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Well, In My Opinion...
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman? Part III
Topic: Society
Good taste, bad taste. If there's one thing of which a person does not like to be accused it's of having bad or poor taste. Unfortunately, since the 70's good taste is a concept whose paucity becomes more and more evident every day. Poor taste in art, music, fashion, writing have become the norm, coin of the realm. I mean, have you read or heard what passes for poetry nowadays? Case in point: Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural piece of prosaic blather. It's a testament to the general malaise of standards (which set the criteria for good & bad taste) that someone can conceive such tripe and be considered worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Robert Frost she ain't. Maya Angelou she ain't. 

Why the 70's? Because it was in the latter half of that decade that industry decided to capitalise on the hipness of being "radical;" when long hair, tie-dyed shirts, peace symbols and other nonconformist forms of apparel went from being political to profitable. So, we ended up with corporate execs and lawyers wearing polyester leisure suits with bell bottom pants and lapels out to the shoulder and either tie-dyed or flower print shirts to show that they were "with it." If a tie was worn it was as wide as a bib. And let us not forget the granny dress and the ultra-short miniskirt in which 99.99999% of women then, as well (Oh Lord) as today, should never be seen. 
Yes, it was in the 70's that began the long precipitous decent of taste in style. But that was just the beginning; the stage was set for the next great decline: Punk followed by Grunge, from which society never recovered. All anyone has to do is walk around any city, or college/university metropolitan area, or any public high school and see the remnants of the waste laid by the pop culture of the 80's. 
Then when you thought things couldn't get any worse, along comes rap and hip-hop with its foul language and glorification of the criminal life. As soon a the "music" became commercially viable so did the corresponding "fashion" of low rise wearing baggy jeans and oversized clothing. Oh, lets not forget the jock/frat mentality of the middle class with their backwards baseball caps and faux hip-hop clothes and scraggy beards.

My generation has no one to blame but itself. We raised a generation (along with the ensuing generation) of kids who were told that they were all just great, that everyone was special and each every one was entitled to whatever he or she wanted and that instilling some form of discipline would damage their self esteem. So, our society is blessed with two or more generations of people who can't be told anything, even how to dress. Fresh out of school (either graduation or dropping out) they expect to be paid whatever they want, come to work whenever they want and work as much or as little as they want because that's how they've been conditioned to think. Our colleges and universities have become little more than glorified trade schools whose only purpose is to make sure that what is taught are those things which are going to get junior or sis into a good MBA programme. That is all that matters. It has become the primary focus of both private and public education. The well rounded liberal arts and humanities education has long been discarded in favour of pure avarice. So how is one supposed to know how to dress appropriately when the whole of society is bent on the expedient?

Good taste, like any skill, is learnt. Good taste is a by-product of the understanding of those things which are reflective of a society taught that there is more to life than the temporal high of instant gratification. 

When one has learned to appreciate –– to relish –– the complexity of T. S. Eliot, Dante, Guillame de Machaut, J. S.Bach, Jan van Eyck, Frederick E. Church, Gerhard Richter, etc. then one can learn to appreciate the subtleties of the deceptive simplicity of a tailored suit by Joseph Abboud or a simple belt cinched shift by Kenneth Cole.

There's good taste and bad taste.Good taste simply reflects a discerning mind as manifested through a well exercised intellect and a highly developed sense of cultural history. Things which with our current education and child rearing practises are woefully in short supply in today's society.

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:53 PM EDT
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Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman? Part IV
Topic: Society
A couple generations ago dressing down used to have negative connotations. It meant dressing below standard, below what was even considered appropriate for casual or sportswear. It was so onerous that the last thing you wanted to experience from a parent or your boss was a "dressing down." Nowadays, dressing down pretty much means avoiding at all costs anything resembling good taste, especially anything tailored, such as a suit (men's or women's), or a blazer and slacks, a dress, or a skirt with a co-ordinating blouse. Dressing down is a by-product of the 70's/80's commercialisation of the 60's free-speech, anti-war, "it's-not-what's-on-the-outside-but-what's-on-the-inside-that-counts" movements. This, of course, brings us to the idea of "casual Fridays;" which is little more than an excuse for not wanting to look like Gregory Peck in "the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit." A look I don't necessarily see as pejorative. 

