DOES MY ARSE LOOK DAFT IN THIS?
I have written in candid wonderment about Greek fashion before, or at any rate as it is manifested here in Cycladean Kythnos. Yesterday however I was truly stunned beyond stunning, to see a handsome young woman and mother, who looked as if her fashion designer was no other than me Kyrio Anglos John, when well afloat on a litre or so of firewater raki. Her husband of about thirty-five who was the very double of the homely and eternally boyish British actor, Phil Daniels, was certainly discordant in his own attire. He was sporting a pair of decent and expensive denims, topped by an old-fashioned golden cord jacket, as worn by go-ahead Cumbrian chemistry teachers circa 1968 i.e. 12 years before he was born. His wife though, who really was a strikingly alluring woman in her late twenties, had the following bizarre sequence starting top-wards down:
A glaringly crimson red cape or cloak (and it was bloody well hot sunshine apart from all else) which stopped at the very top of what meandered down below. It surmounted a pair of impossibly tight and electric grey leggings, which looked as if they had been painted onto her skin rather than pulled over her legs. The glistening leggings were decorated with a kind of paisley pattern, that might have zoology-wise resolved into single cell paramecia or other ‘slipper animalcules’. To be sure I shouldn’t have been looking at her figure, seeing she was with her doting husband and her two year-old son, but the super-tight protozoan leggings showed every minute aspect of her mesmerising Greek legs and sumptuous behind. In my defence, given that the blinding crimson cloak did not even slightly cover the top of the leggings, why would she be wearing something so profoundly skin-tight, unless she were trying to draw the attention of the gaping universe to her beautiful Greek legs and bottom? Parenthetically, what did Kythnos’s Phil Daniels twin feel about all this fearless erotic display on the part of his handsome young wife, who was obviously a very good and conscientious mother? Finally, and anticlimactically, at the base of this baroque assemblage, was a pair of high-heeled shoes that were black and squat and amateurishly designed, most evidently as she teetered her way very awkwardly through the port with child and husband in tow.
I am, and you will amazed by this, no raging fashion icon myself, but if anything, as a matter of self-protective instinct, I favour harmoniously matching colours. I know contrasting colours can be done to good effect if you are a fashion expert, and know what you are doing, and of course you can even go and have your colours ‘done’, by someone an expert in diagnosing the best very and most harmonious chromatic nuances, for you and you alone. But why did this young woman think that bright crimson sat next to silvery grey with a scattered slipper animalcule pattern, looked anything but mad? What’s more, while writing this piece in the Cafe Paradisos, I have glanced at two TV programmes where both male presenters are dressed like florid imbeciles. One is a bloke of late twenties who is interviewing a celebrated fish chef on the Isle of Naxos. The interviewer has a tightly bound jacket-cum-sweater that oddly reminds me of buttonless wool coats as brought back from Nepal by UK hippies circa 1973. After that the resemblance changes to a kind of cloth chain-mail of a knight errant, and where the colouring is alternating dark red, white and burnt sienna. It looks wholly and gratuitously nuts, and one wonders why grinning yet earnest Vangilis the presenter, does not realise he looks like a Hellenic Sir Lancelot on his leisurely return from high plateau Nepal. Switch now to a soporific TV monologue from an Athens academic of around 58, who is dilating on Greek history, specifically the Tourkokratia or Turkish occupation. He has a Bertie Wooster cummerbund of flimsy grey silk, above a thick white sweater that is patterned with pink zig-zagging lines. If I was one of his students I would insist on having all my essays re-marked, on the grounds that a silken loony like this is so unstable he cannot add up the marks, much less make a cogent critical judgement on anyone’s academic essay.
A month or so ago I talked about the liberating anthropological idea of Structuralism, which is about getting yourself imaginatively and completely inside the subject or person you are studying, and to look out at the world from their singular point of view. The other and clearly flawed option is to survey everything from the outside, and impose your own extraneous judgement from without, perhaps with a Marxist or Conservative or Freudian or Evangelical Christian perspective. That said, most acclaimed intellectual theory, and certainly most anecdotal pub discourse, sheep-wise follows the latter reductive route, and it is all about assessment, judgement, and external imposition of values. On an enlightening structural basis, we can conclude that what I regard as examples of idiotic and insensitive Greek fashion, are not so experienced by the subjects themselves. These folk in Kythnos and Athens are not perverse, and do not hate themselves, and self-evidently they think they look really great, and are doing their best to look as really great as they can. On that reading then, how do they look at me and my quiet and understated and matching greens and blues and browns? Maybe I look like a worryingly colourless Anglos ghost to them, and they think I would look so much better, and so much more Greek, with a Midas golden cord jacket, and maybe vivid amoeba-studded silver leggings that would emphasise my excellent hips and magnificent buttocks. Maybe just one of these days I will go across and ask Phil Daniels and his wife what they think. Or maybe I will not.
