Get those hipsters and their dungarees off my lawn

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In some effort to demonstrate maximal fogeyness George Will has decide to devote today's column inches to (and I'm not making this up) denouncing blue jeans:
It is, he says, a manifestation of "the modern trend toward undifferentiated dressing, in which we all strive to look equally shabby." Denim reflects "our most nostalgic and destructive agrarian longings -- the ones that prompted all those exurban McMansions now sliding off their manicured lawns and into foreclosure." Jeans come prewashed and acid-treated to make them look like what they are not -- authentic work clothes for horny-handed sons of toil and the soil. Denim on the bourgeoisie is, Akst says, the wardrobe equivalent of driving a Hummer to a Whole Foods store -- discordant.

So, let's start with this: the rap against Hummers (and SUVs in general) is that they're conspicuous consumption: they're expensive, consume a lot of gas, accelerate slowly, and handle badly. So, unless you're doing a lot of driving offroad or through downtown Mogadishu, a Hummer isn't a particularly good choice on its own merits. What it is good for, however, is signalling that you have a lot of money. Not that this argument applies to some extent to sports cars, but at least a fast, good-handling car is fun to drive even if you're not doing a lot of speeding. None of this applies to jeans, which are generally fairly cheap: you certainly can buy expensive jeans but you can also buy cheap jeans (I generally wear 501s which run about $30-40). Obviously, you can pay a couple of hundred dollars for jeans, but outside of sweats they're about the cheapest pants you can buy, so the conspicuous consumption angle doesn't really hold water.

Really, Will has this exactly backwards: jeans are cheap, comfortable, and durable. Even more than durable, they wear well: you can wear jeans long after the point where the level of wear would require you to discard (say) khakis. In other words they're practical clothing. It's people who wear (for instance) suits, who are paying more to make a statement about their wealth and taste and getting a less functional garment.

Long ago, when James Dean and Marlon Brando wore it, denim was, Akst says, "a symbol of youthful defiance." Today, Silicon Valley billionaires are rebels without causes beyond poses, wearing jeans when introducing new products. Akst's summa contra denim is grand as far as it goes, but it only scratches the surface of this blight on Americans' surfaces. Denim is the infantile uniform of a nation in which entertainment frequently features childlike adults ("Seinfeld," "Two and a Half Men") and cartoons for adults ("King of the Hill"). Seventy-five percent of American "gamers" -- people who play video games -- are older than 18 and nevertheless are allowed to vote. In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies (the six -- so far -- "Batman" adventures and "Indiana Jones and the Credit-Default Swaps," coming soon to a cineplex near you). Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

I'm tempted to let this little bit of fuddy-duddyism (Seinfeld! Video games! Get off my lawn you damn kids!) stand on its own, but no, let's take it seriously. Will's argument here, such as it is, appears to be that jeans represent a denial of the concept of taste, but let's go back to the beginning of the screed where he complains that people buy jeans which are acid-washed, distressed, etc.—in other words they're not just pulling whatever crap they can find off the shelves, they're exercising, you guessed it, taste. Moreover, I'm pretty certain that if you're the kind of person who buys high-end denim you actually have a pretty good idea of what constitutes good taste in denim and what doesn't, let alone good taste in clothes generally. [For more than you ever wanted to know about high-end denim, check out Style Forum (link from Hovav Shacham).] The lesson here is simple: just because Will can't distinguish stylish denim from non-stylish denim (any more than I can distinguish a high-end tie from a low-end one) doesn't mean there isn't a difference.

Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances. But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.

At this point, things have gone pretty far off the rails: jeans are simultaneously a calculated costume but yet their wearers don't believe in taste. Huh? Even if we ignore my above point about how jeans actually do embody quite a few taste cues, the wearing of jeans only makes sense as a fashion cue if embedded in a cultural matrix (I've always wanted to say that) in which people who are supposed to dress a certain way to signal good taste and maturity—it just subverts that sense of taste by preferring something that's nominally something that is worn by the working class. If Will wants to complain that people who wear jeans are thumbing their nose at the man, fine, but that's a totally different complaint than that people who wear jeans are denying that such norms exist.

Do not blame Levi Strauss for the misuse of Levi's. When the Gold Rush began, Strauss moved to San Francisco planning to sell strong fabric for the 49ers' tents and wagon covers. Eventually, however, he made tough pants, reinforced by copper rivets, for the tough men who knelt on the muddy, stony banks of Northern California creeks, panning for gold. Today it is silly for Americans whose closest approximation of physical labor consists of loading their bags of clubs into golf carts to go around in public dressed for driving steers up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Abilene.

