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On Fashion, and weathering the future.

It's a common theme in fantasy literature (especially vampire stuff) to have immortals struggle with the changes in the world around them. This is usually presented as an excuse to have vampires running around in anachronistic outfits, and of course, an opportunity for deathless superheroes to have angst.

More recently, I read Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End. The main protagonist is an old man who lucks out in the rejuvenation lottery - he happens to have gotten old and frail in ways that medical science in his time is able to correct. His Alzheimer's gets reversed, bone and muscle growth is restimulated, etc. A big part of the book is the difficulty of Robert and his peers in living in the world that grew up around them while they were busy with thier careers. They've come out the other end of retirement and need to go back into active life again, and most of their skills and habits are useless or maladaptive.

Non-fictionally, I see a lot of the older programmers at work who have gotten stuck in a rut. They haven't really done much with any technology newer than the 70s era system (COBOL on a simulated mainframe) that they've supported forever. They go on courses for Java and C and PERL, and never use any of it. When they old COBOL system gets retired, so, I suspect, will most of them.

What all this adds up to is the conflict of personal inertia with the inexorable forward march of social and technological change. As we get older, we get increasingly set in our ways, and the gap between us and the world around us grows. My grandmother refuses to touch a computer. My parents have a hard time figuring out thier cell phones, and my mom still can't program a VCR. Society follows technology; the habits and forms of culture slide and shift as the media they ride on changes. Thus, as people stay with their comfortable, familiar tech, they lose touch with the bulk of society. TV and newspaper people in a Google and Twitter world. Eventually, as we age our peers start to die off, and our world just gets smaller and smaller. It's been my observation that an active social life seems to be what keeps people (in absence of physical impairment) from going squirrely - I've known several senior citizens who seemed sharp and well-adjusted until a combination of deaths and personal injuries/illnesses left them trapped at home alone for long stretches.

The conclusion that I come to from all of this is that, if I want to be alive and in possession of my faculties for as long as possible, I need to find some way to resist neophobia. I need to not be the guy who looks at every new technology that comes out and says "Bah! $THING_I_KNOW is plenty good enough for me! This new crap will never catch on, mark my words!" I need to keep trying new things and learning about new gadgets and ideas. I have a half decent chance of living into my 80s if I'm careful, and I don't want to spend the last 15-20 years of that unable to interact with the world. There's also the vague possibility of something amazing happening medically between now and then - anti-aging treatments, the Singularity, etc.

I'm 32 right now. I fought against getting a cell phone at first, and then for a while I resisted getting a futurephone. I have personality traits tending towards frugality and conservatism that could trap me if I am not careful. I didn't get Twitter when it started hitting the big time. I still hate facebook. So it's going to take some conscious effort to future-proof myself.

I had a bit of an epiphany a couple weeks ago. What I realised is, essentially two things; the the 90s are over, and that I don't care what teenagers think of how I look anymore. To unpack that further; the 90s were the decade where my sense of style developed. It's the decade where I was a teenager, and started giving thought to the message my outfit conveyed. The fashion of the 90s was really a peak of anti-fashion; the general trends starting in the 60s of rebellion against the established order of suits and ties for men, and dresses and skirts for women. The 90s in North America were the decade of Grunge, the fetishization of cheap, comfortable tough clothes - flannel shirts, loose jeans, and the military surplus made plentiful by the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The Dot Com bubble created an image of skilled professionals in completely casual clothes, and the scorn for the necktie reached, I think, it's most widespread level. Oxford shirts, ties, dress trousers, etc. all became symbols of the greed-obsessed yuppie/preppy culture of 80s TV and movies.

For years I held onto that basic idea - that to be "cool" required a rejection of those elements of fashion. I've tried to compromise in my choice of business casual appropriate outfits for work to take it as unseriously as possible. To hold on to the 90s unfashion. I realised that the audience I was dressing for no longer exists; youth culture has gone through emo/preppy phases, and ties have made their route through teenaged fashion. Todays teens weren't alive in the 80s, and barely rememeber the 90s. My peers, who remember the 80s and 90s, have, by and large abandoned the fashion ideals of our youth and "grown up". So, who am I trying to impress? I've been paying a lot more attention to the fashion choices on the TV shows that I watch (especially Chuck and White Collar), and realised that, hey, now that the 80s are dead and gone, some times a tie looks damned good.

Now, I'm still me, so I have to do it *my* way. While I couldn't define it, I do have my own sense of style. But there is definitely room for nice, traditional-esque stuff in there. Plus it's an excuse to wear a hat.

The other half of it is realising that I'm 32, and I don't care what teeagers think about what I am wearing anymore. For a long time, I have been trying to dress for what one might call the "teenaged gaze"; that is, I imagined that there was someone looking at me and evaluating my outfit. I'd walk past groups of kids and wonder if they thought my outfit marked me as a sellout or not. Really, though, I'm twice the age of today's teens, and there's so much cultural difference there that I just don't care what they think about how I look. I'm more interested in the sartorial opinions of my own age group, and for the most part, the rest of my generation has moved on. Some of that is "growing up" (and, by implication, "selling out" - the concept of which could be its own post.) Some of it is just not caring enough to maintain a seperate work and play wardrobe (the roots of anti-fashion at play!).