The movie "Good Night, and Good Luck," made a strong impression on me. For those of you who haven't seen it, it takes place at the CBS studios in New York during the early 50's. What impressed me (beyond David Straithairn's uncanny realistic portrayal of Edward R. Murrow) was the setting. More precisely, how people dressed in that setting in that time: the men in their dress shirts and ties, and women in A-line dresses or skirts and blouses with mostly collar and stand or peter pan necklines. Now granted, this was an office environment in the news division of a major network; and yes, there was a sameness, an overtly conformist look (emphasised by the black and white cinematography); nevertheless, the setting was not atypical of the standard office environment of the time. The point is, they looked professional – people serious about their work and dressed accordingly. 

Ideally, I suppose, the world would be better if people weren't judged by what they wear, or how they maintain their hair, or how they smell and other aspects of personal hygiene – hmmm. Anyway, such are not the ways of most highly developed cultures. And since our society thrives on the visceral, what we wear is one of the primary determining factors in the way we present ourselves; it tells others a lot about how we wish (or, more accurately, how others think we wish) to be perceived. That includes all manner of dress, whatever the circumstances. Whether we like it or not, what we wear makes a very powerful initial – visceral – impression. 

Dressing down is just that; dressing down. It's a symbol of lowered standards; standards society has come to accept as the norm. It reflects the cavalier attitude that recent generations have fostered toward the imprecise, the unclear, the inexact. We no longer focus our attention on one or two tasks and endeavour diligently to assure their veracity. No, today we multi-task, which is a euphemism for companies to overwork and under pay employees so as to achieve what can only be at best the bare minimum. As long as we get the job done. Whether it's done well is really not the principal concern today. Businesses supposedly can't afford the time and cost of some one concentrating single mindedly on only one or two projects and doing them well. We proclaim the need for and supposedly value excellence; but, we really don't have time for it. We can't afford it. Yet, for some reason we have lots of time and money to redo the job again and again until it's right; that is, until it's "good enough." I use general terms because this issue of multi-tasking is endemic throughout our society. It does not matter whether the work involves manufacturing or supplying a service; multi-tasking, cutting corners, is pervasive. And it's reflected in how we dress. Treating your appearance seriously is no different than treating your work seriously. 

Oh, I can hear it now, "I don't need to get all dressed up to do my job well." Theoretically that's very true. But, dollars to donuts, reality dictates the opposite. Unfortunately, as Kevin stated, the sin of it all is that when you don't know an higher standard you don't know you're lacking it. If the standard of dress is slovenly, well, I guess that's "the style" and we're supposedly no worse off for the lack of knowing any better. 

Unfortunately, there is no surprise to any of this. After all we are a society driven by what is commercially expedient; and the key to commercial expediency is the lowest common denominator – what has become referred to as "Pop Culture," in which charlatans like Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, John Cage, Terry Riley, John Galliano and John Gaultier , and any street thug who spews violence laden profanities to a back beat are lauded as geniuses. Who needs to learn how to draw? Who needs theory and counterpoint? Who needs talent? Evidently nobody these days.

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:53 PM EDT
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Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman? (cont'd)
Topic: Society
Don't get me wrong. I still believe in what were ultimately the progressive social and political ideals of my generation at that time. And some of them have partially come to fruition –– today's inauguration being an example. Moreover, I fully realise that the long hair, the grungy clothes, head bands, beads and other "accessories" were all part of that statement. Nevertheless, as with most large scale, unstructured good intentions, the "It's not what you see on the outside that counts; it's what's inside" philosophy of so-called open mindedness was easily corrupted into what has basically become a lame excuse for bad taste.