This sentence is actually unfortunate, since there is a much richer target than jeans, which is to say outdoor wear. Hang out in your average Starbucks and you'll see plenty of people wearing Mountain Hardwear or Patagonia gear you could probably use to scale the North Face of the Eiger (I own jackets from both MH and Patagonia here, so I'm not exactly immune from this criticism), which is a bit overkill in terms of keeping you warm at the refrigerator in front of the counter1.

This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don't wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.

And now we come to Will's true (though absurd) objection: his sense of men's style was frozen sometime in the 1950s and 1960s and he resents that times have changed. Except that he's just making this up, because I'm pretty sure that Fred Astaire would not have worn this visor:

Moreover, I can't help myself: why Fred Astaire? Why not, say, Beau Brummell, or maybe, Alcibiades. The answer, of course, is that George Will was born in 1941 and so Fred Astaire lines up with his formative years. If he'd been born in 1841 he'd be complaining about how kids didn't wear frock coats any more. Nothing wrong with having your taste set in a certain era—it happens to everyone eventually—but acting as if your particular taste is universal law does make you look fairly silly.

1. Yeah, yeah, I ripped this off from Clueless.

UPDATE: Young fogey Hovav Shacham informs me that I needed to change morning coat to frock coat.

3 Comments

You might want to go back to 7th grade and get a refresher on how analogies work.

"None of this applies to jeans"

No duh, he's not comparing Hummers to jeans!

jeans:bourgeoisie::Hummer:Whole Foods

Note that the comparison is between the *relationships*, not the objects themselves. He even explicitly says what the two relationships have in common: they are "discordant."


"Even if we ignore my above point about how jeans actually do embody quite a few taste cues, the wearing of jeans only makes sense as a fashion cue if embedded in a cultural matrix (I've always wanted to say that) in which people who are supposed to dress a certain way to signal good taste and maturity—it just subverts that sense of taste by preferring something that's nominally something that is worn by the working class."

Besides the need for an editor, you betray your poor critical reading skills. Will made this exact point:

"Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste."

Will's point is not that denim "[denies] that such norms exist," but rather that it loudly denounces those norms. If looks really didn't matter, hipsters wouldn't go out of their way to look just like everyone else.

"...[T]hings have gone pretty far off the rails: jeans are simultaneously a calculated costume but yet their wearers >don't believe

It's more like "I >don't believedon't believe

hm, my comment's been cut off.


"...[T]hings have gone pretty far off the rails: jeans are simultaneously a calculated costume but yet their wearers don't believe in taste."

It's more like "I don't believe in Communism" than "I don't believe in the Easter Bunny." It's a denouncement, not a denial.


You might want to go back to 7th grade and get a refresher on how analogies work.


"None of this applies to jeans"


No duh, he's not comparing Hummers to jeans!


jeans:bourgeoisie::Hummer:Whole Foods


Note that the comparison is between the *relationships*, not the objects themselves. He even explicitly says what the two relationships have in common: they are "discordant."



Yes, yes, I know how analogies work. But discordant doesn't tell us anything useful, it's
just a pure expression of Will's (and Akst's) dislike for denim, and nonsensical to boot
since whoever Will thinks should wear jeans, it's the bourgeoisie who do. And when you actually
*read* the paragraph, it's fairly clear that Will's objection is to the signal that he thinks denim
is designed to throw off, the same signal that SUVs throw off: I'm rugged. (I freely
admit, I blew it on the money thing, which is a bit irrelevant). But the difference
is that an SUV is a form of signaling contra your own interests (i.e., it actually sucks)
whereas jeans do not. Which is why this is a silly analogy. Not to mention that jeans
actually don't carry that signal and haven't for 25 years at least. As I said, if you want
to throw off that signal you have to wear real work gear or hiking gear.



"Even if we ignore my above point about how jeans actually do embody quite a few taste cues, the wearing of jeans only makes sense as a fashion cue if embedded in a cultural matrix (I've always wanted to say that) in which people who are supposed to dress a certain way to signal good taste and maturity—it just subverts that sense of taste by preferring something that's nominally something that is worn by the working class."


Besides the need for an editor, you betray your poor critical reading skills.


Will made this exact point:
"Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy's catechism of leveling -- thou shalt not dress better than society's most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism -- of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste."



Yes, my point is that these paragraphs contradict each other. To the extent to which people
wear jeans as any kind of political statement (not much, unless you're wearing them to
some event with a real dress code) it's not that they're saying that
appearance doesn't matter but that looking like a guy in a suit (and being the kind of guy
who would wear a suit) is bad. And the paragraph I quoted acknowledges that: it's
a calculated subversion. But the paragraph you're quoting denies that, because
Will imputes to the denim wearer the belief that appearances don't matter.



It's more like "I don't believe in Communism" than "I don't believe in the Easter Bunny." It's a denouncement, not a denial.


Yes, I agree with this statement.


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