan, eighties hip-hop fan, eighties nerd, etc. (Although of course the range of acceptable eras is limited. No one dresses like a twenties flapper or a belle-epoque society woman, for instance.) American Apparel has created a whole industry out of providing hipsters everything they need to look just like the high school students in eighties sitcoms they’ve seen mostly in re-runs—from t-shirt to backpack to gym socks. A truly enviable hipster will make sure to get an entire look down, coordinating clothes, shoes, hair style, and accessories into an easily identifiable whole. Even when clothes from different eras are worn together, the look will be a sum of identifiable parts. The point here is to look exactly like something that has been seen before.

Which brings us back to the man in the hunting boots in the coffee shop. The condition of his boots, coat and beard (he had a too-perfectly trimmed beard intended to denote a rugged outdoorsman) indicated that his outfit had never seen the woods, and had most likely seen very little besides the box they came in. Why does a grown man dress up like he’s going on a hunting trip in 1955 when in fact he’s going to read the paper in a coffee shop in Chelsea? Today, in New York, this is not ridiculous—it’s trendy. It’s supposed to signify creativeness, individuality. But in fact it reduces individuality to choosing your favorite decade. This is hipsterism. This is what it does to people. And now it is powerful enough that it has reached the middle-aged.

1 comment:

Kaela said...

the last line is killer.