American Unoriginal, 501 Blues

The United States of America has always embraced its individuality.  Our land, after all, represents an award for having proven our independence from the European imperialists, and for having developed our own voice, our own style, our own civilization.

After that, we developed blue jeans.  We had been rebels, and having won our independence, we no longer had a cause.  Now we celebrate our independence on Independence Day, then spend the rest of the year discouraging various dependencies exhibited by our children and the so-called co-dependent relationships engaged in by our friends.  We like our independence so much that we invented baseball, basketball, and football to avoid playing soccer with the other countries.  ‘Cause, you know; like, fuck those guys.

We do work together in our 501 blues as a begrudgingly unified American people, too, but this is not the side of ourselves we wish to emphasize.  We want to stand triumphantly alone on mountaintops, shaking our fists in defiance of the global status quo — and why not?  Seems more fun than following others on a well-traveled rail all our lives.  Our rails have naturally (or unnaturally) converged in some ways, however, and some leaders have admonished us to retain our differences and revolt against pressures to homogenize.

Those leaders who champion our individuality become cultural heroes, such as Henry David Thoreau (Mr. March-to-the-Beat-of-a-Different-Drummer, himself) and Thomas Jefferson (“The pillars of our prosperity are most thriving when most free to individual enterprise”).  The punk rock movement, led by iconoclasts like Jello Biafra and Iggy Pop, embodied the Western youth’s violent rejection of the mainstream.  Mr. Paul, who wrote that we ought not conform, happens to represent America’s favorite enthusiast of America’s favorite religion (Romans 12:2).

Mr. Paul, Henry David Thoreau, Jello Biafra

For awhile it seemed we might make these leaders of ours proud, proud of our ambitious creativity, proud of our cultural accomplishments, and proud of our devil-may-care disregard for the world’s opinion of us, but look at us now: our disregard for global opinion has alienated us, our cultural accomplishments have been largely surpassed, and our red-blooded creativity, once symbolized by riveted, indigo, serge de Nimes overalls, has become a sad, poorly-manufactured-in-Indonesia parody of itself.

American Individualism, look upon the blue face of your stillborn spirit, and despair.

There was a time not so long ago when a fella could dress as colorfully as he liked.  Plenty of guys wore blue jeans, sure, but could also step into bell-bottoms, plaid pants, coveralls, or any manner of matched slacks.  Trousers were high-waisted, waist-high, hip-hugging or standard, and could be held up with a belt or suspenders.  Even during times of extremely prevalent trends (trends, plural, mind you) we managed to assert our own personalities through the clever juxtaposition of numerous possible garments.  Look at the variety expressed in this typical ad from thirty years ago:

Bells and whistles. The former garnered the latter, I imagine.

It may be surmised that these clothes came from the same season of the same line, and that the fashion designer had intended the outfits to somewhat coordinate with one another.  These similarities notwithstanding, the variety of colors and fabrics and styles makes modern America look as uniquely fashionable as dental-office wallpaper.

I mean, look at that bad-ass motherfucker on the right.  Have you seen anything like that pilgrim-style collar in your life?  More pertinent to our conversation about American creativity, though, are their pants: endlessly more more fun and imaginative than those merely acceptable blue jeans.  The bell-bottoms apparently came checkered, plaid, or plain with cuffs, and you can bet there were more colors than those offered here.  I’m guessing these fabrics were wool, polyester, cotton, and corduroy respectively, far beyond today’s usual variety of cotton, nylon, or cotton-nylon.  The fedoras are a nice touch, too, but I’m focusing on trousers, here.  And why, you ask?

Because — if modern American creativity could be measured in trousers, my friends, it would look like this:

What color were the socialist overalls in Orwell's 1984, again?

This was merely one of a score of images I could have chosen from (I selected this for the flag waving, which I consider a bonus).

Hypothesis: the American public does not exhibit the level of independent thought of which it seems so proud.

Conclusion: for all our independence and rebellion, we can’t even choose our pants uniquely, anymore.

One respondent to BothEyesShut’s American Trousers Study reported, “Hell yes, we’re independent.  We think fer ourselves, sure do, and if a pair of blue jeans just happens to be the most American piece of clothing we own, don’t y’all blame us for looking uniform.  Just because we wear the same style pants as everyone else, don’t you go thinkin’ you’ve got some sorta creative edge on us, or nuthin’.  Blue jeans were good ’nuff fer my pappy, and they were good ’nuff fer his pappy, and by God (big G) they’ll be good ’nuff for me, my son, his son, and the dog, too, if’n we decide to haul off ‘n buy him a pair!”

Cletus has a point.  As a nation, our creativity does capture the globe’s attention with our radical, unpredictable, freedom-waving manner of dress.  We’re just as edgy and innovative as any of those other countries, like Japan. . .

Gomen nasai.

or France. . .

Frenim-Clad

Or the United England Kingdom. . .

The United England Kingdom

So, OK, I admit it — I admit that we denizens of the United States are not the only ones who forgot how to sew fabrics other than denim, but as anyone can see, we aren’t becoming more interesting by learning from the innovations of other countries.  We aren’t trying to decide whether we’ll wear our awesome Scottish kilts to the party or our dashing Spanish sailor’s slacks.  Rather, we’re destroying whatever cool fashions may have existed in these places before the stonewashed blue plague set in.  We’re not doing it on purpose, though.  Like carriers of a cultural disease, we became victims ourselves before spreading it around.