A fascinating and related issue, is the notion of who in this world, thinks they are the most modern and most up to date, and contemporary, vis a vis all previous generations. The answer, I would bet my shirt on it, is that every generation since time began, thinks they are the most au fait and up to date of all time. In fashion terms alone, the 1980s generations laughed at the punk styles of the late 70s, with all those snazzy suits and truncated, tapered haircuts on the jigging masculine heads. The punks in turn laughed at the early and mid 70s flares and kipper ties and bouffoned hairstyles, and the latter likewise pissed themselves at the mid 60s hippies with floral shirts, arse long hair, and a total rejection of the up till then universal cosmopolitan notion of personal tidiness. The hippies creased up at the conformist early 60s and National Service 50s, with short back and sides or occasional crew cut or neck-shave, but possibly paid grudging homage to Elvis lookalikes with drainpipe kecks, long sideburns and flapping skirted jackets. Forget about clothes for a while, but this serial superiority to all previous generations is certainly the case in most western cultures, and it is really only in certain parts of the East and especially Hindu society where veneration of tradition and antiquity is a sine qua non. Studying Sanskrit was a real eye-opener for me, because essentially in classical Hindu culture, new and innovative thinking was regarded as a fairly absurd and heretical idea. Much better to write endless commentaries on the flawless Ancient Sages, those who with an ear to the wisdom of the patron Hindu deities, had written with a final definitiveness on Medicine, Maths, Astronomy, Poetry, Philosophy, Polity, Law and Erotics. Seeing the work had already been done to quasi-divine perfection, the only task of subsequent generations of scholars was to explain the inscrutable and sometimes gnomic and cryptic originals to the following generations. This of course is the exact opposite of the western intellectual tradition, which is to prize innovation and the overturning or at least serious extrapolation and emendation, of the greats of the past, Isaac Newton and Galen included.
So far I have concentrated on fashion as an index of the last word in modernity, and cutting edge and pioneer innovation, never to be surpassed. But the same obviously holds true of digital technology and science. Those born after about 1985 simply cannot remember a world without computers, internet, and mobile/cell phones. The idea that you find out about things by going to the library and consulting encyclopaedias, strikes them as more deeply tragic than loudly laughable. In 2013, I was able in Albania to watch my favourite mostly US jazz groups on YouTube, thanks to the fact that poverty-stricken Albania has one thing it can afford, internet cafes. Rreshen in Miredita with population 15,000 had five gorgeous and spacious state of the art examples, while the rest of the town was run down, squalid and very sad. But as late as say 1990, I couldn’t have had anything like that You Tube jazz access, in either New York or London, could I?
Not only does the internet permit you to find out classic encyclopaedia information, it allows you to seek out the wholly arcane and specialised, which no reference book is ever going to yield. A few years back I had, thanks to the local Cumbrian tandoori carry-out place, and my profound inability to hit my mouth, copious turmeric stains all over my favourite denims. I was about to ring several friends to seek anecdotal advice, and of course I would first have asked the tandoori restaurant, but they were not open during the day. However I then recalled the good old internet, though thinking to myself, surely this is far too specialised even for it. Instead when I googled ‘How to Get Turmeric Out of Clothes’ I got about 5 million hits. In the end I opted for the easiest, which was to soak the denims in cold water, and then hang on the washing line in bright sunshine. It did the trick and that was that. Until, that is, I saw Ali the head chef at the tandoori , the following Thursday Special Night, where you got enough to feed a thousand hungry rugby players for all of £8.95.
“How do you guys get turmeric out of your clothes?”I asked him earnestly man to man, and then told him that I had found out a huge number of answers from the internet.
He looked at me wonderingly. “I’ve no idea. We send all our laundry stuff to specialists in Newcastle. But please John, do tell me what the proper answer is. I would love to know.”
So, right enough, those born post 1985, have little or no experience of a world where the only way of communicating quickly abroad, was by prohibitively expensive and unreliable telephone. With emails, now you can hold a copious and highly effective hotmail exchange between say Greece and Taiwan in five minutes, and via Skype at very little cost if any, you can see your little Martian pal in his or her little box at the other end of the universe. It is a banal observation now, but going back to the pre-net days it would all have seemed like glib sci-fi of a fairly unconvincing order.
