Chin: Playing it Safe
Regional fashion differences can be a metaphor for our country’s divisions.
The clothing options on Hanover’s Main Street, like J. Crew and other aesthetically similar boutiques, epitomize the general fashion trends of our campus and town. This is why one of my first destinations upon returning to California for winter break was Fairfax Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles. It was a refreshing break from chinos and plaid. Regional fashion, of course, is not homogenous, but Los Angeles taste-makers err towards a deceptively casual aesthetic.
I often hesitate to write about fashion — after all, it perfectly captures the materialism and superficiality that sometimes pervades American culture. There are, after all, more serious issues to think about, like the president-elect’s promises to “build a wall,” multiple sexual assault allegations and instances of Islamophobia. But when I returned to Los Angeles, I found myself in fashion culture shock. The dramatic difference in dress styles reminded me of a phenomenon widely discussed in the media since President-elect Donald Trump’s presidential win: political fragmentation, or the idea that those in densely populated cities are out of touch with their fellow citizens in smaller towns. It is difficult to conceptualize the political differences in various parts of the country because they are not directly quantifiable or visible. Fashion fragmentation, on the other hand, can be understood with a quick glance at the streets of Hanover and the streets of Los Angeles (even if that quick glance is at a photograph). The variety of clothing tastes in various parts of the country is a helpful tool in understanding two particular aspects of fragmentation: risk-taking and elitism.
Los Angeles is home to clothing brands most affiliated with the urban-chic aesthetic popular in other fashion landmarks around the world (New York, London, Paris). This includes high end street-wear stores like Supreme and FourTwoFour, pop-up shops like RIPNDIP and mid-range street-wear stores like Huf and Diamond Supply Co. The store American Rag, which carries vintage clothing and designers like Native Youth, Opening Ceremony and Rag & Bone, describes itself as a “mainstay of California culture.” Based on the range of low to high prices and the mix of street-wear, vintage and designer clothing, one can deduce that this “California culture” is an aesthetic of studied carelessness. Style blogs like The Sartorialist, Highsnobiety and Hypebeast frequently reference Los Angeles stores and fashion thinkers because they live up to the global fashion of avant-garde, contemporary streetwear. They describe them as notorious and eclectic. The risk-taking fashion of Los Angeles is simultaneously ironic, down-to-earth and pretentious, like the profane cats of RIPNDIP and the Supreme tee shirts featuring jazz and rock bands.
The Los Angeles trend of individuality and the avant-garde is diametrically opposed to the universalism of stereotypical New England fashion. There’s little that can be construed as controversial or unique about L.L. Bean boots, chinos and plaid shirts. While this look may be aesthetically pleasing to some, it is generally considered regional style, not high fashion. At New York Fashion Week, it carries nostalgic connotations that are antithetical to the more daring looks that now frequent the runway. While Los Angeles fashion tends to focus on a look that is simultaneously individual, global and constantly changing, the New England look is classically Americana and consistent.
The contrast between the Los Angeles fashion aesthetic of standing out and the Hanover mantra of fitting in reminded me of the differences between city and small town politics. In Los Angeles, I’m used to seeing protests, some of which became dangerous — including people lying down on the highway to protest police brutality. The few demonstrations I have seen in Hanover were smaller and less dangerous. Even the protest that garnered national attention only included mere accusations of verbal abuse, nothing that could actually lead to injury. The way people dress is a sign of mindset in general. If people are willing to take risks in fashion, they are also more willing to take political risks. This leads to verbal and physical fights. On our campus, there is often little room for discussion and many people are unwilling to breech topics like race and gender.
That is not to say that the risk-taking mindset of many Los Angelinos is necessarily an indicator of a healthy political environment. In fact, the other parallel between fashion and political culture — elitism — is prevalent in both Los Angeles and Hanover. In an earlier article I wrote for The Dartmouth, I discussed the socioeconomic implications of dressing “preppy.” That Los Angeles fashion pretends to be unpretentious is itself a paradoxical sign of its elitism. Perhaps the preppy, high-collar dress style of many New Englanders may seem pretentious, but expensive is expensive. The façade of apathy is too often an elitist excuse for appropriation. Los Angeles street-wear fashion may tend to glamorize poverty, and California bohemian-chic sometimes appropriates Native American culture. Some people wear fashionable band tee shirts without knowing the bands or skate brands despite not knowing how to skate. On the other hand, this fashion may be considered an ironic critique of the corporate system. In politics, we tend to fault liberals for being elite. But to understand that there are elite liberals and elite conservatives, just look at fashion: there is the elitism of small towns and the elitism of cities.
Other than the emphasis of individuality in Los Angeles’ clothing, it is the paradox of expensively cheap — or high-low fashion — that explains the difference. Many clothing-conscious people in Los Angeles are unafraid to make a fashion statement, even if that means appropriating skate culture, a regional culture or an art culture. The opportunity for controversy is not present in the clothing that many Hanover residents wear, which relies on a simple, put-together aesthetic.
Of course, I cannot say that all people in each region dress the same. But despite the variety that occurs within each region, the overall tendencies remain consistent. While I do take issue with the elitism of Los Angeles fashion, I also appreciate its outspokenness. How you dress is beside the point. But we can apply the fashion mantra of Los Angeles to the way we think about politics: be not afraid to engage in tense debate — take risks in order to gain a deeper understanding of an issue whether or not one changes sides and be unafraid to stand out.