Seven escalators up: MENSWEAR: End of the line. It seemed then as though a foggy breeze blew through the department store, but no, that could not be possible.
I was on a semiotic journey to the heart of modern Midwest menswear (as to the source of the Blue Nile, a river whose waters I could taste downstream in the thrift stores); I weaved through the gilded strip of clothiers on Michigan Avenue. I was disguised as a customer (hidden behind a mustache, severity of aspect, a polyester outfit) though I had no desire to buy or even wear the clothes I saw. Brooks Brothers, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, Express, Banana Republic, The North Face, Bloomingdale, The Men’s Warehouse, H&M, Ralph Lauren, Macy’s. I drew their fabrics to my nose.
Many are the threads of text in the textile of 2015 haberdashery; let us first look into the image of the clothes, before clothing them in the wet shirt of their world.
What were these modern clothes?
Suits, ties, dress shirts, casual shirts, t-shirts, distressed jeans and colored chinos, leather jackets, faux fur hooded down-filled coats, hoodies, cable knit sweaters. Banded collar shirts (as seen in the 1990s office) are back at Abercrombie and H&M, but at least now they can be ironic or post-ironic. Haberdashers agree on cotton; I did not notice any acrylic or polyester. I did not look at shoes.
What colors and prints are stores trying to sell men these days?
After a long “Summer of Stripes” where America was wearing stripes, the fall brings a couple white t-shirts with black stripes, but few other stripes. I did spot some paisley, floral print and even a polka dot sweater at H&M (polka dots are a surprisingly very rare men’s print). For men it will almost have to be plaid.
Perhaps it is a lingering lighthearted plume of summer that floods these stores with so many gingham plaid shirts? And in a rainbow of hard, vibrant colors. Men: rest assured it is totally mainstream to wear your purple gingham plaid shirt to a dinner out.
White, black, and blue tartan plaid lumberjack shirts were also general, in an omnipresent signature 2015 phthalo blue. A contemporary man also wears bright visibility orange — if you trust the opinion of Ralph Lauren, America’s top name in baggy shirts. He’s got about a million $400 orange cable knit cashmere sweaters to sell you.
Speaking of old man Ralph Lauren, I noted his big oxford shirts (fabric flaps in the pits like bat wings) shifting into a new, brighter, almost neon color palette. No vintage Lauren shirts have these colors; in fact they evoke the vivid color plaids (like bright yellow) of Chaps and Club Room, two cheap knock-off brands. I guess the modern office is ablaze in psychedelic madras plaids from freshly civilized parts of the spectrum.
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Where were the clothes made?
Modern clothes are made where people will accept the smallest possible wage. Almost all the clothes I saw were made in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, or Indonesia. The free trade dreams of the ’90s New Economy walk the Earth.
How much did the clothes cost?
When I checked a price, I thankfully did not have a mouthful of coffee to spit-take over the rack of $350 coats. Button down shirts cost $70 – $125. Sweaters $200-$500. Given how seemingly cheap the production costs are (for example, made with cotton in China at $1 an hour, the physical part of the shirts should be almost a free, self-generating miracle), does the price of these clothes seem inflated?
I guess Brooks Brothers or Michael Kors takes the money they save via globalized production and shine their clothing with extra mythology (infused like a syringe of flavor juice into a turkey before deep frying), deepening the object with management and marketing, Gold Coast retail space, copy writing (exactly selected words for the little book with your sweater, the little spell book), ultra-contemporary signal encoding made by experts of modernity in Manhattan or L.A. (post-modern places where “the present” elsewhere is already the recent past).
The magic shopping atmosphere also massages emotions and attitudes into the clothing via clouds of Polo scent cologne, black and white photographs of Jack Nicholson and Robert Redford (this is you: wildly rich, accomplished, middle-aged, hot actress wife in one hand, cigarette in the other), woody environs. It takes one thing to make a shirt, and another to make that shirt mean something. These new clothes have a destiny (in principle, anyway) to graduate off into the world, and live on the bodies of the pedigreed class and culture of people that also wear (and thus can read / decode) such contemporary clothes.
Men are buying the text (the shirt), but are really paying for the context (how it fits in the modern world, which gives mouth to the shirt to speak its message). They’re paying for how their shirts will look next to last season’s shirt, they’re paying for a sense of confidence (as sturdy as a good brand) in knowing themselves in the newly minted context of the present. A bourgeois man pays $125 for a shirt to cover over and decorate his chest because he’s also buying a sense of premium identity (utterly acceptable, conventional clothes with a novel wisp of modernity).
The high price is also part of the point. Money gates off the world of new clothes. Not every man spends to live in 2015 clothing prints and labels. It is an elite world, but it is also democratic: the gate opens by money. Anyone can buy their way in. It is the straight world. You too can enjoy acceptance; it’s for sale on Michigan Avenue with all the safety and taste modern conformity can afford.