A close friend in New York recently complained to me that he'd attended a party for journalists on the Lower East Side, and instead of finding the usual slew of poorly dressed media nerds, he was appalled to find everyone in the place decked out in Dolce and Prada. He lamented that he had felt totally self-conscious and styleless in his Banana Republic outfit. "Suddenly I'm dying to move to Chicago," he sighed.
But is Chicago any different? Designer clothes used to be popular only among those who could actually afford them. With the rise of mainstream lines like Armani A/X and Miu Miu by formerly exclusive designers, regular Joes are increasingly lured into absurdly expensive yet accessible clothes. Ten years ago, most of the people in the room would be wearing khaki pants and plaid shirts, and now they're parading around in cashmere jeans and silk turtlenecks. Though he's surrounded by colleagues who make roughly the same income as he does, my friend feels self-conscious because his clothes aren't blatantly overpriced. I told him to imagine them eating Spagettios out of a can in their drafty apartments, all for the love of Prada.
Evincing the appropriate amount of grooming and good taste used to be so easy. Each subset of society had its own little set of uniforms, and there was much less trading between groups. Designer clothes were reserved for models, designers and very old rich women with little dogs. These days, everyone's in on the high-fashion game, yet style trickle-down is so pervasive that the look of clothes is almost uniform from Old Navy to Gap to Banana Republic to Armani; only the subtle signs of quality distinguish between, say, $19 Old Navy cargo pants, $55 Abercrombie and Fitch cargo pants and $300 Armani cargo pants. Suddenly the distinguishing features are limited to cut, quality and price, so that different styles are often accepted or rejected on the basis of whether they look "cheap" or not. And you thought empty label-consciousness died off in the late '80s.
But part of the current appeal of high-fashion labels is their sudden accessibility. It requires little effort to indulge in most bread-and-butter items that were once considered eccentric or excessive -- from vanilla lattis to peppermint foot lotions to apricot amber microbrews. Now high style is about as complicated and subtle as a Happy Meal -- and about as unique as well. Instead of celebrating those who pushed the limits of taste in pursuit of originality, fashion has taken on a sort of Waspy appropriateness that elevates so-called good taste at the cost of unusual or unique personal style. While outrageous and downright weird designs were once the hallmark of the fashion world, now predictable fashion "icons" like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Gwyneth Paltrow are embraced for their "simple" or "timeless" looks. And can we ever escape the endless prattle about Audrey Hepburn's "classic" style in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a movie in which she's supposed to portray a caricature of the reckless pursuit of class ascension.
But the clothes alone are only a small part of the picture. This is a service economy, and the truly stylish are as likely to rail off a small fleet of handmaidens expertly trained to perfect every aspect of their lives. What of the hairstylist, the colorist, the shopper, the masseuse, the therapist, the personal trainer, the manicurist, the cleaning lady, the agent, the manager? The list goes on and on, and not just in L.A. and New York. Young people making average salaries have their hair cut and colored for hundreds a pop, see therapists who charge over $200 per weekly visit, pay cleaning ladies and laundry services and Shiatsu masseuses and experts of Feng Shui. The attitude is, if my friend needs a massage and a therapy session and highlights and a manicure every week, then I do, too. Professionals are enlisted to smooth out every corner of their lives, which leaves them to focus on the important stuff: struggling to make it to the top and looking like they're already there.
At trendy bars, everyone looks like they're ready for their close-up. Stars hire make-up artists every time they leave the house, and regular ambitious types feel they have to up the ante in kind. Didn't people at least wear tacky prints or get the greasies or have hips in the '80s?
Is this simply the thrill of decadent living that accompanies any bubble economy? Is it Wall Street money that has everyone singing the praises of their high-maintenance lifestyles? Is it the popularity of drooly wealth-watching magazines like InStyle that have us running out the door in search of the perfect tube top, knit skirt or pashmina wrap?
Meanwhile, originality seems to be at an all-time low, while everyone scrambles to get their fingers in everyone else's pies. Suddenly everyone is in on every expensive and distracting trend, and the personal is abandoned in pursuit of a higher ideal of universal class. Lawyers bemoan other lawyers who dress like lawyers; tourists can be overheard discussing how touristy other tourists look. Everyone seems to have the same good taste in everything, from living rooms that look like they're ripped straight out of a Pottery Barn catalog to "eclectic" CD collections filled with the same standards: Portishead, Beastie Boys, Beck, Radiohead, classic Beatles, classic Stones. Meanwhile, Planet Hollywood just went bankrupt. What's the world coming to?
We're a country of social overachievers. We can't just dabble in those things that suit our interests, or dress in ways that make sense given our backgrounds, hobbies, income levels. We want to be all things to all people, and in so doing we're going to end up in a nowhere land of so-called tastefulness. In today's fast food fashion industry, where rapid trend turnover is seen as being as inevitable as the seasons, keeping up with the Joneses must be nearly instantaneous. Haste doesn't make waste, haste makes taste.
Meanwhile good taste today isn't taste at all, it's predigested and textureless and anything but personal. But what can you expect in a country where every single city has a street with a Starbuck's, a Barnes and Noble, a Banana Republic, a Gap and a Pottery Barn on it? Places like Planet Hollywood are denigrated as prefabricated, tacky imitations of the real thing, yet each town is slowly transformed into a cartoonish theme park of undifferentiated, overly "designed" mass consumerism.
Even if you honestly didn't care about personal style or originality before, it's hard not to long for an outrageously radical freak to shake things up. Someone with a bizarre eerie style that thumbs its nose at the current preoccupation with self-conscious uniformity and class. Cher or Cyndi Lauper or Madonna with those cheesy rubber bracelets -- give us goofy, strange, tacky, borderline ugly, just give us anything original and real. Anything's better than the Planet Good Taste.