A couple of years ago I posed the question “Is trad clothing politically incorrect?” The general consensus was that the answer is “no,” and the reason is because Democrats and Republicans have historically and currently worn traditional American natural shoulder clothing in equal measures, so the look doesn’t belong to the Kennedy dynasty anymore than it does the Bush clan.
But that’s not quite what I was getting at. What I was coyly suggesting was whether traditional clothing is something that hovers above party lines — like a poisonous fog. In other words, bad all around. Ripe for social ostracizing in educated coastal environments, or “spaces,” as the kids say these days. After all, who wants to wear the clothing associated with a) aristocratic, style-setting Princeton rich kids of the 1930s, while regular folk were starving through the Depression b) heyday-era college men and office professionals aping a top-down style c) preppy jerks from the ’80s d) stuffy older trad-wearing guys across the spectrum, from George Will to Bernie Sanders, and e) upper middle-class people from suburban New England?
Who, I mean, besides us. And the Japanese. So are we about to enter a period of chaos fueled by the perfect storm of ever-lowering casualization with a collective ethos that views any sartorial reminders of the past as out of touch with our current malaise-reality? Well last week The Washington Post’s fashion critic Robin Ghivan suggested this very thing. It was in the context of her review of Ralph Lauren‘s latest runway show, and came with the no-holds-barred headline is “It’s 2018, Ralph Lauren, why do you think this look is still cool?”
Yes the leading American designer, the great Gatsbyesque American success story, the genius fashion recycler of all the uppity looks from history — Ivy League, English country gentleman, Savile Row, Old Hollywood — has finally become obsolete. Looks like “timeless” has an expiration date after all.
Now the men in the runway show weren’t wearing any of RL’s tradlier items, as the inspiration for the collection was an Art Deco-era resort look. The men virtually all wore espadrilles, even with suits. But if they’d been all prepped-out, Ghivan would have likely been even more censorious. As it was, the evocation of vintage glamor was not a welcome escape, but a stale prison:
… too many of the men looked as though they were headed to Wall Street or an old-guard country club that’s all legacy and tradition and not an ounce of fun, rather than to the beach or a lazy supper by the water.
Wall Street, country clubs, legacy and tradition are no good. Ditto for prep schools:
He looked like a prep-school punk rather than someone with whom you’d want to have a couple of daiquiris.
And while all runway models strut, one inspired fantasies of violence:
And the guy in the blue vest and yellow sweater with his chin jutting out and his strutting gait — well, he just looked like a fella who was asking for it.
Finally comes the crux of the matter, the heart of the critique: Lauren is channelling a world that is not only neither cool nor fun, but is in fact corrupt:
Lauren has never been focused on turning out cool clothes, avant-garde or overtly sexy ones. His goal has always been to exploit a particularly American notion of exceptionalism, aspiration and success — the kind of success that begets wealth.
Lauren sold customers on this glossy American promise. But so many things that once seemed so right and perfect and true have been revealed to be imperfect, rotten or fundamentally broken. Below the surface, the beautiful things are just not quite right: The once mesmerizing sweep of Hollywood, the shattered fantasy of fashion photography, the impugned standard bearers of media, beleaguered democracy.
Glossy doesn’t just seem ill-timed; it raises suspicions. It leaves one feeling unsettled. It leaves one asking: What fresh lie is this?
Under these new circumstances, the Ralph Lauren collection looked less like something to aspire to and more like something to flee. Get out of that exclusive country club that has revealed itself to be selective in unconscionable ways. Get out of those fine dining establishments where the staff is systematically harassed. Get out of your bubble. “Get Out.”
Get out of your bubble, indeed. After arguing that classic elegance is something repulsive — associated with crass restaurant diners (as if the customers at Applebee’s are any kinder) — Ghivan shifts gears to argue practical banalities. It’s not just that the clothes offend our sensibilities and aren’t cool (as the headline declares), they’re just bad business:
But the brand does not seem to be grappling with how the story of America is changing. Our ideas about the aesthetics of success have shifted. Luxury for many people is being able to roll through the day without ever having to wear anything more formal than leggings, limited-edition sneakers and a T-shirt that can only be purchased in Japan. That’s an extreme look. But it underscores the fact that today, informality is a luxury.
Perhaps that’s the greatest offense that comes from Ralph Lauren’s “aesthetic”: it inspires you to dress up. And we certainly can’t have any of that. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD