Written by James Harris (Dr_TacoMD)
Complex has talked before about the bullshit of the "Made in America" and heritage craze in menswear, but this time I'd like to explain why I think it’s fucked up to embrace the image and lifestyle perpetuated by brands that make workwear, classic Americana, and heritage-inspired clothing. If you like the clothes, then go ahead and buy the clothes. But if you buy them for the bigger picture you believe they represent—one of overall quality, better times, and a better America—then let’s talk about that bigger picture.
These particular brands and their marketing campaigns that peddle classic wares want to invoke a more masculine era “when men were men.” The only problem is that in reality, many men of this time, by law and by popular belief, were not considered men. It took years of life-and-death struggle to achieve that. But consider the proliferation and popularity of both old and new workwear and Americana brands, and you’d think that their devoted fans would want to jump in a time machine to go back to the first half of the 20th century. What made guys so obsessed with recreating the style of an aggressively ratchet time in American history?
Would you go back and admire the durable stitching on a black man’s trousers as police dogs are turned upon him for peacefully protesting?
This surge in classic American heritage clothing came in response to a recession that started in 2007 and challenged our collective self-image of ourselves as the baddest on the block. Basically, we figured we were fucked, and we yearned for a time when America was undoubtedly atop the world in terms of coin and power.
For style, this meant that guys were learning to buy less and buy better, and to rely on tried and true fashions that wouldn’t require risking hard-earned scrilla on new trends. With the rise of Tumblr, blogs that highlighted style icons from years past, and Mad Men, we turned the steez clock back to yesteryear. Brands and marketing agencies quickly caught on. All of a sudden every lookbook and brand write-up told guys to emulate the style of America's supposed good ol' days, when men earned an honest living, and a guy could prosper on his work ethic and character alone.
Not that today is perfect, but this was a period so marred by f’d upness that it required a national uprising to get federal laws passed ensuring equal civil rights to all citizens (a still incomplete fight).
It’s not the clothes inspired by these times that I have a problem with, or whether or not you want to dress according to the zeitgeist of a certain era, or decade, or lifestyle. The one hard rule of style is do whatever you want to do, which is why we love it. My problem with Americana and heritage clothing is that this “harking back to the good ol’ days” implies that all aspects of that society were positive. The assumption is that, draped in denim, chambray, and chore vests, a grand time was had by all.
...it’s dangerous and ignorant to selectively romanticize the aesthetic of a certain period without considering the larger context that the clothes fit into.
So when you show your admiration for America's past by rocking appropriate clothing, are you embracing all the qualities of the time and not just the ones that sound good when Walt Whitman or Woody Guthrie are extolling them? Would you go back and admire the durable stitching on a black man’s trousers as police dogs are turned upon him for peacefully protesting? Or take mental notes on the cut of a Japanese butler’s jacket, since “Oriental” butlers were fashionable back then? And maybe you’d cherish the opportunity to glimpse some authentic workwear on a farmer before he became one of the seven million people to die of hunger during the Great Depression. And yes, only men have been mentioned because women didn’t have much of a presence in the public sphere—a topic that obviously merits its own exploration.
But I believe it’s dangerous and ignorant to selectively romanticize the aesthetic of a certain period without considering the larger context that the clothes fit into. Just because we’re unsure in current times doesn’t mean we can whitewash another era so that its consumption goes down smooth. And to borrow from an era that was so recent, we’re only serving to freeze that moment in time and ignore the fact that the problems of our past are still problems today.
This includes today's fashion industry itself. How much longer will the industry and consumer only focus on superficial imagery and turn a blind eye to unfair labor practices, environmental destruction, and vicious industry standards? Do you really think your shoes were Made in the USA? And that we no longer have sweatshops operating in America? Again, by evading these very real problems, we're plucking clothes out of a fucked up current context and consuming them bereft of responsibility—a practice that's vindicated by these Americana brands.
So that’s my stance. I’m not really sure if there’s any sort of solution except to be aware of when you’re appropriating from other times and places, and what, exactly, you’re choosing to inherit. If you disagree then I’m happy to get the conversation started. Or you can just pine for the good ol’ days when men were men and, since interracial marriage was illegal in some states until 1967, my parents probably wouldn’t have had me.
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