Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Uniform nostalgia

American men once wore hats, and then they stopped rather abruptly somewhere around 1960. When Kennedy neglected to wear one to his inauguration, it's said, everyone knew it was all over for hats. I'm sure milliners everywhere mourn the death of the hat, and those invested in the men's fashion industry probably try to periodically instigate their return, but in truth, it is the fashion for public individuation, as expressed through statement making clothes that ended the hat. That and the rise of youth culture -- the hat seemed to mark entrence into adult culture, an adult way of life. Now everyone repudiates that, no matter how old they are. Out west, people even wear their short pants and their golf shirts to work. (Is that too elitist?)

The hat (and its corollaries, the overcoat and the suit) accomplishes one thing above all else, and that is anonymity. It makes men in general look the same in public. The prevelance of the hat enforced certain boundaries, it ensured that your personality was reserved for truly intimate moments and allowed one to adopt a kind of generic public persona suitable for conducted civic business. You weren't expected to look young, or anally fastidious. You were expected simply to look like everyone else, so that level of interaction could be swiftly set aside. Of course, in the sixties, as Thomas Frank documented in The Conquest of Cool, conformity was made anaethema by ad campaigns making it a personal duty to evade conformity and publicize how effective you are at "becoming who you are," which is, of course, absoutely unique in every possible way, from the cereal you eat to the car you drive to the slogans you choose to emblazon on your clothing. With conformity out, it was only a matter of time before the hat, which disguises identity, would be out as well, and the theatricalization of public space, in which everyone is perpetually acting themselves out, would be moving ahead full steam.

Now, hats likely connoted their own subtle shades of meaning, and people of those times likely could have read a man by his hat the way we might read a man by his hair cut. But the hat always functioned as an overt sign, it never pretended to be a mark of one's authentic being. I'm guessing it always projected a discrete role in the public sphere. Today, as Richard Sennett argues in The Fall of Public Man, (and to whom I owe much of this line of reasoning) one is obliged to seem authentic in public, to be one's most intimate self at all times, eroding the boundary that defines public and private space. The result is that privacy disappears, as surely as the hat did. We don't mind this, because we are conditioned to think that the more we are on display, the more our authentic being is getting validated -- which explains the mania for self-exposure (i.e. this blog). Privacy invasion becomes the most austere form of self-validation.

I'm probably not alone in my nostalgia for the uniform, but it's a phony nostalgia, because I've never been asked to wear one. I've tried to adopt the voluntary uniform, and wear essentially the same outfit to work everyday, but it's tough to do this without becoming even more self-conscious, and the beauty of the uniform was that it freed you from self-consciousness, it allowed you to reserve your "self" for home. You certainly can't go back to wearing hats. Hats now are always affectations unless they are explicitly keeping your ears warm.

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