Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Fashionisto - Part 2: Jeerers at Mullets

As the former fashion commentator for a national magazine, I am commonly asked (if only by myself) to provide input on musical artists’ attire. It’s a thankless undertaking; most young groups are offended by the notion of actively choosing their on-stage clothing, rather than just wandering on in whatever T-shirts and running shoes they found at the foot of the bed. They go on stage in clothes that James Brown wouldn't have let his band rehearse in, and are proud of themselves for thinking Only About the Music.

In so doing, I think, they shoot themselves in the foot. The live concert is both a musical and a visual medium; do we not say, “I’m so excited about seeing So-and-So next week?” The audience doesn’t want to look up on stage and see itself, but something it wishes it too could be. Did The Beatles not dress to impress? Miles Davis? The Duke Ellington Orchestra? Sly & The Family Stone? The Who, when they were the best rock and roll group ever? The Romantics? Prince? It’s only in the last 30 years that it’s become nearly rote for groups to take this all-we-care-about-is-the-music,-man stance, imagining, as they do so, that they’re defying show biz convention. The fact, though, is that they’re embracing one of the dreariest of modern entertainment conventions, that of the "alternative" rock band as slobs.

But enough about anything other than me. I got my first layered (to us, “shag,” to a Brit, “feathered”) haircut the summer following my graduation at the urging of the brothers Mael, in whose band — later renamed Sparks — I briefly played drums. For the first time in my life, I had both complete freedom and the money to indulge it. While other famous music critics were content to continue looking like unkempt college freshmen, I dressed like a British pop star. Coming over to help me move one time, my dad opened a closet full of satin and velvet and even sequins, and marveled, “Boy, Patti sure has some flashy stuff.” The wardrobe was my own.

I never loved the styles of any era as much as I did those of the early 70s, but I could walk down Melrose Avenue in LA a decade and more later and still see dozens of things I’d have loved to have worn, though I wasn’t so rich anymore. But then grunge and hip hop teamed up to spoil everything. Suddenly, in the early 90s, there wasn’t anything I wanted to buy anymore. While I perceived with great clarity that the homies were extremely stylish on their own terms, I felt pretty sure I’d look an idiot in those comically baggy jeans and shirts (suddenly there seemed to be lots more XXXL than M on the shirt racks), in those fancifully tilted baseball caps.

When I flew to London at the dawn of the new millennium, it was with a big clothes budget in hand, the city having been the world capital of rock and roll fashion for decades. Imagine my horror on discovering that the London I’d once loved no longer existed. Kings Road, once wall-to-wall unique boutiques, was now The Gap, and Just Like the Gap, and Just Like the Gap, and Just Like the Gap, as far as the eye could see. The only really stylish people left were the goths, and I felt I’d look no less idiotic in Halloween makeup than in hip hop drag.

When I actually moved to London, I found myself doing my clothes-shopping in the vaguely Walmart-ish Primark, in large part because it was cheap. If I were going to buy something about which I was lukewarm anyway, did it make sense to pay more for it than I had to? It had been heartbreaking to have to shell out £80 for my wedding suit, though it contained no trace of anything but polyester. Twenty-six years before, and maybe half a block east in Oxford Street, I’d bought what may be my favorite garment ever — a gorgeous burgundy-colored velvet blazer, tailored in the snug-around-the-midsection style that the Brits have long since abandoned — for £12.

When I met Fourth Major Life Partner for our blind date at a tavern on California Street in 1989, she was aghast at my Italian carabinieri coat, which she condemned with two words: Sgt. Pepper. She, meanwhile, was wearing zebra-print hi-tops in which she imagined herself to look audaciously whimsical, but in fact looked darned foolish. Over the years I have come to perceive that one’s own fashion sense is very often inversely proportional to the frequency and fervor with which he disses others. Jeerers-at-mullets are the most conspicuous example. Have you ever known such a person to have even the most rudimentary fashion sense?

Jeerers-at-mullets will have a field day with my having patronized a Hot Topic during my brief, unpleasant recent stay in the Midwest, but there is only one thing in my wardrobe I love more than the knockoff I bought there of the military jackets My Chemical Romance wore in their Black Parade video, and that’s the claret Thai silk suit I had made for myself in Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2006. My tailor — I never dreamed I’d say those words! — was so grateful for my patronage that he invited us to his wedding, at which both his and the bride's father drank Scotch and soda as though King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s well being were at stake.

I was amused, in young adulthood, by the realization that I had come to want not to blend in as avidly as I’d yearned to blend in as a little shaver. Now, as one collecting Social Security, I feel identically. I will not go quiet into that good night of bland conformity. I will go into it looking a little foolish.

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  1. 'Fess up - it was no less than the Eleganza fashion column of Creem that you helmed.