Why Do Men Walk Funny?

Look at these guys in the street: why do they walk so funny? It seems to be a new thing: men under the age of 25 appear to be experiencing fundamental problems with the mechanics of ambulation. Their legs point in the wrong directions, they limp (without apparent medical cause), they shuffle, their legs are unnecessarily bent, the toe-heel relationships are shot, they are fairly slow and sometimes one leg will be used in a style unlike that deployed by the other. This isn’t the rickety Dickensian London Poor, this is 21st Century white, Asian, black youth on the hoof. Ethnicity isn’t the issue and neither is class – posh and middle class kids are stumbling and waddling all over the place alongside their less fortunate fellows.

Despite the concealing nature of the roomily tailored sportswear that generally denotes an absence of sport in the personal curriculum, it is plain to see that a walking crisis is afoot. Obviously these guys learned to walk at the usual time and dashed around the playground in a normal manner. Somewhere along the line the line ran out: tips for further walking were somehow missed or were not readily available. This is hard to credit – there are countless older or other guys walking in interesting ways that could be profitably studied.

Around puberty it becomes important to affect a cool gait – fashions among peers will mould the legs in any number of ways that may be awkward or transparently affected but sooner or later the walker settles for something that feels right, gradually personalises it then usually locks onto it for the duration. Film stars, pop stars and sportsmen are all handy, conventional points of reference for the novice gait builder.

This last assertion is currently debatable, however. Somehow the kids are not picking up on the diversity of available models. Certainly one thing the current gaits have in common is the appearance of wastedness. This can be taken both in the medical sense of muscular atrophy and the street sense of wiped out on drugs. Which is not to say that drugs are doing it to the kids. They are, as we all know, doing it to folk-hero Pete Doherty and he is widely admired for several of his distinguishing characteristics, one of which is a languid lope. I’ve seen one or two decent attempts at this in Camden Town but it hasn’t really caught on as yet; this may be due to the complex tension in the Doherty gait between that which depresses (the smack), that which elates (the smack) and what seems to be, beneath the opiate billows, the subject’s chirpiness.

Most wasted gaits (the title of my next novel, as it happens) lack elation, however. This is because life for the people of the world is thin on elation at the moment. Despite the relentless, ubiquitous and hysterical spectacle of the celebrated and their divine characteristics, the following of role models requires a certain energy, the expenditure of which is inspired by expectations of reward. Can it be that some of the youth can’t give a fuck, even about acquiring a gait that signifies they don’t give a fuck? Perhaps the new shambling is a way of rejecting not just the current range of role models but all role models. This would be a second order of wastedness: the first is the familiar one where you simply imitate someone who is so worldly or worldweary that they don’t give a damn for convention, don’t care what people think, wish to communicate their indifference to the tight, focused postures of the employed, capitalised body blah blah. The second order, however, is actually an authentic one – it signals the fact that you’ve lost the will to imitate.

If this is so, does it indicate an emerging autonomy, a simple postponement of the rite of gait acquisition or a diminution of self-esteem sufficient to dissuade the youth even from simulating the appearance of self-esteem?

My effortless natural pessimism inclines me to the latter explanation. The business of being inspired is no longer inspiring with the result that young men in search of gait, instead of modelling themselves on a model, are reduced to an attempt to align themselves with generic maleness – a nebulous conception that eludes capture because it is an idea bereft of forms. Where would you start?

Of course, it’s not really gait that is being sought, it’s some sense of certainty within the parameters of a gender. So much certainty has evaporated that the project is rudderless. In olden times, as we have observed, the novice male would either use imitation or locate a mentor. The problem now is that previously respectable roles have come to appear pantomimic. This need not mean that all role models are suddenly untrustworthy, rather that an awareness of everyday performance has reached a critical intensity in public perception.

The gap between the performance and its performer is no longer an esoteric quantity – everybody can see everybody manufacturing themselves. It’s not special or clever anymore. It’s what you have to do.

This awareness of the business of show is enhanced by the way in which the celebrity magazines have acquired a second order level of hysteria. The first level is the one where the mags simply create hysteria in their readers. The second level sees the creators of hysteria grown hysterical themselves. So exercised are they by their circulation struggles that they fail to punctuate and correlate their stories properly. Thus we will see conflicting accounts of, say, Victoria Beckham’s current weight problems (it is a problem if she either gains or loses weight) on the covers of a number of mags displayed on the same stand on the same day. This means that some of these stories are not true! If these stories are not true this means that the whole thing is a panto. We knew this anyway but we do expect a good script. When the people in charge of the script get the scenes in the wrong order or fail to spot major inconsistencies then we are nudged over a line that generally we prefer to ignore. The possibility arises that there is only script-writing and that there is nothing that it is about. This is not the same as it being about nothing, which is acceptable – it’s an aspect of a diverting charade that we are pleased not to examine too closely. If the panto actually refers to nothing then its manic episodes are not even lightweight, they are tissues drawn across a dark void.

Young men do not, of course, read celebrity mags as much as their female counterparts, so it’s not the mags themselves that are making young men walk funny. Nevertheless, the hysteria of those whose job it is to spread hysteria has become unbecoming and constitutes a new development. The pilot is not drunk, he has actually left the plane. In the meantime the passengers will do the best they can. The plane is losing altitude. It will not, however, ever hit the ground.


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.