And to repeat what truly counts. Every generation always feels that it is the most contemporary and progressive of all generations, simply by dint of being the very latest generation, nothing else. This applies not just in modish and volatile things like fashion, but in technology, transport and almost every aspect of human endeavour. Even truly stunning previous innovations like the early TVs or the early telephones, seem sadly, even tragically comical, in their Professor Branestawm clumsiness and ugliness. A little humble reflection would soon get us to acknowledge that the remarkable achievements without any gizmos or gadgets by ancient Arab culture in Mathematics and Medicine, and by Classical India in both Maths and Astronomy, are enough to make us bow down in abject reverence to a wisdom and an inventiveness a long way ahead of ours. Sadly, the one and only thing any contemporary generation might bow down to with a due humility, is the Future Generation. The trouble is that unlike everything in the past, which we effortlessly and, unconsciously patronisingly know all about, we are not clairvoyants, and we truly have no idea what it will be like. We can do the old TV stunt qua Tomorrow’s World of devoting a programme to likely future innovations, but that can only be predicated on what we know already. And while plenty of folk might pre 1990 have fantasised about something that gave what we know now as the internet i.e. easily available and instantly accessible encyclopaedic and non-encyclopaedic knowledge, nobody knew precisely what shape that phenomenon would take. Cables under the sea, you hazard, back in 1990? Kiss my analogue as opposed to my digital ass…
Finally and getting back to fashion. You might qua Structuralism, as I said earlier, understand the truest existential version of seemingly appalling fashion taste, by getting imaginatively inside the person sporting the pantomime absurdity. However this still does not allow for the fact that there are people, who, while doing their best to look as nicely turned out as they can, within their own considered fashion terms, are not at all sure whether they look quite as nice as they would hope. In this context, it is worth examining the fashion dialectic that obtained between my mother and my Aunty Maggie, back somewhere around 1975 i.e. a scant 40 years ago. Aunty Maggie was not my aunty, but my mother’s cousin, and she and my Uncle Willy were childless. This of course contrasted with my mother, who had four sons of which I was the youngest aka the truly delectable baby. One consequence of having no kids, was that Maggie and Willy had a considerable amount of disposable income, and even more heartening, Willy who doted on Maggie, and thought that the Sun, another Deity like her, shone from her West Cumbrian fundament, could not get enough of spoiling her with luxury presents. As a result, the pair of them would often motor up (yes that’s right, they didn’t drive up, they motored up) to county seat Carlisle, and spent a fortune on the most expensive clothes they could for Maggie. They did this so often that Maggie accumulated ten lorry loads of splendid garments, and eventually ran out of wardrobe space, and in some cases never got round to wearing the lustrous apparel anyway, there was just so much of it.
Cue my mother then, now and again being invited not to take her pick of these regal vestments, but for Maggie to give her what she specifically would deem the most fitting i.e. what fashion expert Maggie assumed would suit my unworldly apprentice mother, on the basis that my mother not having a free hand to buy exactly what she liked, would best be guided by someone who did.
The truly wonderful thing though, was that Maggie did not express her aesthetic approbation, apropos my mother trying something on, in cheery positive terms, but exclusively in modified negative ones. So that when for example my mother tried on a sumptuous and costly hat from Carlisle’s finest milliner, and to anyone but Maggie looked very smart in it, Maggie would declaim:
“Mm? That’s mebbe OK. The thing to remember is, you don’t look daft in it. Mm. Yes. No don’t worry. You don’t look too soft in it. So it’s maybe worth you taking that one back home with you.”
When I first started writing this piece, and I pondered early on Maggie’s singular habit of aesthetic praise by careful application of negatives, I thought to myself this would be a nice humorous coda to the piece, if only because it is so comically if touchingly absurd. However I am instead thoroughly undone and comprehensively unhinged, now that I have written Maggie’s words, and seeing that far from propounding an example of comic litotes, Maggie was actually a genius when it came to overwhelming aesthetic nuance and absolute critical rectitude. Maggie whose principal intellectual refreshment was People’s Friend and the now sadly defunct Reveille and Tit-Bits, overwhelmingly was more right than anyone else I have ever known, eminent French anthropologists and acclaimed cultural critics from all over the globe included.
Know why? Because her fashion poetics could not have been more piercingly accurate, if she had had ten PhDs in anthropology from every university from Tubingen to Toronto to Tokyo. Let’s face it, we all of us everywhere in the world, do NOT dress up to a notional elevated fashion level, and a sense of subjecting ourselves to an external critical aesthetic much less our own internalised aesthetic. No siree.
Instead, and it was my good old Aunty Maggie first discovered this, we all of us dress after the manner, albeit within our own subjective terms no doubt, that assures us that we end up NOT LOOKING DAFT.