The end result is that for the next while, I'm playing around with wearing ties, suit jackets, tie pins, hats, pocket watches, cuff links, etc. I bought a new pair of boots on the weekend to supplment the latest iteration of the combat boots I've been relying on since I started working regularly. It ties in well, of course, with the neo-Victorian/Steampunk stuff I've been doing lately - thanks to that, I know what the proper traditional forms are now, to observe or subvert as I will. I'm mixing in elements from the 1920s and 1930s, and from thier stylistic echoes in the 60s Rat Pack.

It's still mostly black, with accent colours, and it's still "me", but it's nice to feel just a little more like I can do what I want. One day a week, I'm doing a dress-up day, to experiment.

Going back to the elements of aging I started this post with (tl;dr!), I think this sort of thing is important in staying afloat in the sea of culture. I can't let myself calcify and become rigid in my thinking, about clothes, technology or anything else. Stasis is, in a real sense, death in the long term. And another thing that's becoming clear to me is that I want to be around, as active and connected and healthy as possible, for a good long time.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 1st, 2010 08:37 pm (UTC)
One thing related to this that I find interesting is that some types of subcultural fashion "age" better than others, in the sense of looking relatively non-silly on people above a certain age. People in their teens and early 20s can wear just about anything, in part because there's a cultural expectation that young people will be experimental and somewhat fad-driven in their clothing.

But once you hit the point where you're expected to have "grown up" to some degree, it gets more challenging to maintain a non-mainstream, personal sense of style without either looking like you're trying to cling to your youth to an excessive degree, or having it interfere with the responsibilities one tends to acquire by that age, like holding down a job.

One of the nice things about the gothic aesthetic was that - at least in its more moderate aspects - it could still look pretty reasonable on people in their 30s and 40s, unlike, say, the punk aesthetic, which was much more overtly youth-associated. A lot of the visual inspiration came from the broader sense of the term "gothic" in fiction, which was never something specifically associated with the young. The steampunk/neo-Victorian thing seems in a sense to be a further development of that - it's for the most part a fairly dignified look that's just as workable on a middle-aged person as a 20-year-old.

Not, I should add, that I'm trying to imply that you're middle-aged at 32. You're still a young pup from my perspective. :-) But these are issues I've been dealing with for a while, being of a somewhat more advanced age.

I wonder if part of the reason countercultural fashions seem to have shifted in a direction that's not as age-biased is because there's come to be a greater acceptance of people not just automatically "growing out of" being quirky or non-mainstream?
Mar. 2nd, 2010 05:18 am (UTC)
But once you hit the point where you're expected to have "grown up" to some degree, it gets more challenging to maintain a non-mainstream, personal sense of style without either looking like you're trying to cling to your youth to an excessive degree, or having it interfere with the responsibilities one tends to acquire by that age, like holding down a job.

I see a lot of people who dress in a bohemian fashion of one stripe or another and really pull it off. But then there are the people I see who look 25 from the back and 45 from the front. You know, knee-high boots, leggings, wrap belt and big sweater...it's just a little too studiedly "now," without any classic element.
Mar. 1st, 2010 08:52 pm (UTC)
Very interesting entry -- that's some high-quality introspection with regards to your neophobia. I used to have those impulses on some fronts (refused to get a cell phone for years) but I seem to have swung fully to the other side.

Also: Great analysis of the 90s unfashion lens.

A while back, I decided that I couldn't let other's views (or, probably more accurately and more importantly, my assumption/perception of other's views) have strong influence over my own choices/preferences (be they fashion, music, television programs, etc), and my confidence in sharing them.

But what took me a while to realize was how much being a product of that 90s unfashion culture meant that it wasn't a question of rejecting what was popular that was necessarily the shift I was looking to take: more often than not it was accepting that not everything that's popular is crap, and that automatically disliking things just because they achieved mainstream popularity was no more a product of independent thought than liking them for that reason.
Mar. 1st, 2010 09:05 pm (UTC)
not everything that's popular is crap, and that automatically disliking things just because they achieved mainstream popularity was no more a product of independent thought than liking them for that reason.

this, i think, is a crucial component of "neophobia" and "neophilia": learning to pick one's battles careful, on the basis of balancing needs against each other. simply adopting what's new to stay "hip and trendy" is every bit as ludicrous for most people as yelling at the kids to stop flash-mobbing on your lawn with their iPods because you're still stuck in the Sock Hop Era.

