Now that Philosophy is a “skincare technology” that “brings beauty to the body and the mind” and Theory is a fashion line and Anthropology—sorry, Anthropologie—is a lifestyle choice (“a destination for women wanting a curated mix of clothing, accessories, gifts and home décor that reflects their personal style and fuels their lives’ passions, from fashion to art to entertaining”), shouldn’t Irony be a designer scent?
In a sense, it already is. It clings to the pages of T, the New York Times style magazine. Context is everything, and ironic context is a gift to critics everywhere. The September 15, 2013 men’s fashion edition of T arrives, whistling “We’re in the Money,” at a moment when millions of Americans are still crawling from the bomb crater of the most protracted economic “contraction” since the Great Depression.
Satisfyingly heavy in that old-money way, like Harris tweed or hand-tooled brogues, T is fat with photo spreads starring Hèrmes sweatshirts ($5,400—for a sweatshirt) and Louis Vuitton bags ($3,950). Ads for wristwatches keep time throughout the issue, holding down the backbeat of subliminal seduction. Here, on page 39, is the Cartier Tank MC watch (a steal at $20,800—not counting sales tax, of course). There, on page 49, is the Chopard Superfast Power Control, whose “imposing case” in 18-karat rose gold “gives it a powerful presence on the wrist and an assertive personality,” befitting any job-cutting CEO or lion of the boardroom (yours for just $28,690). And here, in an advertorial on page 74, is the Ultra-Thin Tourbillon watch from Asprey and Arnold & Son, whose suggested retail price—merely a suggestion, mind you—is $83,000.
(What is it with the rich and their watches? It’s a timepiece, for fuck’s sake; unscrew the futurrific folderol and you’ve got a vestigial hunk of embarrassingly mechanical technology, little changed since its Victorian origins. Setting aside its use-value as a status totem, a watch, no matter how exalted, is an existential metronome, marking the inexorable creep of your life toward that hole in the ground. So wear it, wind it, and shut up about it, already. No amount of Alpha-male fantasizing about Superfast Power Control will buy you one little tick of its second hand.)
Yes, I know: that’s the sound of my closet Marxist, scrabbling to get out.
Maybe it’s the worshipful profile of Antoine Arnault that ran up the red flag in my political unconscious. Arnault “spent his youth enjoying the spoils of being the LVMH titan’s eldest son” but “by successfully betting on high-end men’s wear as an ever-ripening luxury category” is “quickly proving that nepotism only goes so far.” Maybe it’s the fawning, cap-in-hand tour of André Dubreuil’s ancestral seat, a “grand 18th-century chateau” that Monsieur Dubreuil, “with his characteristic wit and humble charm…has devoted decades”—not to mention the GNP of your average banana republic—“to breathing life back into.” Maybe it’s the brief item on the black artist Tavares Strachan, which opens with the quote, “I am interested in the idea of the invisible, and how a given member of a society can be erased from its narrative,” in a magazine whose 163 pages include, by my careful count, four black men (not counting the thumbnail images of Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, and Kanye West on page 52, or of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and John Lee Hooker on page 162). (The erasure of black faces from the fashion narrative is, of course, old news: Vogue covers are, with rare exception, racially cleansed, and African-American models like Marcia Mitchell are used to hearing agencies tell her, as she told NPR, “We’re not doing black girls this season.”)
Again, context is everything, and ironic context gives false consciousness a poke in the eye. Dolly back the camera to take in the world beyond T’s pages, where the official unemployment rate of 7.3 per cent, which is bad enough, may in fact be worse: closer to 11.3 percent, or 11.3 million Americans unemployed, if we take into account those who have slipped under government radar because they’ve given up looking for work. To add insult to injury, corporate profits have skyrocketed by 50 percent since the beginning of the recession, “thanks,” as John Cassidy notes in The New Yorker, “to efforts at shedding jobs and keeping down wages”; at the same time, the wealthiest 10 percent of the nation that owns 90 percent of all stocks has ridden the Dow’s rise to a collective windfall of seven trillion dollars. Meanwhile, the household income of families smack in the middle of the income pyramid has slumped below its pre-recession level, which by the way was nothing to brag about: real hourly wages for Americans in the middle of income-distribution charts have been flat since 2000. “Taking all these things together,” Cassidy writes, “the Great Recession and its aftermath have accentuated the long-term trend of rising inequality. … In 2012, the top 10 per cent of earners received about 50 per cent of all the income that the economy generated, and the top one per cent received 22.5 per cent.”
You’ll never believe it, but, truth to tell, I like fashion. More accurately, I like style: the idiosyncratic use of clothing, whether curated from the racks of mass outlets or mashed-up from yard sales or vintage boutiques or all of the above, as a medium of self-expression, a public-address system for broadcasting who you are. Why should fascists have the best boots? Historically, the Left, in postwar America, has sneered at fashion as frivolous, fatuous, and irredeemably bourgeois, embracing body hair, B.O., Salvation Army schmatte-wear, and a determined frumpiness as tokens of anti-establishment authenticity, clenched-fist solidarity with the working class, and conscientious objection to the Beauty Myth propagated by women’s magazines, Mad men, and Hollywood. (Think of John Lennon in his U.S. Army jacket, at the height of his rumpled, power-to-the-people earnestness; now think of John cutting the dash in a mod suit and fur jacket at the opening of Apple Tailoring in London, 1968. Think of Bob Dylan in dustbowl-Oakie drag; now think of Bob in his Don’t Look Back days, licensed to kill in skinny jeans, Italian boots, and dark sunglasses. The prosecution rests.)
To this day, my leftish friends of a certain age define fashion as any investment in appearance whatsoever, and view it with deep suspicion as clear evidence of counterrevolutionary tendencies. But why must ethics and aesthetics be at odds? “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” Wilde reminds us in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The ironic aphorism, slyly disguising social criticism as aesthetic pose, was Wilde’s trademark. “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” If cultural studies taught us anything, it’s that political activism or personal liberation sometimes assume the guise of the “rituals of resistance” and “revolt through style” acted out in subcultures and fandoms. It made us think about the politics of plumage; showed us how dressing up, or dressing down, could be a sort of semiotic guerrilla warfare. I’ll never forget meeting two rock stars of cultural studies for drinks, sometime in the ‘90s. Both were fellow travelers on the Left; both tended toward dandyism. By way of a hello, one greeted the other, “Well, —, have you worn any clothes lately?” The inflection hinted at world where Barthes and Beau Brummel were joined at the hip. I wanted to live there. Forever.
Unfortunately, those of us in the H&M tax bracket can’t afford to. Which is why T magazine is for us, too, though only as an aid to aspirational masturbation. Wandering through its pages gives me that ‘80s feeling, the feeling I used to get listening to New Romantic synth-rock (Rage in Eden by Ultravox, Speak and Spell by Depeche Mode) and high-gloss techno-pop (“Images of Heaven” by Michael Godwin, “Wood Beez” by Scritti Politti). It’s the feeling of being one of the Beautiful People, of stepping into an haute-couture fashion layout where every hair is artfully styled and no one sweats (unless, of course, a little grittiness is required, in which case the stylist is handy with his spritz bottle). It’s the sensation of becoming one with aesthetic perfection; of living in a world where the triumph of artifice is complete. Unfortunately, it’s a feeling that only lasts the length of a pop song. Or the time it takes to browse a magazine.
Or until your class consciousness rears its unfashionable head.