Walking through Amsterdam recently, a paradox that I had long noticed in an inchoate way formulated itself clearly in my mind. It was this: A century ago, there would have been one clothes shop for every hundred well-dressed people. Nowadays there is one well-dressed person (if that) for every hundred clothes shops. What accounts for this strange reversal of ratios?
Beyond the fact that clothes are now mass-produced rather than made individually, there is an act of will involved. Practically everyone now dresses not merely in a casual way, but with studied slovenliness for fear of being thought elegant, as elegance is a metonym for undemocratic sentiment or belief. You can dress as expensively as you like, indeed expensive scruffiness is a form of chic, but on no account must you dress with taste and discrimination. To do so might be to draw hostile attention to yourself. Who on Earth do you think you are to dress like that?
While seized of the paradox in Amsterdam, I looked in the windows of many clothes shops in search of elegance; I found it in not one. The décor of the shops in many cases was in good enough taste, but their wares, cheap or expensive, were uniformly tatty, in some cases literally so, for the vogue for pricey torn jeans has not yet entirely passed. Is it not odd that in an age when more people have a large discretionary income than ever before, and are prepared to pay thousands for such adornments as tattooing (some one in five American adults are now tattooed), almost everyone should look as if he or she had just rolled out of bed and picked up a pile of clothes from the night before that was lying crumpled on the floor?
Among males in Amsterdam, only taxi drivers and other relatively humble servants of the public wear ties. If you are smart, you are subordinate: you will never get anywhere in life. This is more than fashion; it is ideology, or at the very least a gestalt switch.
Dress is one of the matters—in truth, they are not very many—on which I have changed my mind, and not just because I have matured as I have grown older, but because general conditions have changed. In my youth, I considered concern with dress as frivolous and evidence of a superficial mind. To be concerned with dress was surely not only vanity but evidence of a propensity to judge by appearances, though by what else in most cases we have to judge I did not enquire of myself too closely. It did not occur to me that it is not to judge by appearances that is foolish; it is to judge irrevocably and solely by appearances that is so.
Anyway, in my youth I thought that scruffiness was next to godliness, or at least to high intelligence. And indeed many highly intelligent people in those days did appear to be somewhat shabby, for example wearing tweed jackets that were out at elbow, with flecks of smoked pipe tobacco. From the fact that highly intelligent people were often scruffy, I drew the logically incorrect inference that scruffy people were intelligent, so I joined the legions of the tatty (though never of the dirty).
There is one very obvious advantage of slovenliness over elegance: the latter requires effort and attention to maintain. Scruffiness is more akin to a state of nature, and requires no such effort to maintain. But there is more than mere laziness in the modern trend, something that lies deeper. For the modern scruffiness does not arise from clothes that have worn out or that people have not bothered to maintain; they are designedly scruffy.
Fat people, for example, do not have to look monstrous. Dressed correctly, as fat West African women often are, they can even achieve a magnificence that does not preclude elegance. But fat people in modern society do not dress like this. On the contrary, they insist on squeezing themselves into the most inappropriately figure-hugging costumes, often of pastel shades that accentuate their figures in the most unflattering possible way. As a consequence, they do not look magnificent, as fat West African market-trading women do (their turbans are in themselves a joy to behold); they look grotesque.
The problem is not merely absence of self-respect, it is active hostility to self-respect, replaced entirely by self-esteem. The former says, “I will keep myself looking good in the eyes of others;” the latter says, “What is good enough for me is good enough for everyone else, and if they find me an eyesore they can jolly well put up with it.”
Modern scruffiness, then, is a manifestation of egotism. Outside one of the shops in Amsterdam was a large plasma screen showing models wearing the kind of clothes to be had within. They were precisely the insolently ragged clothes that the great majority of people in the street were wearing anyway. This was a form of flattery of the public, for it implied that its members had nothing to aspire to in the matter of dress higher than that which they themselves were already wearing—that in the matter of appearance they had already reached acme of the possible.
There was yet more. The models, in their T-shirts, baseball caps, sneakers, and so forth, as uniform as any army, walked with the kind of vulpine lope that one associates with the less law-abiding young males of the American ghettoes. But even more striking was the expression on their faces, which were cachectic in the case of the women, androgynous in the case of men: a fixed, determined, humorless stare that indicated a hatred of the world and all that was in it, including their fellow-beings. If one saw such a person at a social event, one would go to some effort to avoid or to flee or not to talk to him or her. The models’ faces were vacantly earnest, as if they wished for annihilation of everything around them for some personal reason, no doubt trifling.
This is the first age in which people do not dress to please others, but dress to displease others, to make sure that everyone knows that I’m not going to make any effort just for you. And this, no doubt, is because I am as good as anyone in the world, bar none: His Majesty, myself. And what starts out as an attitude becomes an unexamined and ingrained habit.
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