Wardrobes in Distress
Glenn O'Brien says if you haven't lived, wear jeans that have
I remember impeccability. Perfectly pressed suit, brilliant white shirt starched to crisp perfection, hankie rising from the breast pocket forming perfect little peaks like a sailboat regatta, knife-creased trousers breaking ever so slightly over shoes shined to a luster, a luster reflecting the passing parade of well-turned-out ladies, ladies with not a hair out of place, hats pinned at a jaunty angle, strutting through the autumn air, the seams of their nylons perfectly bisecting glorious calves. That classical ideal of perfection seems like a distant dream today.
Now the word “sleeve” more often than not refers to an arm tattooed from wrist to shoulder. “Fob” is a verb, rarely a noun. “Collars” are what police make with “cuffs.” Somehow, during my lifetime, the way we dress has altered fundamentally, even though clothing itself hasn’t changed all that much. What has changed is the idea of occasion. We’ve gone from the myth of one-size-fits-all to the myth of one-look-fits-all. Once people thought very carefully about their agenda before getting dressed. Today they wear a default look that they expect to get them through anything short of a funeral. How often do we see tuxes mixed with T-shirts at parties?
Gone, even from public memory, are restaurant dress codes, but I recall with semi-melancholy the days when ties were required by good restaurants and men who showed up without were handed a tie so ugly it was punitive. Now when one visits the great cathedrals of Europe, tourists (mostly Americans) are offered disposable garments to cover up the seminude state they consider dressed.
A decade or so ago, inspired perhaps by Chairman Mao, American companies began experimenting with “casual Fridays,” allowing employees formerly subject to a dress code to appear once a week dressed as they would for leisure. Then Friday turned into every day, and formality fell apart. While some might see the new regularness as progressive, it might finally prove to be a fashion bait and switch.
The salient economic trend of our times is the wealthy getting wealthier. Meanwhile, the casual dress movement has blurred the traditional distinctions between labor and management, blue collar and white collar. Today it’s more like collar or no collar. The casual movement camouflaged economics. Suddenly, you couldn’t tell the boss from the workers without a flow chart and denim swatches. Billionaires like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dressed just like the guys who fix the computers.
Traditionally, ours has been a society of conspicuous consumption. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. And while we do persist in elaborate status purchasing, six-figure cars, jeweled watches and homes with indoor acreage, the well-off now tend to dress more like everybody else. Sort of. It’s less about furs, beaded gowns and dripping diamonds. It’s less about smoking jackets, Savile Row and custom shoes. It’s more about limited-edition sneakers, cashmere hoodies and thousand-dollar jeans. The wealthy still have clothing that denotes status, but only within their peer group; to the casual observer, their duds appear ordinary. The fur is inside. To be able to tell the difference between the jeans and polos of the rich and famous from those of the hoi polloi, one has to be initiated into the subliminal details that constitute coded consumption. The dressed-down rich recognize each other but may be virtually undetectable by the lumpen fashionista.
Take jeans, the garment that is worn universally, from the boardinghouse to the boardroom. Blue jeans used to have a life cycle resembling ours. They were created, worn, washed, beaten up, frayed, torn, patched, had their legs cut off and then discarded. If they were lucky, they were even reincarnated in a far-off land. There were several brands, with little to distinguish them. But then designer jeans arrived, allowing dungaree diversification on a mass scale and a fashion of stealth wealth. One way jeans evolved was into luxury dilapidation.
I remember as a child getting new jeans so stiff it was hard to walk in them. After a few washes they fit, and after some months they acquired a fine feel and patina. In the sixties such patina became important, and the wear, tear and patches of jeans began to symbolize one’s degree of hipness. We wanted our jeans worn and patched like Neil Young’s, experienced like Jimi Hendrix’s.
By the early seventies nobody wanted dark blue jeans because they were uncool, so in an age untroubled by carbon footprints, jeans were washed again and again, and savvy manufacturers realized that they could accelerate the aging process by stonewashing, a technique invented on ancient riverbanks that moved to factory washing machines. It was so effective in simulating genuine wear, it was adopted by currency counterfeiters—see Willem Dafoe stonewashing fake twenties in To Live and Die in L.A. Jeans makers then began real distressing, using techniques that have faked antique furniture for decades: sanding, pounding, punching, hammering. But all with a certain sense of realism.
