#9: Plaid Vs. Gingham Shirts

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Dear Ralph,

Have you ever been to Disneyland? I only ask because I’m curious about how you would dress when you were there. What would be appropriate? What would be ‘authentic’? What would make the most sense?

The research about “authenticity” I mentioned in my last letter has me thinking a lot about Disney and his theme park. A few nights ago I watched a great PBS bio of him and I was struck by more than a few things. The first was how pioneering he was in wearing T-shirts. You don’t see many men from this era (apart from the Riviera set) wearing Ts, but Disney seemed to adopt this striped number as his working uniform in the 30s:

(As a total aside, this is a really great look. Form-fitting T tucked into high-rise pleated wool pants? Yes please.)

Another thing that struck me was how Disney managed to contain, within one park and his own person, the contradictory strains of a retro-revisionism (his vision of American Main Street is ahistorical at best) while being a post-war boom futurist.

I couldn’t help but draw parallels between Disney’s vision of America and yours. Doing a little reading on the subject, I found this great quote from Umberto Eco (about Disneyland) that easily applies to what we’ve been talking about when we talk about Polo:

“In this sense Disneyland is more hyperrealistic than the wax museum, precisely because the latter still tries to make us believe that what we are seeing reproduces reality absolutely, whereas Disneyland makes it clear that within its magic enclosure it is fantasy that is absolutely reproduced…

But once the ‘total fake’ is admitted, in order to be enjoyed it must seem totally real.”

Don’t you hate that? When you find exactly what you want to say said so much better than you could ever say it? I imagine this is the sort of feeling you might get when you walk into a Filson store or Cordings in London, but that is a whole other kettle of fish.

When Disney was making his park he would tramp the grounds in wide-legged dungarees and a gingham shirt, a media mogul building a dream city from the fragments of a mythical childhood (the idea for it grew out of his obsession with model trains and a trip to the iconic American small town where he had lived briefly as a boy), dressed in the ready for a simple country picnic.

The gingham shirt for Walt must have been the coefficient of today’s plaid shirt for the hipster. I’m sure there are a ton of parallels to be unpacked here between Disney’s commercial reclamation of American Eden and the hipster’s version that ferments in craft beer, but it would require a lot more time and a mind a little more nimble than mine.

The pertinent question here is why gingham lost its signifying power while plaid didn’t. For a good many people the plaid shirt is, unconsciously of course, the de facto garment in an unexplored expression of white male authenticity. Gingham, by contrast, feels a little precious, the exact opposite thing you would want to don to express an identity that is best represented in woodsy smelling beard oil. And it is for this exact reason that I have a hard time wearing plaid shirts. By evoking a look that is supposedly out of time, they are too much of our time.

So when I see pictures of you on your ranch, decked out in plaids, I feel the great pull of hyperreality. By will alone you have created a world where the plaid shirt makes sense, an amusement park as advertorial, a sartorial Frontier Land. Every item of clothing we buy is underwritten by fantasy and corroded by being worn in the real world. You have the Double RL ranch while the rest of us wear your dreams in Toontown.

Best,

S

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