There’s a stark yet strangely beautiful photo essay by Nolan Conway. Identically styled people sit in various MacDonald’s restaurants. At first (second and third) glance it would appear that this is a collection of twin portraits. But the captions prove otherwise. Capturing clusters of indistinguishable people is no doubt the point of a MacDonald’s story. It makes that obvious and the also not so obvious point of; when did everyone start looking alike?
Recently a story about the ‘edgy’ art scene in the newest hippest neighborhood was accompanied by a photo. A cluster of identically clad and groomed under 40s was captioned. But you’d have to be the profiled artist’s mother to pick his knit capped head out of the half-dozen style clones. The men had moppish 80’s hair, the women had asymmetrical 80’s hair. The men were wearing what they considered ironic T-shirts (when did ubiquitous and mundane become synonymous with irony?) The women are in clothes made to appear as if they were accidentally washed on the incorrect cycle. They are faded just so and just a bit worn. And they all are wearing vaguely ethnic scarves and polyester knit hats perched on the top of their heads. Even the manner in which they wear these unattractive utilitarian hats (indoors!) is identical.
The Bobbsey Twin-ness is not reserved for the under 40 crowd of course. If you’ve attended a high school graduation in recent years, and perhaps sat in a back row, you would see a sea of identical heads. Over 40 female hair is almost always long, straight and highlighted (it’s the equivalent of our foremother’s blue rinse.) The clothing style depends on the B.M.I. but almost always includes denim w/ a minimum of 3% lycra. This Doubleminting has always been pervasive among teens of course. It is the holy grail of adolescence to look exactly like everyone else. But what about college? Have you been to college lately? Move-in day is a riot. All the dads are in cargo shorts, untucked shirts & baseball caps; and all the mothers are in capris and generous cleavage (you think it’s easy to see your daughter turn into a grown woman?!) and the freshman are in uniform. The young women are dressed in body-con pieces from head to shin. From shin to toe they are most likely either in an Ugg or wellie (making them look as if they’re standing in a bucket, which is flattering on exactly no one) or if the weather allows, a rubber ‘shoe’ suitable for the beach, pool or hospital. The young men are either in baggy cargo shorts (like father like…) or slim fitting madras shorts. T-shirt (with message/image suited to the corresponding college/university) and unlaced sneakers or shower shoes complete the look. Since when did college students want to look alike? When did they want to follow the lead of their parents in any pursuit, least of all an approach to style? Wait but what of the art students you ask? Well if completing the checklist of body modifying (piercing, tattoos, earlobe stretchers) is a sign of creativity, then we’re good. (Note to medical students on the fence about their specialty; restorative cosmetic surgery – ka-ching!)
So how did it happen? Is it all the result of very cheap clothing in chain stores? Is it that the same ‘look’ is available across the country in a mall or big-box store near you? Is it our celebrity culture that drives style? Could it be that people (consumers, media, merchandisers) turn to celebrities (who turn to a handful of stylists) to create their look? Or is the styling of one’s person just the tip of the iceberg? Is it more that a culture that celebrates sameness is ultimately going to look the same. A culture that applauds and supports genre over niche does not cultivate creativity. Television talent contests award very specific sounds and looks (there is no Gong Show diversity on display anywhere.) Since the Rocky and Godfather days, film sequels are king. Broadway’s percentage of revivals grows every year. Where are the new ideas? How much wonderful writing never sees the light of day? What happened to the novel? Memoirs (which is a lovely sounding word for ‘it happened to me so it must be interesting’) is the genre of choice. Sensation and sequels sell, but what about good writing and great stories? Is there an audience (aka money) for talented novelists, poets, screenwriters and playwrights? We could also shine the light on indistinguishable home design and decor, museums exhibits and performance arts centers. You’d have to have a GPS to know where you are sometimes.
There have always been style trends. People don’t much go for operetta the way they once did. Sonnets went the way of hoop skirts, and you don’t see a lot of domes and columns being erected. But not since perhaps the 1950s have people strived to look and sound so much alike. Perhaps it is merely cyclical and not a harbinger of the demise of creativity. My goal is to outlive the cycle, seek creativity and to do so while wearing what flatters/interests me.
*The Triplet Song (The Bandwagon 1953) by Arthur Schwartz & Howard Dietz