I have often wondered what the role is of “style” in human experience. Style really seems unnecessary. At first it appears to derive from an impulse to be different , and then it becomes something that many people want in order to be the same . Something gets represented as a style initially when it deviates from the norm, but then it become the style when it catches on. And then, of course, it must be replaced; it must go out-of-style . It seems that the prime function of style is to make capitalism work, that is, to provide innovation, the rather superficial innovation of appearances, so that new products (really old products in a new style) can be marketed. And marketing is the other essential ingredient in getting things into style.
It can be easy to associate style with innovation, as when, say, Giotto began to represent the subjects in his paintings as more realistic, rather than, the style -ized figures of medieval art. That was a change in style, but also an innovation. Now compare this with what has been called “hip-hop style.” You know, that’s young kids who wear baggy pants so that they are just hanging off their hips (doing it well means that your boxer shorts have to show, and these have to be just about falling off so that the butt is partially exposed.) Hip hop means you also have to wear your baseball cap backwards, your sneakers unlaced, and well, you get the idea, nothing really innovative (perhaps even something regressive) is taking place here.
Way back in the 1960s I read a book called The Hidden Persuaders. It was about advertising and how it is used to get people to want things, things they don’t even need. (I think I was interested in advertising back then but dropped the idea in a rare moment of moral attentiveness.) I wasn’t interested in style, because it seems I personally have been, if mostly inadvertently but sometimes with unshakable resolve, mostly out-of-style . There was a period in the 1970s that I tried being in-style, with the result that there are some photos around that I would pay good money to retrieve. I never had much respect for people who just must have “the latest thing” what ever that thing is, just because it is the latest, not because they need it, or often even like it.
But I remain amazed at the power of marketing and advertising. I believe that the people who do this stuff (“Madison Ave types”) can get people to buy or do just about anything. Like religious authorities, they make people feel guilty, not that they aren’t going to get into heaven, but that they won’t be in style when then get there (assuming that “you [still] can’t take it with you”). I have had very few quarrels with my lovely, wonderful daughters, but what provoked most of them was their purchasing of (first teens, then) women’s fashion magazines with airbrushed models that were patently designed to make any reader feel like an overweight, badly-dressed, socially-inadequate,pimple.
Now each year the dieties of personal style convene in Paris or Milan to tell the idiots who simply must be in-style at any price what they are to wear. These “new line” fashion extravaganzas are like a convention of several casts of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and 5’11” tall bulimics that walk like they’re trying to pass a DUI test. Soon thereafter the slaves to fashion will bare their midriffs (no matter how expansive), wear white boots (or is it black this year), or bell-bottoms, or hip-huggers, a hem-line that is either higher or lower than last year’s, but generally doing what they are told. But “fashion” is at least fashion. It doesn’t pretend to be much more than being novel for any reason other than being new. It’s really much ado about very little.
Not so with the latest fashion for the young set, personal disfigurement. Tattoos—they’re not just for drunken sailors any more. At least if you lay out too much money for some stupid outfit that makes you look like a bulemic who never purges wrapped in something made of mylar and feathers, you will be able to drop it off at a Second Ave. re-sale shop. Not so with that logo of your favorite heavy metal band that takes up much of your upper arm, that polychrome art nouveau vine crawling enticingly up from the seam of your buttocks, or the old girl(boy)friend name one your forearm to which you’ve you have added an obscenity. They are there pretty much there for good, a reminder that every time you aren’t hired for a job that there are more styles than personal disfigurement. When clothes and hair styles change your skin won’t.
A lot of style has to do with the presentation of self, with appearances. Plastic surgery has given personal appearances some “substance.” Not all cosmetic surgery is concerned with style, but big boobs were not the style in the 15 th century, the early 20 th century and they may go out of style again. When it is estimated that nearly a quarter of adult women have had breast enhancement, it owes a goodly percentage to style. Men who don’t want to spend the equivalent of two day a week in the gym to acquire the Adonis physique currently in vogue can have pectoral (and other) enhancements, and/or exercise the steroid option.
There was a time no long ago when people wore the same style (sometimes the same) clothes for their entire lives. Admittedly, that may also have been a time when there was also not much change in science and technology that could improve lives. And that is the point here. Capitalism is not much interested in the difference between style and genuine innovation. It requires changes in style to advance profits, to engender consumption, because consumption means profits. The problem is that marketing necessarily blurs the ability of the consumer to discern the difference, playing a shell game that subtly inserts want where there is no need , style without substance, and elevates form over function. The end product is a compulsive consumer in a perpetual state of induced inadequacy, and whose prime social contribution is the yard sale and the landfill.
©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 7.30.2005)