In the eighties Italian denim makers introduced acid washing, creating an extremely faded look that was soon regarded as tacky, being too unrealistically aged. The key to distressed clothing was realism. Distressing techniques were also applied to leather. Brand-new leather jackets didn’t look bad in the good sense. Young people wanted motorcycle jackets that looked as if they’d skidded over asphalt at speed.
Some years ago I was gifted by the maker of a pair of jeans said to be an exact replica of the oldest known pair of Levi’s. They were truly a work of art. Faded, abraded, torn, stained . . . I looked like an extra on Deadwood. But oddly, they made me feel guilty. Wasn’t this like wearing a fake beard? Shouldn’t I have earned those rips and tears? And what if I ran into someone wearing jeans ripped in exactly the same places? Wouldn’t that be worse than two ladies running into each other at a gala in the same gown? Is distressed cheating?
Maybe I felt this way because I grew up as what might be called a preppy. We valued distressed clothing, but only if we had created that effect ourselves, if we had earned it. And so we wore our beautiful clothes into the ground. The blue oxford cloth button-down was better for having a frayed collar. Our penny loafers and tassel loafers were better for being held together with adhesive tape, and our jeans had rips from bike chains, skateboard falls, maybe even prayer. I wore polos that looked like they had met a wood chipper. I recall arguing in the early eighties with punk star Richard Hell over who had created the fashion for ripped clothes, him or me. I suspected him of deliberate ripping, which I considered cheating, but I did credit him with the safety pin fad.
I was more of the school of thought described in The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs: “Suits must be made of excellent material, that goes without saying; but though they have to be new, yet they must look old. Or not too new, at any rate. Filling the pockets of one’s new suit with stones and hanging it out in the rain is one possible solution; another is to let your man—your valet—always wear your new suits for the first two years.”
Deliberately attacking a garment seemed unsporting to me, while manufacturers fabricating wear, i.e., “distressing,” seemed positively decadent, and yet it turned out to be a practice dating to the dandies of the Regency period. From The Anatomy of Dandyism (1845) by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly: “One may be a Dandy in a ragged coat . . . the Dandies even evolved the fancy of the threadbare coat. It happened precisely under the dictatorship of Brummell. They were at the end of their ingenuity and could invent no more, so they discovered this which was so dandy . . . namely, to have their coats made threadbare all over, before they wore them, till they resembled nothing more than a kind of lacy, cloudy stuff.”
Taken to this level, far beyond realism, distressing does seem to aspire to art, or at least to “special effects.” I was enchanted by a jacket worn by my friend Ronnie Cooke around the recent turn of the century, a jacket which, though dry, always looked as if she had come in from the rain. It was Ann Demeulemeester perhaps. Along similar lines were the paint-splattered jeans of Helmut Lang, which looked like the jeans one might have seen on Richard Prince or Donald Baechler at the Odeon after a day at the studio.
In the end, distressing, like tattoos, is a longing for experience, for an authenticity that has become unavailable. I recently found a website that explains how to distress it yourself, which is cheaper than buying distressed and guarantees a degree of originality. It recommended stonewashing, power washers, X-ACTO knives, axes, sandpaper with over 100 grit, and blasting clothes at a firing range. For making jeans less blue, they prescribe washing with teabags. For gritty realism, they suggest leaving jeans on the floor of the garage under the car. They even suggest burying clothes in the backyard for a while.
I rather like this wreck-it-yourself idea. It’s not sillier than washing your jeans while wearing them in a cold bath. Although the burying bit seems a bit much. Just don’t bury them on your valet. BG.
GLENN O’BRIEN is the author of How to Be a Man, which was published by Rizzoli (and Hardie Grant in the UK). He has recently written catalog essays on the artists Thomas Scheibitz and Stefan Brüggeman, and on Andy Warhol’s Brigitte Bardot portraits. You can find his blog at glennobrien.com.