I was going to say that Americans today are obsessed with authenticity. It’s probably more accurate to say “people” in place of “Americans,” our global network of friends growing so wide, and so homogenous along the way, that the cultural differences that separate our nation from the broader global economy seem ever smaller. For all the rapping about diversity, it is the peculiar trait of our time that we become more the same by the nanosecond, or whatever processor speeds are measured in. By force of technology a niche menswear brand in Naples can influence men in Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Tanzania. Indeed, Neapolitan tailoring has become the world’s tailoring thanks largely to social media trend making and some clever brand marketing.
But where does this leave authenticity, that new-millennium watchword that has seeped into the jargon of business leadership, marketing, and even popular philosophy? Permanent Style, Put This On, and this website itself, among many others, have tackled the issue but a great deal of the question still remains: what is authenticity in a global economy where we’re all buying the same clothes? Does authenticity have any meaning when consumers are being influenced by the same relatively small cadre of social media stars?
To find the answers to these questions we must return to the beginning and find the origins of our 21st-century tryst with the purportedly authentic. The historically minded will trace the origins of our present circumstances to the 19th century. As Richard Sennett noted in his 1974 book The Fall of Public Man, the 1800s witnessed a monumental shift in the way people interacted in public. Before the late 1700s most communities were awash in ceremonial interactions, like the doffing of a cap in the presence of one’s social betters, that reiterated the rightness of the social order and left few wondering what their place in the broader community was. One wore an actor’s mask in public and the playing of one’s part signaled his approval of the social order. After the upheaval of the American and French revolutions the paying of respect to hierarchies was no longer en vogue, nor possible for elites to demand. What followed when coercive ceremony no longer controlled the outward behavior of ordinary people was a valorization of the ordinary individual. The everyman. And every man thought himself of right to express his inner self in public. There’s an amendment in the Constitution to prove it.
The turn toward the outward expression of the inner self began to replace earlier notions of public ceremony and decorum. And as industrialism fueled the growth of cities, ever larger numbers of strangers were thrust together with no one knowing quite how to act around each other. Thanks in part to the rise of machinery and global trade networks within textile manufacturing, this was also the moment in which tailored clothing became inexpensive and available to more men than ever before. Men’s stores like Brooks Brothers and countless long gone competitors dotted the shopping districts of New York, likely in greater numbers than the men’s stores today. If you were a young man looking to make his way in the city in the mid 1800s, like Melville’s Bartleby, you would find yourself thrust into a world of similarly clothed strangers whose status and social expectations were not readily discernible. Ancient rules of behavior were no longer tenable. How does a man act when his audience is unknown to him? To whom does one doff his cap when all appeared as gentlemen?
In our age clothes have only gotten cheaper and more readily available. I have marveled at the changes in the consumer menswear landscape over just the last decade. You can, today, buy a two piece Minnis Fresco suit for less than $550 USD. That was unthinkable in 2009. This has only exacerbated the problem of the unknown audience that Sennett wrote about in 1974. This is where authenticity came to the rescue. When outward signs of social status and prescribed rules of public discourse become less reliable; the authentic expression of the inner self allowed us to order the public relationships in our world. Theoretically, relationships would not be ordered based on birth status but on the virtue and merit of the individual. Except that the individual now had to convince everyone of his virtue. Politicking had arrived.
This is not a call for a return to monarchical government, sumptuary law, or social stratification. It is, rather, a recognition that all social good comes at a price. The price we have paid for ever more egalitarian societies is the breakdown of value, the abandonment of unifying principles like Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and the angst that comes with the loss of connection to community. Perhaps this price has been well worth paying but we still remain with the questions it demands we answer: what relationship ought we have with the myriad Others who make up the daily urban experiences that most of us share? The answer that we have jointly come up with is a hierarchical one. I’ll doff my cap in our 21st-century way, with a “like” or a re-tweet, to those who appear most virtuous among us.
So how do we signal ourselves to be virtuous? How do we climb our way to the top of the new hierarchy? For this the human capacity for invention knows few boundaries. The same virtuous impulse to support the downtrodden is easily manipulated and made into public performance by influencers and fashion houses to proclaim their supposed inner virtue and to sell consumer products to an appreciative audience. The recent global Pride celebrations are only the latest example. Clothing manufacturers and merchants plastered their social media feeds with rainbow flags and proclamations of solidarity. Maybe this means that gayness is finally becoming normalized enough that you can sell things to middle class Americans with it. That’s not an undesirable thing. But is it authentic? Is it coincidence that brands have embraced the outward appearance of social activism that the burgeoning generation of consumers expects? No to both.
Authenticity has become commodified and our obsession with the term is indicative of a growing anxiety that it might be found nowhere at all. We all know ourselves to be less virtuous than we would like our fellows to believe. Who really thinks that we are as happy as we look on Facebook or as prosperous as we make ourselves out to be on Instagram? Our authenticity has become a mask in itself and Sennett’s argument is in need of revision. We haven’t abandoned our public persona nor thrown away the actor’s mask. How could we? There are none among us who is always genuine unto himself. We all betray our convictions sometimes, are inconsistent sometimes, and sometimes fail despite our best efforts. The public persona has taken on the veneer of the genuine inner-self but it is no less a fiction created for the consumption of the public. And the pressure to live up to the ever higher standards that we set for our public selves, the product of a virtue arms race, leads often to disgrace when we cannot do so.
Even Ivy style, thought by some of its more rigid American adherents to be the remnants of a more virtuous, structured, and honest society, is no such thing. It was the mainstreaming of the Ivy style that likely added to the circumstances we find ourselves in today. After all, it was a patrician style that became an everyman look, a symbol of privilege that was un-ironically appropriated by Joe America, not to mention the now well known Japanese Ivy enthusiasts. That should sound familiar. Ivy style is being appropriated once again in the guise of crossover streetwear brands like Rowing Blazers and heritage brands like Ralph Lauren who are eager to be relevant again. And, like the first time it happened, all varieties of Americans, and a slew of non-Americans, are in on the act.
So what is authenticity when style is constantly being re-appropriated, re-interpreted, and re-tread? It’s nothing. It’s a stopgap measure. A way for us to make sense out of a confusing world of strangers that only seems to grow more chaotic by the day. But its commodification has only served to add to the confusion and its days are numbered. If I could express anything to you, dear menswear consumer, it would be to stop worrying so much about authenticity. If your clothes look good, are made to last, and draw the appreciation of your peers, wear them. Authenticity is, after all, a private matter. — PANI M.