Dressing up vs. Growing up

A recent story in the New York Times, “Dressing for success, again” cited the show “Mad Men” as influencing the younger generation to dress up, in contrast to us middle-agers who (at least as a generation) made dressing down the norm.  On the one hand it’s interesting to have a generational flip-flop where getting dressed (as opposed to dressing down) might be a signifier of youth.  On the other hand we may be witnessing a regressive flight toward fashion (particularly materialism) in the context of a culture on the brink of both collapse and new growth.

“It’s these young guys rebelling against their boomer dads,” said Russell Smith, 45, the author of “Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress” and an advice columnist for The Globe and Mail in Toronto. “But it’s very amusing and paradoxical that the new anti-parental paradigm involves a pinstripe suit and a pocket square.”

Wow.  We have a “new anti-parental paradigm” folks.  But what does this really mean?  And what might a “pro-parental paradigm” be?  A badge of baby spit-up on the pinstripe?

My mind goes to the humming fabric mills of the early years of the industrial revolution, the manufacture not only of goods, but of needs (of “Thneeds” in Seuss parlance—things that nobody needs).

The times piece suggests that, “Far from being a superficial movement, the style gap is seen by young men as something of real substance, with the same kind of opposition to fuddy-duddy ways that the boomers wore threadbare.”  Is it just me or is it somehow absurd to talk about “substance” in this context?

In America it seems that few men want to grow up; the boomers might hide behind a baseball cap and a beard, or maybe a Zeppelin t-shirt, in some time warp of anti-establishment hip; the new kids on the block might don a Don Draper suit and a crisp white hankie in the breast pocket; but none of these guys are keen to grow up.  Whether it’s the booze and smoke-filled debauchery of revisionist 1960s “Mad Men,” or the booze and smoke-filled debauchery of au courant Hollywood “Entourage,” grown-ups (in the sense of mature, responsible good potential parents) are as rare on our screens as a non-disgusting meal in “Man vs. Wild” (another interesting sartorial show where dressing well might mean peeing on your t-shirt and wearing it as a turban to survive the dessert).  Funny how some men might be more comfortable eating scorpions and drinking liquid from animal dung than hunkering down to the t-shirt and boxers rigor of sleep-deprived, nobody in the world is watching, just plain ordinary parenting.

Kid fashion is its own world/minefield with many a so-called grown-up prowling the Urban Outfitters in some sartorial search for the fountain of youth, but more likely to merely piss off their kids who generally don’t want mom or dad wearing the same bare threads that signify their wobbly nascent identities (see Fashion tips for moms of teen girls).

Don’t get me wrong, I think fashion is not only intermittently ridiculous, it is also fun, interesting and socially meaningful.  One of my guilty pleasures is armchair traveling to Helsinki, Milan, Paris or Brazil in the Sartorialist blog, a virtual version of sitting in cafés and watching the world stroll by.

Fashion is one way people define themselves—a way they choose signifiers to express inclusion, exclusion, conformity and non-conformity; fashion is, to me, an anthropological study in ever-shifting classes, status, cliques and affiliations.  I remember working with troubled kids where quirks in fashion might show up in the sudden guise of one leg of the nylon track pants hiked up just below the knee… and just as fast as this was “in” it was gone.

I also remember living in New York in the eighties when the very first hipsters showed up out of nowhere with ponytails—a trend that made its way to all manner of the un-hip long after the scene-sters were going goatee, tats, piercings and then full circle back to shark-skin and skinny ties and Lincoln Continentals with suicide doors.  Just like primates learning to catch ants with blades of grass, or wash their yams in seawater, there are leaders and followers, but whether one is an early adapter or trend follower, this is how social changes take root and spread.

Perhaps the big problem in our current world is the pervasive working from the outside in approach—the notion that if it looks good it must be good, not to mention that if it has a million “followers” on twitter it must really mean something.  The price we pay for all this superficiality is that we are stirred to constant striving, grasping for a future whose very sparkling existence blocks us from happiness in the present—the only place where one can find happiness (not to mention good parenting).

So, let’s dedicate today to dressing from the inside out—in the service of parenting from the inside out (see Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s book on this mindfulness approach).  Wear what you want, be who you truly are, but don’t think that looking the part will make you the person.  When it comes to fashion we’re all posers to some degree, but when it comes to spirit we’re all beautiful; live this—playfully and unselfconsciously—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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2 Responses to “Dressing up vs. Growing up”

  1. Sherrie Mathieson Says:

    I agree with your thoughts, which seem to underline that fashion is man made, and that the virtues of the inner person may not coincide with his or her appearance.
    That said-I still hope that all generations take my book “Forever Cool” to heart (and then “Steal This Style” as well).
    We will forever need to reconcile what is and what we’d wish the world to be.
    It pays to have 20/20 vision in the process.
    Sherrie (www.sherriemathieson.com)

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    From the outside-in is, certainly, inside out. The reality and the metaphor. Very thoughtful.

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