Friday, November 18, 2011

On "heritage": or, don't wear anything your grandfather wouldn't have recognized as clothing

Fashion is always about a mix of old and new. But heritage-chic combines old and new in a different way than we've seen before. I will begin by explaining what "heritage" is not, then move on to what it might be...

Retro: Fashion is cyclical. And sometimes - typically - it cycles back to eras less PC than our own. Sometimes much less. But is buying the "Mad Men" line from Banana Republic, or putting together a more time-intensive early-1960s look, a way of saying that you wish to return to a time when (apologies to Archie Bunker) goils were goils and men were men? Not really. Everything you're wearing was in fashion 30 years ago. Everything you wore 10 years ago was in 50 years ago. Etc. The only ones fooling themselves are those who think what's worn today is something other than the patched-together combination of that which was worn in the past. And does anyone even think this? We can analyze why we're now dressing like it's 1979, or 1994, but we're going to have to pick something, and what we pick will generally be a look from the 20th century and no earlier.

Preppy: Retro can mean looking back to any time, any subculture. "Preppy," however, is about how prep school kids used to dress, still dress, and will dress for all eternity. This seems exclusive, but it's not terribly. Reappropriation is almost inherent to this style. Its patron saint, after all, is Ralph Lauren-né-Lifshitz. And the "urban" or "hip-hop" spins on preppy are now so mainstream that they are preppy as much as the WASPy variety is. Preppy isn't about what people wear at prep school. It's about the outsider looking on enviously. See Isabel Archer. See, maybe, this novel I've never read. William Arthur Philip Muffington III can pop the collar of his pale-pink polo, but so can anyone. It's always about playing with the idea of authenticity. Maybe it wasn't always, fine, but it has been for ages.

Heritage: "Heritage," to the uninitiated, is by now something of a cliché. It's old-timey Americana-wear, leather and natural fibers, things like this, this, and this. This blog is devoted to the look.

"Heritage" is, to borrow Michael Pollan's endlessly-repeated advice about food, about not wearing anything your great-grandfather wouldn't have recognized as clothing. It's not about the revival of an old look. It's about "timeless."

Never mind that "heritage" is by and large produced no differently than flashy garb from Forever 21. (My L.L. Bean fisherman sweaters are half-acrylic and, I believe, 100% made in China.) Furthermore, remember that "timeless" will look dated soon. It's a trend, and that's how it goes with trends.

Why "heritage," why now? The economy, presumably - people want durable and classic, and they're aesthetically drawn to the idea of made in America, if not enough so to boycott goods made elsewhere. (My neon t-shirt from American Apparel may have been made in America, but it's not "heritage.")

But there's also a nativist edge to it. I mean, whose "heritage" is dressing like you're about to go fishing at your family's estate in the Adirondacks? Just as not everyone's grandmother had the dietary good fortune to live on the Mediterranean, not everyone's heritage was, aesthetically-speaking, much related to "heritage." It's white people, white people with a connection to the land, but not poor farmers. Gentleman farmers.

"Heritage" may one day arrive at where "preppy" now hovers, but as it stands, it's about moving on from preppy because preppy is now readily available to all. "Heritage" is about moving to Williamsburg or Greenpoint after college, congregating exclusively with other white non-ethnics from towns and suburbs far from New York but taking pride in Brooklyn's "diversity," and quasi-ironically embracing farm-to-table. Maybe growing a beard, maybe producing something artisanal.

And it's about not just white landowners, but also male ones in particular. Unlike most trends, "heritage" is principally about menswear. It's in part about giving men an excuse to play dress-up, to primp, but in the name of something very masculine and of course not at all implicating homosexuality. One is dressing so as to insist that one is a lumberjack and that one is OK.


This is why, even though I like some "heritage" items, and think most men's wardrobes could only be improved by a shift in this direction, the look makes me uneasy.

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