"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Couture of the Average American–Yecch!

I love American movies of the 40s.  They dealt with serious moral issues, penetrated the depths of character and conflict, and never flinched from moral and ethical dilemmas.  Casablanca, The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, and Citizen Kane were the best of the lot, but I still like They Drive by Night, a story of two hardbitten truck drivers fighting corrupt businessmen to stay alive. 

They Drive by Night (1940) Poster

After Bogart, Joan Fontaine, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart, there were the clothes! Everyone looked great in tuxedos, long dresses, tailored suits, fedoras and snap-brims, overcoats and scarves, mink stoles and hats with veils, long gloves, silk stockings, and high-heeled shoes; riding outfits, hunting outfits, afternoon wear, pearls, earrings, umbrellas, and top hats. .

Everyone dressed up in those days. Looking good was de rigeur.  No man or woman would ever think of going out without dressing up.  Whether to the department store, the movies, or the club; or whether on trains or airplanes, men, women, and children looked classy.

Casual Couture of the Average American

                                 A Travelling Family (Hulton Archive)

Things have changed. We think we look good, but we have lost that 40s certain something.

We shop in cutoffs, sweatpants, flip-flops, raggedy T-shirts, and tank tops. We never dress up for travel. We dress down. Why bother getting all cossetted and dandied for the back of the plane? Summers are hot, so chop the Levis down a few more inches and lose the sleeves on the T-shirt. “What’s the point?”, Americans ask. 

This is not to say that New York does not turn out some fancy couture.  It does, and has surpassed Paris and Milan for élan. It is cool, eclectic, outrageous, and avant-garde.

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                                                              Marc Jacobs

The issue is not with high fashion but with common, ordinary dress.  Why do most of us look like such slobs all the time?

The French have still not lost their sense of everyday style.  No self-respecting Parisian woman would ever stop for un café without looking great.

OK, maybe not so bien taillée as these ladies, but still with a simple cashmere sweater, string of pearls, skirt, and comfortable but stylish shoes.

The Italian term bella figura says it all.  It means looking good, dressing with style; eating, walking, working, relaxing in style.

Even the uniforms of the Italian policemen, soldiers, and carabinieri are more stylish and elegant than those of neighboring countries. Even the road sweepers are more fashionable in their immaculate white coveralls. In addition to being well dressed and well groomed, Italians surround themselves with beauty. Italian cars are known for their design and beauty. Gardens and architecture are vibrant, alive and beautiful. The art, history, architecture, fashion and fine wines of Italy are undisputed. There's an inherent sense of appreciation for color, design and form throughout the land. (Celeste Stewart, Yahoo Voices)

Italian Americans have always maintained a sense of bella figura.  John Gotti may have been a murdering mobster, but he always looked good.

In the few WASP enclaves left in America – on the Vineyard or Nantucket, for example – a visitor will see a lot of tweeds, pearls, and Docksiders.

The rest of us, however, have left behind any pretense of looking good. This is a shame, because not only is it a pleasure to look at someone who looks good, it is painful to see someone who is not.

Manners – another part of bella figura – are practiced out of respect for other people.  It is disgusting to watch a fat tongue push the pastrami around, or someone pick bits of chicken from the serving plate.  We eat with our mouths closed, sit up straight, and keep our hands in our laps to spare the guests across from us.  Good manners go with fine china, crystal, and silver.  Bella figura is an ensemble.

Dressing well adds to the community well-being. Dressing indifferently is like throwing trash on the street. Soon everybody does it.  A social norm has been progressively eroded.  The more people dress in ragged cutoffs and flip flops, the more such casual indifference becomes the rule. 

Despite our faith and belief in our classless society, we are very definitely a stratified one.  The hipsters in San Francisco may look unfashionable, but their pork pie hats, pipe-stem pants, and plaid shirts are absolutely de rigeur in the Mission. Low-end shoppers at Walmart on the other hand, could care less and dress with clothes pulled out of the hamper, or at best some pink plastic Capris. 

The best place to view the fashion of the ordinary American is on the National Mall during the summer tourist season. It is not a pretty sight. 

I have heard Europeans say that they love to visit America because it is so casual.  For once they can leave the restrictive norms of their countries behind.  No one is looking at how they look, whether they sit up properly at table, or if their hair has been properly coiffed.  Anything goes at Ben’s Chili Bowl.  There is no etiquette for eating a sloppy chili dog.

The proper Englishman has an outfit for everything – breakfast, hunting, tea, and dinner – but can bring only one set of clothes for a visit to Washington. T-shirt, sweatpants, and running shoes are perfectly proper attire for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Europeans romanticize our slovenly dress, saying that it is a symbol of our rough-and-tumble democracy.  No prissy upper class pretentions here, no Oxbridge manners, or country estate manners.

There is almost no obesity among French women. The social norms against it are so strong that women will do anything to fit into a size 4, even smoke like chimneys.  It is gratifying, they say, to visit a country where size is no object, overweight is a matter of diversity, and any size  goes.

There are some young American women who always look good no matter where they go. They have mastered American casual fashion – an eclectic but never put-together-looking ensemble of clothes, shoes, accessories, and hairstyles.  They are a pleasure to look at.  They add beauty, style, and presence.  The city is better off because of them.  For them fashion is art, a creative enterprise which expresses character and personality, and shows off designer versatility and inspiration. 

Much has been made of the equality gap in America, rich vs. poor, the One Percent vs. the Ninety-Nine; but there is no reason why lower income must mean looking like a schlub.  French women of modest means have always looked good.  They may have only one or two nice outfits in the closet, but they are tailored and attractive. In Italy and France there has always been a culture of fashion which has known no class distinction.

We are well into the 21st century, and the Old European cultural hegemony is cracking.  Immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East are changing the way France eats, dresses, and prays.  There are still baguettes and charcuteries in the neighborhoods out by the Périphérique but there is more and more halal, shawarma, and couscous.  The headscarf is replacing Hermes, the boubou replacing St. Laurent.

This diversity in fashion is good and Europe is becoming much more American; but with diversity comes individualized cultural norms.  Bella figura in Italy or the ideal svelte woman in France will be things of the past as our ‘anything goes’ ethos spreads worldwide.

So, I am and always will be in favor of looking good. The well-turned out sophisticated woman of the 40s may be a cultural relic, and the few young fashionistas of San Francisco harder to find; but there are still the runways of New York and Los Angeles, high fashion and Hollywood glitz to set the standards of dress.  Maybe more and more of us will get out of our sweatpants and tank tops follow their lead.  I certainly hope so. 

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