Levi Strauss, pragmatic inventor of what he insisted on calling, “Levi’s overalls,” did not advertise his way to the top of the fashion charts, however; his product had undeniable merit.  The machine-spun fabric withstood months of laborious mining, and the copper-riveted pockets did not tear out at the corners when laden with rocks, bolts, and other detritus toted by the miners.  In 1890, Strauss added a watch pocket for pocket watches (that little rectangular one at the right hip) because men generally carried their watches on chains in vest pockets, and vests, of course, could not be worn in the mines without becoming torn and soiled.

So we non-miners bought them, too.  Our wives were tired of patching and darning our trousers just as much as Mrs. Strauss had been, and what do you know?  By the time James Dean wore them in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the United States Navy had been issuing them to sailors for over fifty years.  Then theatres, schools, and churches banned them in a last-ditch effort to contain adolescent interest in rebellion, an effort which backfired, of course, and by the sixties they had become commonplace.  Then stonewashed.  Then cut-off.  Then ripped.  By 2004, the average American owned seven pairs of blue jeans.

Seven pairs.  Seven.

Forty years ago, guys could go ladykilling on Main St. on a beautiful Saturday afternoon and expect prospective marks to decorate themselves from the waist down, rather than default to the best-fitting of their seven pairs of blue jeans.

Liberated elegance, from a time when people had to know how to match their clothes.

Yeah, so old Levi isn’t at fault.  Jeans are ubiquitous because indolence is human.  We’re too damned lazy to exercise our character, and fuck, jeans “go with” everything.  They really do look nice, too; I like mine boot-cut with a dark, royal bleu de Gênes color, and always wear ankle boots with them to look less casual.  There’s nothing wrong with them — they aren’t the problem.  If it were up to our jeans, I bet they’d rather not be worn as a matter of course, either.

We don’t have complete control over our fashion proclivities.  Marketing and thought control are synonymous, and even more commonplace than the clothes sold thereby.  In spite of this assault on the American freedom of choice, few high schools in the United States still teach media, leaving teens (and their hard-won pocket cashola) defenseless, unaware that they are always someone’s target audience, victims of omnipresent psychographic advertising.

These mind vipers love us all dressing alike, eating the same foods, listening to the same bands (who all sound alike now, anyway) because it’s child’s play to advertise in generalities when the general public is generally going to like anything that fits the general description of what they generally want to buy.  How can a budding fashion designer build a name for himself?  Why, advertise a logo on magazines and bumper stickers, then slap it on a pair of blue jeans and charge enough money to ensure only affluent people can afford to flaunt them.  Sold.

Do people purchase things they might regret as a result of mass marketing? Oh -- sometimes, I suppose.

Many entities benefit from transmogrifying a free-thinking, unpredictable people into a cowed and colorless one.  Politicians, far from pandering to liberals or conservatives, have aimed at median voters for decades.  We owe this trend to the tendency of most Americans to contradict themselves on the ballot.  Most Americans, for example, call the torture of terrorists justifiable, yet insist on federal investigations into the torturing of terrorists.  Most Americans back abortion rights, so long as women do not abort their pregnancies for certain reasons — gender selection, for instance.  This tendency lets interested parties market to the broadest, largest group of people with a single advertisement, and for this reason interested parties work to make us as similar to one another as possible.

It is, of course, human nature to prefer what does not surprise us, as well, so we shirk the shocking and reject the revolutionizing.  Hippies dressed differently, so they were terrorized.  Punk rockers dressed differently, so they were terrorized.  Women who wear burkas in the U.S. dress differently, so they are terrorized.  The most dangerous thing to a way of life is a new, fresh idea, and many people can’t help but hate the guy with the wacky hat.

The wacky hat is distracting.  It isn’t simply fear that causes us to attack everything creative and unique in our midst.  High school administrations that adopt a “No distracting hairstyles” clause for their dress code know well what independent thought can do to a “sit down, shut up” curriculum (more on this in Part I of “How to Refrain From Being a Dick”).  When we stop worrying about our hair, we also free time from our mind’s busy schedule to think about something else — like how we’re going to afford a three-hundred-dollar pair of Sevens brand blue jeans.  We’ll need the trousers if we want to attract that blonde who makes us hard by packaging her ass in a three-hundred-dollar pair of Sevens brand blue jeans.

Creativity: securing seats in the gene pool since the dawn of time.

Originality is powerful.  Unique traits fuel evolution, command attention, and map uncharted territories in any given scenario.  Best of all, exercising one’s individuality today is easier than ever.  One could, for instance, boycott blue jeans.  The last American Levi’s factory closed in 2003, anyhow.

Levi’s blue jeans: Not Made in U.S.A.

So, go ahead!  Have waffles for dinner and ride a pogo stick to work.  Go apeshit, America!  Take the plunge.  Spend an hour looking for trousers at the mall; look for pants that are neither denim, beige, nor black.  Good fucking luck!  It’s far harder than you think, and if you’re anything like me, it’s going to piss you off to see how few possibilities the market allows you.

There’s nothing wrong with national trends.  Trends become traditions and traditions become culture, and culture’s one of few things differentiating us from dust mites.  When trends control our thoughts and curb our options, though, it’s time to trim them back.  When everyone loves Twilight, it’s time to take a second look at Dracula.  When everyone has a pair of those retro Ray Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, it’s time to switch up to neon blade-style Oakleys.  Do it.  Let’s see your face behind a K-rad pair of those fuckers.

I’m not kidding myself, bytheway.  I know there’s no escape.  But there’s an important difference between the guy who goes gently into that good night and the guy who spits and cusses and brawls all the way down.

Or — I’m imagining that, and we’re all just as boring as everyone else.

No way.  I saw a forty year old man in a swell black tuxedo and pink bow tie slam dancing at a Vandals show, once.

And there was nothing boring about that.

With Great Reprobation, Condemnation and Fulmination,

-BothEyesShut

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