Lament for Style in a Cartoon Age

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“Style is the man himself.”  Georges de Buffon (1707-1788)

    There is a photo of my father, age 17, taken in 1938, posing with ‘the gang’ at Gladstone Park in Ottawa. ‘The gang’ designation captioning the photo in my father’s navy album was a term of endearment unlike the sinister connotation of today. These friends didn’t look like gang members, even by standards of the 1930’s, since they seem to be enjoying each other’s company too much to look tough. Actually they all look like a million bucks, even before inflation, and more now than ever in consideration of entropy that has characterized style since that time. 

    My father is the guy in the bottom right hand side with the severe expression, wearing the stylish fedora. Notice every member of the gang is wearing a shirt, tie and suit, some with hats, others not, each according to his particular sense of style. I have other pictures to prove that this was not just a one time photo opt. These guys regularly dressed with style to show who they were, and more importantly, what they were intending to become.

    What one could become in a tough Ottawa neighbourhood during the poverty and unemployment of the depression was highly questionable. And yet these guys convey a sense of optimism, almost a swagger of possibility. Or maybe these tough and resilient depression era graduates were just determined, and dressed to play the part.

    It was entirely likely that these stylish young men only had one suit, and upon close inspection, it probably was a bit tattered. For the sake of clothing longevity, they expressed their self-reliance by pressing, sewing and stitching their own shirts and suits. They had the brains and self-respect to do the best with what they had, and may have been willing to sacrifice a meal or ten to get what they were wearing. What mattered most was this-- the hunger to be someone was literally more important than the gnawing at the pit in their stomach. The hunger to be, made the man.

    So what was the connection between style and aspiration? In a world small on wealth and opportunity and big on self-reliance and shared values, one came to regard style as substance. Just because you didn’t have much money didn’t mean you had to act or dresspoor, since money was not the thing that built character anyway. So style, the putting together of a considered and timeless exterior to show what you were made of, was serious business. If big dreams didn’t pan out or were slow in coming, a fella still had to make a show, just in case that girl he’d been waiting for should stroll on by. If the job opportunity or the girl did show up and you were dressed like a chump, you might never get a second chance.

    Regrettably, I don’t know who any of the other members of the gang were. I only know that they had at least two things in common that marked their generation: a sense of style and poverty. Today, we live in the most affluent time and place in the history of the world. The deprivations of the depression are mostly forgotten, and would not be understood by people today even if presented with the facts.  Indulgent baby boomer parents have overindulged their children with inflated notions of self, and entitlement is the natural, if regrettable, result. Entitlement--otherwise known as the lack of expectations—is a terrible legacy because it robs a young person of curiosity about the world and a burning ambition to do something in it-- the stuff palpably reflected in the my dad’s photo.

    The consequence of this seismic shift are perfectly reflected everywhere today in the expression of style. If the world is coming to you and for you, why make any effort to fit oneself into it? Why borrow a style when you are free, totally free to express yourself in any way you please? Of course the problem of complete freedom directed at none other than self is that it can never be satisfied. Non-conforming individuals have necessarily sacrificed style for attitude. Thus stylistically people today feel compelled to continuously up the ante, from out there to extreme. Small wonder then that clothing has morphed from casual to grundge upon grundge, with the potential for a pant waistline to be literally below the crotch. Body piecings has gone from discrete pin pricks to large gapping holes, or depending on one’s sense of style, the potential for mutilation of any and all body parts.

    Still, it may be the cartoon world of tattoos that best exemplifies the end of style.

    Scary snakes, spider webs and barbed wire, the spectrum of Disney characters, profound oriental symbols, menacing Harley Davidson’s, and an array Celtic borders all speak to a crude need to express who or what an individual intends to be known as for all time. Apparently, irony is no longer in style. Norman Rockwell captured the illusion of living for the moment in his famous tattoo parlour painting. In it, an artist strokes out a sweetheart’s name and writes in yet another on the arm of a young man still not accepting the inevitability of change.

    One cannot help but wonder if in the future, a whole generation will be seeking expensive treatments to rid themselves of an ill advised fad that keeps them frozen in another time. I don’t think tattoos quite meet the romantic sensibility expressed in John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, wherein the constancy of love is reinforced by the never changing image painted on the urn. Certainly if I’m being hard on young people today it is not because I hold my era, the 1970’s, as a time of high style. It was hideous. Still, we did not commit to wearing bellbottoms and big hair for life when we thought those were the in thing.

    It is fascinating to me that 70 years after the fact, the depression era gang still exude a classy sense of style. My dad and his chums looked great a year later upon entering the service, throughout the war, during the post-war era, and certainly into the 1950’s. Interestingly, it is in the 1960’s, with the emphasis on the unadulterated individual that style, with any discernable sense of class, slips away. When John F. Kennedy made his famous 1963 plea to Americans--“ask not what your country can do for you, rather ask what you can do for your country”-- the world had already tilted away from such old world sentiments.  My dad always maintained some of his 1930’s style, but even he could not resist the entropy of style throughout the 1970’s and into the 1980’s (try finding a 1930’s fedora today like he’s wearing in the photo).

    Style isn’t about money. Style isn’t about me, myself and only my expression of the world. If my dad’s photo and others like it teach us anything it is that style is a subtle and respectful refinement of self within a limited range of possibility. It defines not so much who we are--for that takes time, depth and relationships to determine--but rather what our place is in the world, either held or aspired to. Style does not say the world is about me, but rather says I am interested in and about the world so let me come in and make both a statement and a contribution. Style may be the man himself, as our friend George de Buffon says, but it is not about the man. The razor sharp distinction between the self and one’s style is precisely everything.