Into the Fray

A guy in Bar Italia is wearing an unusual jacket. It is new but all its edges are frayed instead of hemmed. The jacket looks as though, in part, it has worn out through excessive wear.

The jacket is part of a notional ensemble of distressed clothes that are being worn around town at the moment. In TopMan in Oxford Street I inspected a pair of gentleman’s lace-up shoes that bore heavy scuff marks and other signs of enthusiastic wear. I asked the assistant what he thought of the look. “The trouble is,” he opined, “you have to change your whole outfit to match the shoes or else everybody thinks you’re a scruff. It’s tricky.”

Presumably when pre-distressed garments are worn enthusiastically over a period of time they begin to show signs of wear and tear. It is interesting – well, mildly so – to consider how one would evaluate the genuine distress from a health and safety point of view. Would one tend to err on the side of a misreading wherein real wear marks appear more advanced due to their proximity to false ones, leading one to dispose of the garment before it is necessary to do so? I am aware, of course, that those who buy into the distressed look may well, as a matter of fashion course, dispose of garments months before it is necessary. I’ve had my Sam Walker black classic casuals for five years now. But I am not a young person.

The opposite case is equally likely. The wearer may neglect dangerous loosenings of fundamental stitching or under-sealing in the belief that these were designed in. He might be running along the road when suddenly ‘Clop!’ off comes the shoe and falls down an open manhole. Suddenly clop. It is clear that pre-distressed garments are destabilising in more ways than one.

When I was a fledgling beatnik in 1959 a precocious school-friend acquired a pair of blue jeans from an American serviceman. The jeans, a garment none of us had ever seen before, were made of tough denim and manufactured by a company called Levi. They had fly buttons and rivets on the pockets. So very hardwearing were these jeans that initially they felt uncomfortable for several weeks, compelling the wearer to walk in a stiff and unnatural way. One of the first acts of domestication involved taking a bath in the jeans so that they would shrink to a perfect fit. At least two friends were pulled semi-conscious from tepid water at this time, their legs having lost all feeling as a result of massive constriction of the inguinal area.

After this baptism one was in it for the long haul. Months would pass as the stout fabric resisted its daily catalogue of distress. Eventually, after dozens of washes the beatnik’s mother would observe that the colour intensity of the jean was appearing to diminish. At last! The jeans were acquiring the highly prized fade that signalled not only one’s affinity with the honest workman but also with the hitch-hiking outcasts of America whose beatified lifestyle precluded the ownership of a change of trousers.

In those days it could be said that the jean owner did actually walk the walk: he may have been living with his Mummy and Daddy but his jeans were distressing in real time. The significance of the fadedness, after all, is that it indicates that you have owned the garment long enough to have faded it and have therefore been cool for that period of time. The signification may have been misleading but some dues had been paid.

So what message was the guy in the Bar Italia sending with his coutured fray? To a limited extent he was telling us that he had been round the block but times have changed since either manual labour or dropping out were considered admirable or a sign of authenticity. In fact the guy was saying more emphatically that he hadn’t been round the block but didn’t give a fuck. This constituted the block around which he had walked. He had the money to purchase a garment that suggested, in its quality couture, his discrimination and, in its artful fray, his disdain of that discrimination.

However, rather than place himself outside a world in which discrimination is valued, he demonstrates a higher discrimination that includes both the display of refinement and its negation. This, in turn, places him beyond the game without his having to experience the loneliness of the outsider. There are no outsiders now, so the coolest statement is the one that acknowledges this, ironises the sense of loss and enacts, in a knowing yet still nostalgic way, the pathos of the disconnection between the couture and its distress.

The look would be powerful were it not mass produced. The mass production is predicated on a constituency of consumers who wish to articulate some of the above yet do not wish to, or lack the opportunity to, experience the narrative of the fray. The garment imparts a degree of rebelliousness to the wearer, suggesting that he is above or indifferent both to fashion and to what others think of him. The problem now is that the wearer may not wish to be seen in this way – as observed earlier, some time has passed since such a stance was worthy of esteem. The tension is resolved if the wearer is able to regard the fraying not as signifying anything in particular but as a pleasing design detail.

The consumer of the garment is not even a butterfly pinned on a board, he is caught in a web of pantomime that toys with his comprehensively powerless situation in a stagnant, inconsequential game of quotations and appearances.