On the eve of my 28th birthday last month, I sat down to my computer prepared to purchase what my dad calls “proper pants.” Closer to 30 than I’d ever been before, I decided I’d like to enter the next couple of years owning at least a few pairs of trousers that weren’t denim, or at least not denim purchased at Uniqlo (one of the better reasons to live in New York, in my opinion).
I went to Polo’s web site, believing, as the ads have told me to, that Ralph Lauren is the lead purveyor of exactly that which I sought: pants! Classic, proper pants for American men who are through wearing only black denim to hide spilt beer but not through with having a certain interest in what messages their aesthetic sends to the world.
Still a believer in all clothes skinny, I clicked on the Slim-Fit Custom Chinos, tailored things described as “polished casual.” They looked to be snug in the ass like my old jeans but not something I’d be embarrassed to wear to an impromptu wedding or funeral. “Perfect, fuck it, I’m done,” I thought, dragging the little hand across the screen to the small square color swatches. I considered Aviator Navy and Polo Black. But I quickly abandoned both for a nice dark green — that is, until I clicked on the drop-down box and saw what specific kind of green I was about to order: “Old Money Green.”
I’d just wanted to buy a pair of pants. Instead, here I was being reminded that my grandfather was a butler and my grandmother a maid.
I was disappointed, though not necessarily surprised. Like any major clothing company, Polo hawks a lifestyle — or at least the dream of a lifestyle — just as much as it hawks shirts and belts. (For example, American Apparel, the general store for Midwestern kids with ambitions to do coke with Josh Hartnett in Lower East Side bathrooms, offers leggings in Night Fever Navy.) What was jarring, however, was how frequently these hints of old money airs turned up to pollute my shopping experience.
Over at J.Crew, a new arrival is the “plantation madras” button-down, a breezy, colorful shirt just in time for the annual thaw, not to mention a thing whose name I can’t help but associate with slavery. Of course, perhaps I’m being hypersensitive. Because not all plantations got fat off slave-labor and it’s a bit silly to necessarily associate the two. Then again, would anyone ever sell a “plantation bullwhip”? J. Peterman might. The company Seinfeld so often mocked seems more eager to revel in blue-blooded patriarchy than a Buckley sipping highballs on a yacht on Long Island Sound. Here’s the company’s description of a pair of its tweed slacks: “Did you know that Verdi wrote ‘Falstaff’ when he was 80? … Verdi, Walt Whitman, the Mellons. Hard workers from solid European stock. Just like these pants.” Well then! At that point, I say to hell with the subtlety; call them the Sorry, Darkie Breeches: “From solid European stock and for solid European stockholders.”
Thankfully, even more direct is J. Peterman’s “owner’s hat,” introduced thusly: “Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation.”
I’m not naive. Having lived in New York and Los Angeles, I’m keenly aware that fashion has never been about inclusion — be it for the benefit of minorities (save gays), the poor or really anyone outside of a few major, expensive, Western cities. But lately, chic clothing appears to be trending toward privilege far more drastically than it ever has before. Take, for instance, Hedi Slimane’s Dior Homme line from years past. Though it was always prohibitively expensive, it was very often based on outfits New York’s hippest street rats pieced together from whatever they could barely afford or steal. And because it was grounded in a culture of poverty, the look seemed far more accessible — like an all-ages punk rock show — despite its price tag.
All this comes, oddly, after years of preppy and “white-seeming” major fashion brands (from Ralph Lauren to Vuitton) being propelled to success by black consumers. (“As hip-hoppers aspired to look like rich people, they took a keen interest in the preppy clothes that were very fashionable in the 1980s. This had a huge influence on a relatively new brand called Tommy Hilfiger,” wrote Henrik Vejlgaard in Anatomy of a Trend.)
Today, the look is classic Americana, exemplified best — at least where the Internet is concerned — by the tremendous success of fashion blogs like A Continuous Lean. ACL’s editor, an ostensibly very nice man named Michael, celebrates things like saddle shoes and Barbour jackets, and has said many times that he finds inspiration in things like Take Ivy, a photo book from the 1960s focused on the style of rich white men educated in the highest echelons of U.S. academia. Likewise, the Spade enterprise. Preppy plaids, professorial tweeds and bow ties festooned the models festooning the runways at New York’s most recent fashion week. Unlike their predecessors, who were often made up to look like Dee Dee Ramone and Kurt Cobain, working class heroes, these human coat hangers were mostly indistinguishable from the fashion people watching them: men and women who were born rich and will die rich, and who will look shiny all along the way.
I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod’s driving moccasins. I even like “Nantucket red” pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa’s favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they’re also rooted in grandpa’s stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone’s heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, “I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries.”
Cord Jefferson is a writer-editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in National Geographic, GOOD, The Root and on MTV.