Before we talk about my orange shirt, do you mind if we talk about Andy Warhol’s wigs?
As someone with thinning hair, I think about baldness a lot. And if you have learned anything about me by now, you know that when I think about something it tends to have a capital letter. I don’t just think about losing my hair: I think about Baldness.
A person can go bald in only one way (your hair falls out and doesn’t grow back), but there are thousands of ways men go Bald. The solutions to this problem (because Larry David’s Bald triumphalism aside, it is a problem) teach us something not just about the balding man (or maybe Balding Man, a sort of 21st century answer to Nietzsche’s Last Man) but about the times we live in. Toupees, the hair-loss equivalent of hot pants and leisure suits, seem like the perfectly appropriate synthetic solution from the disco age. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s gleaming dome speaks to the no-fuss no-muss can-do spirit of the greatest generation. I’m sure that some balding lord cooked up powdered wigs just so everyone would look as ridiculous as he did. The defiantly shaved head, today’s answer, speaks to our split-minded culture: it “owns” baldness by denying it.
So Andy’s solution, to wear pure white and silver wigs that couldn’t be anything other than a wig, is a perfect Warhol gesture. Like everything Warhol did, it is enjoyable and readable on almost any level you choose to approach it. It’s also, forgetting the fact that he is Andy Warhol, a subversive wink that makes his ‘70s style so radical. Because his style in the ‘70s was normal to the point of pathology: Brooks Brothers button downs and brass-buttoned blazers and 501s. The wig detournes* everything. Look at this picture:
Who would have thought that an L.L. Bean field coat and backpack could be so disorienting?
A comment from an Ivy Style post about his almost-trad wardrobe will demonstrate the effect:
Anyway, last weekend I went out and bought The Philosophy of Andy Warhol without really knowing why. I’ve wanted to read the book for a while. I’ve been staring endlessly at Warhol skulls and Interview Magazine covers getting visual inspiration for another project I’m working on. So on Saturday, still turning over the argument about the meaning of punk, the nature of nihilism, the ethics of engagement and disengagement that earlier in the week had me thinking deeply about the semiotic howl of patchwork madras shorts, I decided to treat myself to a little of Warhol’s glorious ennui and the unsettling questions it raised about life in the late 20th century.
On my way back home, reading the book’s almost Beckett-like preamble (“I could have told her that if something is disappointing I know it’s not nothing because nothing is not disappointing.”) it struck me that my own nihilism could be defined like this: I see nihilism everywhere, grade its levels of euphoria and assess the levels of danger it possesses and return to my indifferent world of Google image galleries and deep thoughts about the dress styles of eastern elites.
Which brings me, finally, to that orange shirt. I saw it at a Sporting Life outlet store and just stood there looking at it. The orange was so maximally orange that I had to have it, even though orange is a colour I detest and have probably vowed on more than a few occasions to never wear. It was so orange it almost vibrated. It was so orange that I just stood there and said, “Damn, Ralph.”
Orange is tough. Unlike those patchwork madras shorts that attack middle-class propriety with a disdain that comes from being excessively rich (this is my reading) orange is aggressive in different ways. The typical associations of road work and hunting gear are all about safety. Put broadly, orange screams look at me in order to tell people to stay away. So yes, the orange shirt was a “fuck you” and that was what I was thinking when I bought it.
But orange, in recent years, has been detourned in the purpose of another type of nihilism, when ISIS’s heavily-choreographed savagery reached its viral apotheosis in a series of grim beheadings. My friend and I had argued about this too, and my friend seemed to reach his maximal level of disgust with me when I said that there was something inherently ‘punk’ about the destruction of Palmyra, just as there was something inherently ‘punk’ about a detourned stoner frog who has literally been classified as a hate symbol by the ADL. Punk for my friend is, and always will be, a social movement grounded in proper left-wing thought. The idea that the impulse that gave birth to that movement might have a coefficient in Islamic Extremism or the alt-right is something he can’t believe. It is not the story he wants to hear.
Punk for me, as I imagine I will always see it, is the exhilarating rush when something happens that upsets the natural order of things. The rupture, borne of a nihilism I define as seeing the past as broken and useless and the future as meaningless, lasts for only a second. The nihilists quickly turn over their freshly-tilled soil to the true believers, nihilists themselves in every way except the stories they want to hear about their values, dreamers who have failed to reckon with the fact that utopia is literally nowhere.
And so too my orange micro cord shirt. After the first wash, that glowing-vibrating-hum of “fuck you” orange faded to a pedestrian shade, somewhere between an Impulse record sleeve and a pylon. Worse, my initial exuberance for the colour of the garment had blinded me to the fact that the shirt was missing the biggest “fuck you” of all: it doesn’t even have a pony** on it.
As you know, I could go on, but I won’t.***
* Detournement might get at the heart of all this here – not just these letters, but my obsession with you, your clothes, Americana, my inability to square my romanticism with my unrelenting nihilism. Detournement was a tactic devised by the Situationist International as a form of aesthetic sabotage – taking the detritus of material modern western culture and through techniques of erasure and subversion illuminating the hollow dream of consumer capitalist society. The most famous examples are detourned comics. But I think reading good style through a lens of detournement could be interesting. You can blame Griel Marcus for all this; I’m reading his book Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century right now and almost every page crackles insight.
** The pony is a classic floating signifier that can represent absolute douche as easily as it represents wealth and good taste. It can always be read as a “fuck you”.
*** I do realize that in my last letter I criticized someone for baking “intellectual pretzels” in order to justify being interested in clothes and then spent over 2,000 words invoking everything from the SI and Andy Warhol to Samuel Beckett and Jihadi John to explain why I probably won’t wear an orange shirt I bought. Is this self-awareness that knows what it is doing but is unable to stop itself a form of nihilism or monstrous ego? Is there a difference?