Of course the prostitutes –– er, designers –– of the fashion industry found it so much more expedient to follow, and hopefully capitalise on this "free spirited" so-called style of the times, they merely contributed to the overall decline in standards and personal discipline with which our society has now become so insidiously plagued. So called icons of fashion such as Giorgio Armani have been enablers of this trend. All you have to do is walk into an A/X store and see the gratuitously overpriced rags that pass as fashionable sportswear. It's become so prevalent and easy that just about any street thug who manages to make him or her self a successful hip-hop album, or reality show contest winner, or drug and alcohol induced former airheaded model, or any other talentless pop icon can become a "designer;" thus further perpetuating the fraud that looking like either a homeless person or a gang member is considered fashionable or "cool." This takes us further into the subject of what defines good and bad taste...(to be continued)

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:46 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 3 August 2009 2:44 PM EDT
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Whatever Happened to the Well Dressed Man of Woman?
Topic: Society
I've been in the men's apparel industry now for a little over 3 years. I stumbled onto it pretty much by accident. Up to that point music and the music industry had always been the focus of my life. Even after the demise of my sheet music store "Heritage Music House" in Philadelphia, I ended up working full time at Tower Records Classical Annex on South Street. Meanwhile, I kept my fingers in the church music pie as Music Director at various Philly churches. After I quit Tower I decided to take on a part time gig at Lord & Taylor in Centre City Phila. since my primary work was at the now defunct St. Peter's Episcopal Church of Germantown. 

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to work in something different and fashion had become a source of interest to me recently. Of course, I can never involve myself halfway in anything; so, I began researching vendor sources, as in," Who makes this stuff for all these designers?" Most designers, of course, don't produce much of their stuff themselves; they license out production to any number of vendors who own the factories. I became more and more intrigued with the idea of not only knowing how the clothes are made (men's suits, even the cheap ones, are amazingly complicated constructs. What is between the outer shell and the lining is a maze of layers and sub or partial layers I need not go into at this moment.
Moreover, I discovered I have a natural talent for putting together a man's outfit, especially a tailored one. I suddenly discovered I had this flair for taking a suit or blazer & trousers and combining them with a shirt or two and three to four ties and making them all interchangeable so that a man can, with just a few items have a fully functional tailored wardrobe. I don't generally like to brag (which, I guess is one of the reasons I can't get a decent job), but I'm really good at this.

At first it was very interesting, exciting even. But, coming down to earth it is, after all, retail. And that's been my biggest problem. I'm a retailer. That's fine if you have your own business, such as when I had Heritage Music; but, working for others makes it very dreary and wearisome. Coupled with the duties of being a church musician and, well, weekends are non-existent. 
Moreover, retailing has a stigma to it that almost precludes you from finding work in another field. I don't understand why, but it does.

But, I digress. Since my active involvement in the fashion industry I've become more aware than ever of the dismal state of dress in our society. I'm a firm believer than fashion, not unlike the arts (or should I say the other arts), reflects directly on the state of a civilisation, either enlightened or barbaric. Unfortunately, the current trend has been toward the latter. The whole idea of looking like you just dressed yourself out of some dumpster is considered cool is a hideous product phenomenon originating uniquely from the late 20th Century, namely the late 60's

Unfortunately, it's one remnant from that era that actually stuck. All the struggle for political, social and economic justice; all the striving to achieve an higher, more enlightened consciousness have at best seen token achievement (racial & sexual justice) or at worst regression (economic justice). No, dressing like a slob just like all its attendant undisciplined and just basically rude behaviour, not to mention bad taste, seems to be the enduring legacy of the radicalism of the late 60's...(to be continued)

Posted by ralph.fisher at 7:43 PM EDT
Updated: Monday, 3 August 2009 2:44 PM EDT
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