Since this letter is going to be all about “fuck yous”, I might as well start by letting you know that I buy my patchwork madras shorts from Brooks Brothers. Because, really, out of all the clothing I own nothing says “fuck you” more than a pair of patchwork madras shorts.
It isn’t just the warm weather that has me leafing through my closet looking for clothes that scream “fuck you” but the confluence of a couple of things. I went out for drinks with some friends this week and ended up in an argument about the meaning of punk. Are you rolling your eyes yet? Can you imagine anything lamer than three men in their 30s sitting around debating the meaning of punk? If it was tedious by 1977 in 2017 it is absolutely unbearable.
I won’t bore you with the minutiae, but the argument revolved around a disagreement about whether the core of punk was a primal “fuck you” only concerned with tearing things down (my view) or a socially conscious movement with strong liberal values, an inclusive spirit and a deep questioning of authority (my friend’s view). Both are technically correct, so the argument was (as most arguments that take place in bars tend to be) essentially pointless. What we are left with is preference.
What version of the story do you want to hear? And why do you want to hear it?
In the age of Trump – an age of fake news and alternative facts – it is a question I have been asking myself frequently. Why do people want to hear the stories they want to hear? I know why my friend has picked the version he has; he wants to live in a world where active and engaged people can make a difference in creating a more liberal and tolerant society. I’m not sure why I want to believe that punk was a couple of months in England in 1976 when a mad man went around singing “fuck this and fuck that” and “no future for you” with terrifying ferocity.
I spent the next day arguing with myself, as I do so often after arguing with real people, rephrasing ideas about the fine line between nihilism and cynicism, how old white people have found their Johnny Rotten in Donald Trump, and thinking about a comment my friend had made. “Look at you,” he said, gesturing to my outfit. “Like you could understand punk with your Lawrence Park background.” For the record, I didn’t grow up in Lawrence Park (one of Toronto’s tonier neighbourhoods). Also, for the record, I was wearing a forest green Bengal-striped oxford, a safari jacket, white jeans and penny loafers. It was a pretty good outfit.
Looking to get out of my own head, I strolled through some of the menswear sites that I visit and came across a post on a site called Die Workwear! called Progressives and The Suit. It is basically just someone bending over backwards to explain that you can be liberal and care about clothes with a hundred pictures to prove it (never mind that most of the cited pictures are from an era where norms of dress existed, that most of the people pictured worked within the establishment and that the meaning of the establishment has come to mean something rather different in the intervening years, but I digress.)
But it helped crystallize in my mind why I prefer my version of punk historiography to my friend’s. Punk, as I think of it, was a primal howl. It was as subversive with the use of the swastika as it was with a mohair sweater. It didn’t have a program, it just wanted to smash shit. What punk (as my friend sees it) and the liberal suit as it represents in luscious black and white photos from the 1960s fail to truly reckon with is the fact that ‘main-stream culture’ carries within it a space for the counter-culture, and that the counter-culture always exists in a space carved out by the mainstream. It’s why Lady Gaga can wear a biker jacket and a hockey dad in Sarnia knows that she is referencing punk. Call it what you want, but it is the safety valve built into consumer capitalism that lets it sell alienation back to its disaffected children, and at a profit.
It is also why some of the smarter people writing about clothes on the Internet are willing to bake intellectual pretzels just to make themselves feel good about consuming. Whether you are sitting in a seedy downtown bar drinking mass-produced mass-marketed beer in a Ramones shirt stretched over your fat belly talking about ways to march against poverty or writing about how to square bespoke suits with progressive values while watching Mr Porter for sales on Vetements hoodies, late consumer capitalism is lurking just around the corner waiting to fuck you up.
The people who tend to think the most seriously about the problems of late capitalism tend to not think seriously about late capitalism, as a sort of sui generis exploiter of human vanity and weakness, at all.
But what does any of this have to with a garishly orange micro cord shirt? I’ve already said too much for this letter, so that will have to wait until next time.