A Public Persona in Public Space
Back in the days when Americans were flying frequently—which was not so long ago—did you notice how our fellow citizens dressed for travel? An awful lot of them showed up at the airport in their jammies, sometimes even clutching pillows. This told me something: there was no longer any distinction in our society between being in a public place and being in the family room at home. Now it was all just one big mish-mash of being where you happen to be in whatever way you want to be there.
Perhaps the slovenly costumes in airports were a subconscious reaction to being treated like hostages rather than customers by the airlines—that’s how you dress if you’ve been stripped of your dignity. But surely it also had to do more generally with the condition of public space in our country, which had degenerated into little more than one big demolition derby from sea to shining sea. Much of the time spent outside the house, Americans were in their cars, that is, in little mobile privacy pods, traversing public space as rapidly as possible, say the commercial highway strip, which had little meaning, except as a sort of psychological punishment. Hence, just about every place outside the home, except wild nature, took on some repellant quality.
Having abandoned our old towns with their walkable Main Streets for the artificial wilderness of suburbia, where cars tyrannized the scene entirely, private space became aggrandized while public space was diminished—along with behavior associated with it. American houses had more bathrooms per inhabitant than any other culture, not to mention the evolution of the master bedroom to master spa, with giant Jacuzzis, elliptical trainers, and theater-grade flat-screens. The exorbitant luxury was out of this world. But outside that private bubble everything else was just a parking lot, a gray, meaningless void. Why should Americans care about their personal presentation in public places when they had none worth being in?
By contrast, in European cities daily life was still organized cognitively pretty much the old way, with very clear semiotics denoting a sharp distinction between what is public and private. Living quarters might be comparatively meager in European cities, but an abundance of cafes, bistros, and other gathering places served as public living rooms, some of them quite luxurious. So, the result was democratizing: luxury for all, at the cost of a cup of coffee. And all of this civic infrastructure was assembled in an armature of streets that were psychologically rewarding to spend time in, along with excellently designed parks, large and small, woven in through that fabric of streets and blocks.
Americans who ventured over to Europe in the late 20th century were in for a shock. Parisians, for instance, seemed to have a very firm sense of the difference between being home and being in the museum. They presented themselves accordingly in public, in quite formal costume: skirts and dresses for women and tailored suits for men. American tourists in their short pants and Star Wars T-shirts looked like six-year-olds to them. No wonder Americans complained that Parisians condescended to them.
I was similarly conditioned to a strict sense of the public and private growing up in a Manhattan apartment in the 1950s and ’60s. I was wearing a tie regularly as a teenager. Even beatniks back then wore sportjackets in the Greenwich Village cafes. Going about among a cavalcade of strangers in the streets of New York one was obliged to construct a physical persona, starting with clothing, that made a legible statement about one’s role in society, without revealing too much so as to compromise the dignity of still being a private person in a crowd. Costume was both a kind of armor against all the friction of life lived shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, and a signal that you were a trustworthy member of that society, safe to be around.
The hippies changed that up a bit costume-wise, but mainly just to signal that coming-of-age was fabulously fun and sexy, especially in an overwhelmingly massive demographic such as the Baby Boomers, and that everybody beyond that stage of life, grinding through some mindless job that kept the old economy going, was a sad old gork to be pitied. Between then and now not a whole not changed, except the Boomers grew old and stagnated sartorially on their way to the grave in boring L.L.Bean casuals.
Now that city life is significantly diminished, if not extinguished—what with the coronavirus and a cratering real economy of street-level small business especially—we might consider what mode of personal presentation will greet the new disposition of things ahead. Already, people able to work from home are spending much of their time in jammies and slob-wear. If and when post-Covid-19 public space becomes operational again, many Americans will have forgotten what their public persona was, and what costume it required. One thing’s for sure: the standard male office rig of a suit-and-tie is finished. It began, incidentally, as a gloss on the British bird-shooting costume of the late 19th century, suggesting that the sporting-wear of one period strangely mutates into the formal wear of a later time.
We have a clue about the future of men’s costume in Antifa. More than anything, the riot has emerged as the social and sporting space du jour for the young and restless—what be-ins were to the hippies. The cafes, concerts, bars, and raves have been shuttered and the street riot is now the new meet-up space. The characteristic of this space, though, is that it’s a bit dangerous, an arena for violent games that resemble adult Cops-and-Robbers. And the personal presentation for this is paramilitary black bloc raiment.
As Henry Ford used to say about his Model T car, you can have it in any color you want, as long as it’s black. That way, everybody looks the same, of course, and the masks and balaclavas make it extra hard for law enforcement snoops to ID the players when they’re busting stuff up or setting it ablaze. Stretch-pants are the preferred street-fighting bottom-wear, with tactical hoodies above, perhaps something in breathable gore tex, for fast getaways on those drizzly Pacific Northwest nights. Accessorize with plenty of D rings for hanging stuff, and back-packs for water bottles, bear spray, fireworks, and snacks, an umbrella for fending off clouds of tear-gas, and a shield for advancing on the enemy: the defunded and declawed police. And there is your social justice get-up: anarcho-LARPwear.
As the industrial economy continues to go further south than anyone ever imagined, and we slip-slide into neo-medievalism with its more distinct social hierarchies and super-scarce capital, the Antifa class will likely be reduced to laboring in the fields. I’m thinking linsey-woolsey tunics, peg-legged pantaloons, and wooden clogs. With the return of town life at the human scale, the Antifa sporting wear of the 2020s becomes the formal costume of the now-tiny non-laboring class, with perhaps some Game of Thrones embellishments. Such are the prankish inversions of history. We’ll also get back to the idea of a gentleman, someone not engaged in activities of the crop row or the barnyard. Eventually we’ll run out of miracle stretch fabrics. It’ll be back to jerkins, breeches, split-hose, cloaks, calf-high boots against the noisome debris in the gutter, and wide-brimmed hats to protect against refuse heaved out the windows. Will the sword make a comeback? It could come to that. And for the ladies? Sorry to say, no more Spanx for you.
James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.