Carlo is concerned about his looks; it’s important to him how his ‘outer shell’ – his coat – appears. Decent clothes make it easier to earn money, easier to approach people on a more or less equal level. But the coat also comes with a second purpose: it’s the smallest possible of homes, a sleeping bag and a comforter. ‘Since childhood we’re used to feeling something on top of us when we’re sleeping, something heavy,’ he says. ‘Turning a coat into a duvet is better than wearing it, somehow. It feels more secure and warm.’
You’re not allowed to fail in fashion – especially in this age of social media, when everything is about leading a successful, amazing life. Nobody today is allowed to fail, instead the prospect causes anxiety and terror. But why can’t we celebrate failure? After all, it helps us grow and develop. I’m not ashamed.
An Amish catechism manual devotes nine pages and forty-three questions and answers to dress – second only to the topic of heaven. In hypermodernity, dress articulates individuality and personal taste. In Amish life, clothing expresses exactly the opposite meaning. When members wear Amish garb, they relinquish their right to self-expression and signal their commitment to communal authority. Clothing that shows off one’s individuality produces a proud, haughty person, and pride is considered an abomination in the eyes of God.
I have been going to Jerri’s Cleaners since I moved to New York in 1993. I maintained a friendly but detached relationship with the staff there for the first twenty years. Then a serious stain threatened a favourite pair of trousers and the relationship changed. Through several rounds of – ultimately successful — experimentation, I gained a sense of the lengths to which a true professional will go to avoid failure and please a customer. Recently I invited my dry cleaner over to discuss his working method.
Something was up. A fine, soft mold had formed, colourless and clear. It thrived on surfaces beyond my reach. Another notion: someone had lightly greased the world with viscous, transparent stuff. Every edge was just a little bit thick with it. When I approached it, it retreated and settled on neighbouring objects, again ones I could not touch. Too mobile, then, for a fungal growth, and too dry for goo, since it left no residue. Unlike a fog, it travelled with me. Often, it left the distance and came up close, depositing its film on my cornea, a mucus that nothing washed away.
Even the little bathing cabins, set out in rows on the south side of the lake, were topped by swastika banners, small ones fluttering in dozens against the wide somber mountain waters. This place, where before so few people had come, was now singularly alive. Their bathing dress was dark and plain, the women wearing skirted ones with modest backs and necks, and Merrill changed into her pale-blue two-piece suit in the cabin and looked down at the strip of delicately tanned skin between the top and trunks and wondered. I never minded wearing this before, she thought.
Viewed from a distance of more than a century, the nineteenth-century beard fashion looks like a basic historical fact. And yet the arrival of this fashion came as a great shock for those who lived through it. Sweeping much of Europe, North America, and Latin America after roughly two centuries of clean-shavenness, the beard movement was almost certainly the most dramatic development in nineteenth-century men’s fashion – every bit as shocking as if knee breeches and ruffled shirts were to once more become the dominant mode of men’s dress throughout the so-called ‘Western’ world.