Universe of ones?

universe of ones.jpg

Yesterday, I discussed a trend: the mixing of style, formality and expense of individual articles of clothing in a single suit of clothing. It’s there in the great codex of contemporary culture: Housewives. It’s there in the upscale bars and restaurants of New York City.

Today, a couple more thoughts on the cultural motives that might drive the trend.

It’s possible that the wearer of mixes the clothing message is saying, or better, implying, or still better, performing:

“Look, I will not have my hand forced by the conventional rules of clothing combination [the “syntagmatic chains of yesterday’s post]. I choose what I am going to wear. I am self invented. I am no drudge of the marketing regime, no dupe of social convention.”

I am of course a little nervous about rushing to conclusions, but that is what blogging, or at least what this blog is for. Could it be that we are, for some consumers, looking at a shift in the locus and the unit of change. An awful lot of cultural innovation in matters of art, clothing, music and design is accomplished by groups. Or by individuals who are soon surrounded by groups. When engaged in dynamic cultural behavior, we like to travel in packs. One individual dressed in leather, mohawk, the safety pins is a nut case. A larger group of people so dressed is a social statement, perhaps a social movement. The locus of change has been the group.

But, to rush now to a conclusion, the “mixed message” in clothing suggests that individuals are now prepared to “go their own way.” They are prepared to innovate on their own and outside a group. Clearly, lots of people will continue to innovate in groups. Just as clearly, the dressing phenomenon that Cheryl Swanson was remarking upon is still governed by some codes even as it departs from others. (We can’t combine any articles in any combinations.)

But I still think it’s possible to suppose that this phenomenon makes the individual more active as an individual and his or her cultural behavior in matters of dress more various and less coded. The expressive universe here is not infinite but it ends up being a lot larger than it used to be.

I published an essay in 1988 in which I argued that expressive clothing behavior is not language-like because when clothing is used in a very innovative way it becomes harder and harder to read. The language code can produce absolutely unique utterances, utterances never heard before. As long as these are well formed, they are intelligible. But when we use the clothing code in this way, we end up baffling more often than we do communicating. At least that was the argument.

But the mixed message outfit gives us an individual engaging in a clothing behavior that becomes more various and less formed by convention and code. I am thinking that we might use Bernstein’s distinction between open and closed codes, and say that clothing is moved from being a closed code to be an open one. But then it is pretty noisy here in the lobby of Sutton Place so any sort of thinking must be treated as badly distracted and highly suspect.

The thing that especially interests though is that we may be observing here the death of the self defining group. The group that defines itself and then in the individual that belongs to it. Perhaps, we are moving in the direction of a “universe of ones.” (As I recall Levi-Strauss has something on this possibility in The Savage Mind.) This universe would mean no more Yuppies, tweeners, punks, or geeks. The cultural categories that now do so much to inform the way individuals construct themselves for public purposes and the way we “read” the world around us, perhaps these are so much “packaging” we will some day do without.

This is, formally, one of the logical conclusions of our individualism. In effect, we have build our individuality out of the prefab materials made available to us by certain conventions and “groupings” in the code. Surely, it was only a matter of time before we moved towards something more disaggregated.

[I am on the road and sitting in a hotel lobby. All references are approximate and will be sorted out when I get back to CT.]


Levi-Strauss. The Savage Mind.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Yesterday’s post on this blog.

McCracken, Grant. 1988. “Clothing as language.”
Culture and Consumption. Indiana University Press.

2 thoughts on “Universe of ones?

  1. Andy

    You think that “innovative” language is clear and communicative? What about T.S. Eliot or Judith Butler?

  2. Sean Ryan

    This is reminiscent of what Naomi Klein talks about in her book—No Logo. Fashion design has become so quick to respond to new trends and attacks from bloggers that you begin to see brands like FCUK that beet the “culture jammers” to the punch by parodying their own ads. Simmel had much to say about fashion and the sort of cycle of fashion from the haves down to the inner city have nots and then out to the kids in the burbs. Is it possible that fashion is now changing at such a break neck speed that the cycle has been broken and it now represents some other amorphous structure? Or perhaps its more of a conscious effort to elude clear cut boundaries as you say. The ability to slip in and out of different identities (in ethnicity they call it “passing”) has become a more desirable identity marker as of late—I hate to blame it on globalization (sounds so cliché) but there you have it.

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