Thursday, January 13, 2011

Preppy paradox (20 July 2007)

Ordinarily I would have ignored this, but it seemed relevant to points I was trying to get at in the post about sprezzatura. A dubious trend piece in the Wall Street Journal the other day charted the return of the preppy look. This sort of story has a boilerplate feel to it, and you probably know without even having to click through how it reads -- a list of consumer goods that have been marketed heavily recently are rattled off to establish the appearance of a trend, and then some fashion industry flacks are quoted to produce the illusion of substantiation. Let me tell you, if a retailer or an industry analyst confirms an "important" trend , then it must really be happening. This article cites John Murray, co-owner of Murray's Toggery Shop, veteran rap-video director Julien "Little X" Lutz (who proclaims ""Hip-hop is rapping about money and power and women, which is perfect for preps"), and Susanna Salk, the author of A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style.

Anyway, what caught my attention was this paradoxical statement by Salk: "Preppy fashion is so iconic now. There's a nostalgia element to it. It's certainly a privilege to live in a manner that doesn't evolve, doesn't change." Put aside for a moment the fact that this makes no sense on the face of it -- how can something that doesn't change come in and out of fashion? And it's very easy to adopt a wardrobe that doesn't change; wear a uniform -- put on a gray-flannel suit. This requires no particular privilege, except that which supplies the strength of mind to transcend trends, the allure of belonging to the zeitgeist -- the bonuses of being alive in this particular time. Perhaps we fantasize of such transcendence while realizing we don't really want it -- we want to buy a consumer good that just evokes it for us, gives a chance to daydream about long summer months, year after year in Nantucket, without having to live out the tedium and the coruscating snobbery.

But in the sense that preppy fashion offers the opportunity to purchase the illusion of permanence without the rigor that comes with upholding a standard, it makes sense. The statement is true not merely of preppy fashion but of all fashion which often attempts to sell timelessness as a transient, thrilling experience -- the exciting thrill of participation in the present moment and the fleeting sense that this moment is the most important moment and will last forever. Through nostalgia fashion, you get the thrill of participating in something with an ersatz tradition without actually having to do something as boring as adhere to a rigid code. Via well-marketed products -- iconic nostalgia for the now -- you can dupe yourself into believing you can get style without propriety -- you can be like Castiglione's courtiers without actually having talent or ethics.

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