While shopping recently I met another car in a mall lot lane. I could see the driver and passenger plainly. They looked Middle Eastern, and I didn’t know them.
But the driver smiled and gave me a little wave. I waved back, puzzled. I knew he wasn’t responding to my friendly face. My self-delusion doesn’t stretch quite that far.
I figured it out at last, I think. He and his friend were wearing suits and ties. I was wearing a tie too, and my weekend fedora (the older one, a Christy’s Foldable).
His greeting had been the salute of one civilized man to another. Accustomed to more gracious attire back where he came from, he’d found even a threadbare specimen like me a welcome sight in a land of barbarians.
I think we’ve got it all wrong about clothes in this country. I think we’ve had it wrong ever since the cultural petit mal that was the 1960s.
We revered something called “authenticity” back in the Sixties. Dressing neatly, grooming ourselves, even basic hygiene — all such activities were condemned as “plastic.” Conformist. Hypocritical. Real beauty sprang from the heart, we told each other, and anyone blind to such beauty had, like, no soul, man. The really authentic thing, of course, would have been to wear no clothes at all, but where that wasn’t practical (like in February in Minnesota, where I lived then and live now), decency demanded dressing like a Biafran refugee and smelling like a dog’s bed.
It never occurred to us, in our innocence (no, let’s be honest — our arrogance), that inner beauty might also involve some small concern for the noses of others, and that cleaning up, smelling good, and covering ourselves with attractive clothing might also be a way of striving for greater peace and universal consciousness in the world.
Of course we were young then, our generation, and some of us actually did look good without clothes on.
Not as many as thought they did, though.
Certainly not me.
IN ANY CASE, TODAY the “Now Generation” of the Sixties is entering its own sixties, and the percentage of us whose bodies bear close inspection has… well, I just had supper and I’d rather not think about it.
Many are the duties a responsible culture (if there were one around) would lay upon us, its elders. We’d be expected to keep the fires of reason and tradition burning in the home and the public square. We’d be expected to act as a damper on the political and social passions of our youngers, counseling against complacent pacifism on the one hand and obnoxious aggression on the other. We’d be expected to provide a little free babysitting for the grandchildren when the kids needed a weekend in Tahoe or St. Thomas.
But no duty of elders, it seems to me, is more vital to the common weal on a day-to-day basis than that of simply dressing decently. An old man in a neat suit (preferably with a hat. Extra points for a cane) is a walking civic improvement. By contrast, an old fart in baggy shorts and a Budweiser tee-shirt is a sight from which small children should be shielded. By force of law if necessary.
About old women I shall say nothing at all (mostly out of fear).
Throughout history each generation has heard the complaint, “Young people today have no manners! They don’t respect their elders!”
Today, for the first time in history, the young people have a reasonable and incontrovertible response: “We don’t respect you because you look like a bunch of clowns.”
The baseball caps (especially when turned backwards — who do you think you’re kidding?), the voluminous shorts that so effectively showcase our varicose veins, the tee-shirts that limn so elegantly our bloated bellies and sagging chests, all these are, it seems to me, marks of a civilization rapidly headed for the assisted living facility. We show disrespect to ourselves when we go around dressed like kids in an Our Gang movie short. (I suspect we’re all pathologically imprinted on Spanky and Alfalfa. Saturday morning television has much to answer for.) It’s a silent cry for help, this manner of dress, a semiotic appeal for some long-dead grownup to come upstairs from the grave and save us from the ugliness we’ve created for ourselves.
And of course someone is waiting to do just that.
ALL MY LIFE I’VE HEARD people speak of a cosmic, universal cultural pendulum. “The pendulum swings one way,” people told me when I was young, “then it swings back. People are experimenting with new ways of doing things today. Tomorrow they’ll want to go back to the traditional ways.”
Well, I’ve been waiting. That pendulum has been swinging left for a long time now, it seems to me, building up a whole heck of a lot of potential energy. In my imagination it looks like the pendulum on a cartoon clock (blame Saturday morning TV again), stretched like a rubber band and curving up near the little doors of the cuckoo compartment. When it finally lets go, it’ll snap back with a vengeance, probably cold-cocking Porky Pig and knocking him through the living room window.
What form will this backswing take? There are clues, I think, if you know where to look.
Even as we Americans fritter our time away in vain amusements and questionable sartorial fads, Europe is being subsumed by the culture of my friend in the parking lot, the culture of Islam. Europe, that body-obsessed continent, with its nude beaches (you knew I’d bring up nude beaches, didn’t you?), casual sex, and open pornography, is already surrendering (tragically, but perhaps with some relief) to the Puritanism of the East.
And since our own elite have always considered Europe’s way the only sure standard of what’s right and fashionable, and since the European party won the last elections, I suggest we start covering ourselves too, to get used to it.