aging gracefully — emphasis on "gracefully" — involves knowing what to adopt for wise reasons, and picking tools and technologies that harmonize with the values shaping your lifestyle, rather than letting your lifetstyle become shaped by a fearful drive to keep up with the New. i'm not against adopting new technologies... once i know what they can do for me personally, and have an idea of how to integrate that with what i already know about myself. my dad was like that; my mother less so, but that's mostly an educational gap (and trust me, she probably knows more about her laptop now than i know about mine :).

so yes, stasis is, for many organisms, the key to a protracted and unpleasant death. but "change for change's sake" is often an anxiety-laden path to an equally unpleasant end, just by a different manner. choosing *mindfully*... there's the key to balance.
Mar. 1st, 2010 09:35 pm (UTC)
One other thing I thought of when originally reading this post, but forgot to mention when I was writing my reply - with older people and technology, sometimes it's less a matter of them rejecting new technologies as of younger people assuming that they will, or that they won't be able to handle them.

A while back, at one of the biannual family reunions my mom's side of the family has in Michigan, my grandmother sat down with me and said she was thinking about getting a computer. She'd heard enough of all her children and grandchildren talking about e-mail and what not that she'd started to think it might be a useful way of staying in closer touch with the family. I thought this was a cool idea, and we spent some time discussing options, what she'd be most likely to use it for, etc., and I ended up recommending that she get an iMac, and offered to go to the store with her to help her pick out the right one, and show her how to use it.

She was very happy with this idea, and it sounded like a plan - right up until the rest of the relatives got wind of it, and all began trying to convince her that no, no, this was a terrible idea, she'd never be able to learn how to use a computer at her age, it would just confuse her, it would be a waste of money, etc. So she never did get one.

I was really frustrated by this, because I think she would have done fine with it. She may have been in her 80s at that point, but she's not an idiot, or a relic of the past. She did a master's degree in biology at a time when women entering the sciences was still pretty rare, and taught high school science for several years before getting married and raising a family. She's always kept up on news and issues related to nature and biology, and has belonged to a number of different naturalist/environmentalist organizations for as long as I've known her. After she divorced my grandfather in her 60s, she started going on all kinds of nature trips with the Audubon Society and that sort of thing. I mean, we are talking about a woman who hiked up an active volcano when she was 80. I think she could have handled a fucking iMac.

But everyone else assumed otherwise - it just seemed like this automatic "OMG little old ladies must not be allowed contact with computers!" kneejerk reaction. And became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if you have enough people telling you you'll never be able to do something, you're unlikely to ever try. *sigh*
Mar. 1st, 2010 10:26 pm (UTC)
My grandmom circumvented the problem. Just prior to her 83rd birthday, she junked the old green-screen computer on which she'd been keeping her genealogy files for the past 10 years, and hired a local nerd to help her buy a new computer and modem, set up her internet connection and e-mail account. AT her 83rd birthday celebration, she announced that for her birthday she'd given herself a new computer, told us her e-mail address, and instructed us all to e-mail her.

Your gran could totally have handled an iMac. People are far too interested in telling other people what to do, IMO.

Mar. 2nd, 2010 03:48 am (UTC)
Heck, my other grandmother had her computer brought to the nursing home so that she could e-mail. The only thing stopping her is that her arms and eyes are too weak to get the mouse to work.
Mar. 2nd, 2010 05:20 am (UTC)
Hm. I have the opposite problem in my family. My mom was a computer programmer when she was younger, and now when faced with a computer she is all, "I'm helpless! I can't figure it out!!!" And I mean, when using EXACTLY the computer she was using five years ago before she retired. (I think this may be more an aspect of my mom's personality, though.)
Mar. 1st, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
This is really interesting - I've been learning a lot in the last few years about style as choice and self-shaping rather than as something you either fight against or are enslaved to. This helps me think about that - thank you!
Mar. 2nd, 2010 04:41 am (UTC)
"The best way to subvert the dominant paradigm is to have more fun doing it than they do, and to make sure they know it."

I wear a tie with a vest and pocket watch to the office every day. Mostly blacks with monochrome shirts/accents. I dress as well or better than the VPs. Of course I still stand out a fair bit with the waist-length hair and larger (I can never remember what) gauge ear rings. I also roll up my sleeves to let my tattoo show freely. Though I still won't dye or dread my hair.

I also resist new technologies. I keep repairing my limping smart-phone because I don't want to buy into the new tech. But I do monitor a Gizmodo newsfeed to keep up to date on all things tech/geek.
Mar. 2nd, 2010 05:16 am (UTC)
Going back to the elements of aging I started this post with (tl;dr!), I think this sort of thing is important in staying afloat in the sea of culture. I can't let myself calcify and become rigid in my thinking, about clothes, technology or anything else. Stasis is, in a real sense, death in the long term.

OMG yes. I have some friends who are still listening to exactly the same music and wearing exactly the same clothes as they did when we were 25. And it's 14 years later! They say that current fashion is awful and music died in 1996. They also seem really unhappy. I do wonder what will happen to them a few years from now - or if they will be like women I see around here who are still wearing '60s-era bouffants, pantsuits and lipstick.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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