SCREENING ROOM; Dressed to Kill: Today, Stylish Is Bad, Tacky and Grungy Is Good

By Pittman, Frank | Family Therapy Networker, July/August 2000 | Go to article overview

SCREENING ROOM; Dressed to Kill: Today, Stylish Is Bad, Tacky and Grungy Is Good


Pittman, Frank, Family Therapy Networker


"Clothes," we used to be told, "make the man" and, presumably, the woman. Clothes serve functions far beyond the practical ones of clothing our biblical nakedness, providing warmth and protection, shielding our physical blemishes, excesses and inadequacies from scrutiny and keeping us from getting arrested. Clothes have, since time immemorial, served to identify us, to bespeak our status, to command respect or to engender awe. Uniforms notify others which team, which army we belong to. What we wear can save our lives or can get us killed.

There are clothes for every function, every activity, every emotional state. There are clothes that tell the world you are ready for work, for play, for mourning, for celebrating, for getting committed or for getting laid. But while old clothes may announce internal comfort, new clothes may advertise a calculated effort to achieve some effect and produce some response. (Thoreau long ago advised us to "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.")

The style nowadays is to dress down, to look as if you don't care how you look. Recent trends in clothing have tended toward play clothes for office wear, presumably so people who are working can pretend they are playing. (Do we really want surgeons dressed for golf or bankers dressed for scuba diving?) Some buy their clothes not just with a worn look, but already dirty (so the wearer can avoid the Thoreauvian stigma of new clothes without having to personally roll in the mud). Those who aspire to look laid-back deck themselves out in sports equipment (such as baseball caps) worn indoors. Who knows, maybe people will show up at my office next in snorkels or catcher's masks.

One recent trend is to demonstrate how much trouble you've gone to to dress down. At a recent wedding, the bride not only hadn't dried her hair, she hadn't washed it, and the groom wore designer jeans with his tuxedo jacket, cummerbund and ruffled shirt. (At least the self consciously laid-back couple didn't walk down the aisle in their workout sweats.) Dressing down, no matter how uncomfortably, has become an expression of sincere, solid character.

Our society has divided itself into two opposing teams, those status seekers (henceforth known as the "bad guys") who dress up, and thus try to make everyone else look bad by contrast, and those comfort seekers (henceforth known as the "good guys") who dress down, and thereby try to make the status seeking dresseruppers feel bad by contrast.

We grow increasingly distrustful of people who call attention to themselves by dressing up and looking stylish in clothes intended to impress others by their expense or splendor. At the same time, we show far more tolerance of those who wear attention-calling, but blatantly unstylish clothes, intended to startle others and to stand out like a sore thumb (or like teenagers who dress bizarrely so no one would think their mothers still dress them.)

Dressing tackily or grungily has become proof of virtue; dressing stylishly has become proof of villainy. Even in the movies, which used to be a major showplace for fashionable clothes for beautiful people, we are beginning to find a trend away from fashion, toward tack and grunge.

The film that most directly addresses this correlation between style and character is American Psycho, a shockingly funny black comedy made by Mary I Shot Andy Warhol Harron from the appalling, nauseating 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis about the soulless status-seeking of Wall Street yuppies during the Reagan years. The novel's format is of the journal of Patrick Bateman, a fashion-obsessed 27-year-old Harvard MBA, budding millionaire in mergers and acquisitions (or, as he puts it, "murders and executions") and a rapacious serial killer. In the book, he describes in excruciating detail his designer wardrobe, his possessions, his seductions and his murders. The novel sets out to satirize the "Greed Is Good" philosophy of an era and a generation for whom character is the last generation's guilt-tripping doo-doo and life-style is worth, if not dying for, at least killing for. …

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