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We Dress Alike*

triplets

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

 
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Posted by on May 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Style

 

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Please Have Snow and Mistletoe*

The sand is draining from the hourglass and the flying monkeys are on their way.  A sensible holiday shopper realizes it might be time to panic.  Just a bit.  Perhaps you spent this weekend (with the very best of intentions) perusing the malls and holiday markets?  Perhaps, like me, you awoke slightly exhausted, a bit dehydrated and with a mild pit in your stomach thinking something along the lines of; “I didn’t really buy that dancing troll dressed as Santa, did I?”  Before you indulge in a refreshing bout of robust self flagellation, let’s consider reassigning the blame.

The dancing troll is not (entirely) your fault.  You were probably tired, overheated and improperly fed.  In that weakened state you had trudged through the maize of malls and markets with layouts and repetitive merchandise like Escher drawings.  At every turn you were face to face with that same sequined scarf, knit cap, knock-off Van Cleef & Arpels necklace.  After an hour or so, you could be easily convinced that those items are really all there is.  In your already weakened state, your hopes dulled and dashed by the stunning lack of retail creativity, you found yourself in line, clutching your troll as if it were the bronze medal.

If you don’t want to spend the next few weeks feeling you are settling (and why in the world would anyone ever want to “settle” let alone during such a festive time) I offer you some tips:

  • Prepare.  Sit down with a nice cup of tea and a notepad (virtual or paper) and write a list.  Do not venture out (in December) thinking you will be magically inspired.  You may, but that’s not a plan, it’s luck.
  • Stay away from “Holiday Markets” unless they are specifically artist or craftspeople organized.  Often they are just outdoor malls, which will waste your time and deplete your stamina.
  • Authentic artist/craftspeople markets, antique stores and real vintage flea markets are a veritable pot of gold.  Unique, lovely and often reasonably priced items are just waiting for a good home.
  • Museum, library and arts organizations often have gift shops.  Venture carefully, and preferably with a membership card, as often items can be pricey.  However, you really can find some very special items, and support a favorite institution.
  • Memberships and/or tickets to these institutions can also make lovely gifts.  Do make sure the recipient is a fan and lives in proximity, otherwise you may fall into that “I’m giving to my favorite charity in your name” trap.
  • Food and Drink should always be considered.  A carefully chosen bottle of wine or spirits can be very thoughtful.  Perhaps a bottle of the wine your friends are still talking about which they had in Napa?  Maybe a lovely bottle of sherry to go with those vintage glasses you picked up for your sister at the flea market?  Chocolate lovers make the best gift recipients, don’t they?  There is no shortage of artisanal selections out there.  Strangely, the same can be said for salamis.
  • Music.  Anyone who can hear, enjoys listening to music.  Steer clear of any genre which conjures associated attire (country western, heavy metal) and stick to classics if you are not entirely certain of someone’s preference.
  • Books (electronic or paper) make splendid gifts.  You may want to stay out of the chain stores however, as their displays may lead you to the literary equivalent of a dancing troll.

Remember to bring a snack, stop and sit periodically, and don’t bring a shopping companion.  There are too many distractions as it is.  So have another cup of tea, and go find the troll receipt.  And remember, like most things in life, with gift giving; “I suppose this will do” shouldn’t be the goal.  Happy Holidays!

* and presents by the tree – I’ll Be Home For Christmas (1943)

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Holiday

 

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