“Because you see the main thing today is — shopping. Years ago a person, he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself — he’d go to church, start a revolution — something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is the salvation? Go shopping.” — Solomon, in “The Price” by Arthur Miller
OpinionWhy even the preppy look is preferable to egalitarian shabbiness
In the era of the American Revolution, the distilled essence of the nascent nation’s aspiration was Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Today, some culture mavens say that, beginning in the fourth quarter of the 20th century, a comparable distillation of the American Dream has been found in catalogues from J. Crew. Who knew?
This clothing retailer has demonstrated that shopping catalogues can be more than an answer to Americans’ perennial prayer, “Lead us into temptation.” J. Crew’s catalogues have been didactic, teaching consumers how to emulate, and aspire to membership in, the upper crust — the effortlessly confident elites in Oxford-cloth button-down shirts. At least as those few, those happy few, are imagined by J. Crew’s catalogues.
They might be lounging in Adirondack chairs on the deck of an Ivy League boat house. The company named itself J. Crew for a reason.
Reviewing a new book (Maggie Bullock’s “The Kingdom of Prep: The Inside Story of the Rise and (Near) Fall of J. Crew”) in the New Yorker, Hua Hsu suggests that J. Crew decoded for aspirants the dress-as-lifestyle code of those who, having attended the right prep schools and colleges, assimilated the code — a “potent yet amorphous sensibility” — by osmosis.
The establishment’s nonchalant, pre-rumpled leisure uniform — anoraks, chambray shirts, roll-neck sweaters, striped rugby shirts, madras walking shorts, barn jackets with pinwale cord collars, boat shoes (no boat needed) — was the aesthetic offered by a retailer whose chosen name echoed that of J. Press, the ur-Ivy League Look clothier. The day after Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, at which Michelle, Sasha and Malia wore J. Crew items, potential customers crashed the company’s website.
In 1973, historian Daniel J. Boorstin published “The Americans: The Democratic Experience,” the third volume in his trilogy on the nation’s trajectory. He noted that whereas Europeans went shopping to get what they want, Americans went to discover what they want. Before the internet brought the marketplace to consumers’ fingertips, mailed catalogues did: In the 1980s, Americans were pelted by an estimated 13.6 billion of them.
When J. Crew’s catalogues arrived, Americans had long since outgrown tangible shopping — buying goods they could touch from shopkeepers they knew. In 1884, Montgomery Ward’s 240-page catalogue listed almost 10,000 items. In 1893, the Sears catalogue exceeded 500 pages; in 1907, more than 3 million of them were distributed, thanks to the federal government: RFD (rural free delivery). The social soil was being prepared for Amazon.com: the market for everything coming to customers everywhere. Americans could shop as increasing numbers of them want to work: in their pajamas.
Advertising has generally stimulated consumption. J. Crew refined the process of turning consumption into advertising. This process was not new: Detroit had already taught Americans that to graduate from Chevrolet to Pontiac to Oldsmobile to Buick to Cadillac was to announce your ascent up consumption’s status ladder.
Jonathan Clarke, writing in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, of which he is a contributing editor, said the “democratization of dress” in recent decades has produced “the rapid casualization of American life.” But this has calcified into an unattractive norm. Is there a more obvious contemporary ostentation than tech billionaires conducting business wearing T-shirts to advertise that they are too rich to have sartorial concerns?
Clarke, who confesses a “slightly antique sense of propriety,” writes “few things are more heartening than to see a man or woman of advanced age very well dressed.” Such muted rebellion against what Clarke calls the “dubious new catechism of perpetual leisure” is not, as some might censoriously insist, the sin of asserting “privilege” in violation of the ethic of “inclusiveness.” Rather, it is a way to quietly assert that attention to one’s presentation is a form of respect for those to whom one is presented. And it is a way to acknowledge this: Because not all occasions are created equal, not all ways of dressing are equally appropriate.
In this column’s first 50 years, the strongest reaction it elicited was a tornado of fury in 2009 when the column disparaged American adults’ infantile manner of dress: everyone everywhere wearing denim — a democratic conformity to egalitarian shabbiness. J. Crew, J. Press, J. Almost Anything would be an improvement.