The Awful Truth

Paint it white

Published June 10, 1996 8:33AM (EDT)

ever since I heard of the death of my closest friend, I have been trying to wear nothing but white. Grief will do strange things like that to you. I wore all white to the funeral. Everyone told me "You look like a nurse." "A voodoo nurse," I corrected them, momentarily exposing the large handful of ominous Santeria necklaces under my blouse. They evaporated quickly from my vicinity, deciding that I was deranged with grief or fearing that I would launch into a ravenous spiritual diatribe on the importance of blood sacrifice.

I made the decision to wear white because I'd been wearing black, the time-honored color of funeral regalia, for the past 10 years and it had ceased to mean anything at all. When I started wearing black in high school, people used to come up to me all the time and say "Where's the funeral?" with a dumb snicker, to which I would scowl and hiss and say something like "Your mommy's house." In my early black period I thought of myself as a moodily dire, somewhat superior, David Carradine-esque Shao Lin student of the world. "I am foreboding and dangerous and deep! Fear me!" insisted my pants and sweater. Black reflected a dour, bohemian loathing of all things safe and conventional, and implied my fearless involvement with the Sinister.

By the time I got to college, it was mostly "Death Rockers" or "Goths" who wore black, compounded by Catholic junk chains and chicken bones, hard raccoon hair and ruined black tights, and they took speed and listened to Specimen in their make-believe vampire forts in their twilight world in the upper Haight.

A couple of years later, black was the generically cool uniform of everyone under the age of 35. Every lawyer and wannabe in the world went down to Headlines and bought a motorcycle jacket for $100. This spelled the death of black's visual severity as we knew it. Rendered disappointingly accessible, all mystique fell off the color like a handful of baby teeth, and we were left with nothing but the ennui that attends aesthetic laziness.

All clothing has lost its meaning now, really. Thanks to MTV and
instant-cheap-Paris-knockoff stores like Contempo Casuals it is not uncommon to see 12-year-old girls running around in silver vinyl hotpants and transparent plastic bondage halters, with magnetized clip-on chin piercings and water-soluble modern primitive tattoos. In order to be an outrageous rebel today, you have to work really hard. You have to consult top physicians about bone-grafting rhino horns to your scalp or have ritualistic pygmy scarification publicly performed on your cheeks by naked people before a concert. Anything short of the medically absurd is, at this point, merely boring and derivative.

Shoes, however, have always been different and important. With their special magic powers of betrayal and transformation, they are the last bastion of fashion's visual hint into the soul. I've stopped going out with guys just because their choice of footwear screamed something gutless and effete -- real men don't wear floppy suede boots with rubber soles, unless they're the artist formerly known as Prince. Only balding guys in annoyingly positive a capella singing groups ever wore thin Capezio dance shoes. Shiny plastic cowboy boots are exclusively worn by illegal aliens. Running shoes that feature a tab of sole curling up over the toe are the choice footwear of those with Down's Syndrome.

When my friends are depressed, I always suggest that they buy themselves a pair of shoes that they admire but consider to be too outrageous for their personality and to learn to wear them, in order to introduce that element into their psyches. The healing capabilities of KISS-style boots or wild-looking elf clogs are many and profound. Strappy hooker platforms have been overly co-opted into the mainstream and robbed of their perverse impact. But high stiletto pumps still have all manner of visceral power to inspire sexual panic.

I am now achieving with white the same thing I once achieved with black, but on a far more unnerving level. People understand my outfit to be something religious, and that uncoils a wholly different kind of social fear. When you wear all white, down to belt and shoes, you exude a luminous aura of serious purpose and bizarre ideology. Oddly, despite the fact that I've always tried to look like somebody on the "edge," I am now completely unused to getting any response; the old brazenness has gotten a bit rusty. But I persevere, because I have no choice. The commercialization of the rebellious strength in fashion imagery leaves only one remaining option -- if you want to use clothing to scare people and make them leave you alone, they have to think you're a Christian or worse. (The Hasidic Jews have been onto this for years.) Even Buddhist robes won't do it for you -- all the glossy magazine readers in the world thinks they're some kind of Buddhist, now, and they'll just run up and try to buy you a sandwich or ask you questions.

But white works. With a gin and tonic and an all-white wardrobe in any nightclub with blacklights, you can look like a terrifying apparition harkening on Judgement Day, preparing to condemn or elevate the souls of the lesser patrons. White is the new black, I tell you. Keep it to yourself.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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