Proust had his madeleines; I’ve got your underwear. Let me explain.
This week Ivy Style posted 67 classic Polo images in honour of the founding of the company in 1967. Not sure if you had a chance to scroll through the comments, but I can only imagine it would have been akin to Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral. The gist, just in case you didn’t take a scroll though them, was this: RL used to be great but isn’t any more.
In some ways I guess congratulations are in order: it took Brooks Brothers almost 200 years to become the talisman of menswear disappointment. You did it in a quarter of that time. Only the internet could produce such an Escher-like knot of reflective nostalgia, a sea of longing for olden times, when things were ever better, when shirts fit right and men could hold the door open for women without a worry of impugning their feminine independence.
It’s hardly news to point out that every past’s present just wasn’t as great as their present’s past. Woody Allen made an entire movie on this slim insight. So you’ll forgive me if I point out the ads and images themselves that provoked such a roar in the comments at Ivy Style, the source of all the in-the-moment yearning for a vanished better yesterday, are images of pure longing, of nostalgia, of a time already gone. This was, simply put, not what the ‘80s looked like. So yes, a little ironic detachment allows us to smile at people longing for the days of an ad printed 40-years ago that longed for a world that disappeared 40-years prior to the ads themselves.
A recent essay by G. Bruce Boyer might not be brand specific, but it adumbrates the idea with a more sociological eye. Boyer is much too smart to lean on pure nostalgia, charting the rise of the suited man and his precipitous fall to extinction. A wry smile is appropriate here, as everything I’ve written you stems from the fact that Polo launched in the year when, according to Boyer, everything went to muck:
Then, in the summer of 1967, came a blow to the American tradition of the tailored wardrobe from which it can be said never to have recovered. In the summer of 1967, 100,000 young people rushed to San Francisco for what came to be called “the Summer of Love.” The party lasted all summer. They left at the end of August to return to their campuses wearing not khakis and madras sports jackets and penny loafers, but festooned in tie-dyed T-shirts, bell-bottom jeans, love beads, and sandals of indeterminate origin, having only stopped off at home to burn their Harris Tweed sports jackets and Brooks Brothers button-downs, and let their hair grow longer.
And there you were, driving around in your English car dressed in your English tweeds, selling ties out of the trunk and dreaming of a world that never existed. How far back do we need to go?
Is this the moment where I finally get to quote Kenko to you, a quote which is pertinent and potent, but really unnecessary; a quote that only serves to show you that despite being obsessed with your corduroy pants I’m also a serious, intelligent, thoughtful person? (Writing in early-14th century Japan, Kenko observed: “One yearns for the old world in every way. Modern fashions just seem to grow more vulgar. The most beautiful finely crafted wooden utensils are those from the old days.”)
One of the many things touched upon by Boyer is the way in which clothes help us perform identity (my phrasing, not his). He talks about the loss of occasion and the intimate ways in which occasion and dress intermingled to form social identity. Since the horrors of the Summer of Love, the world has been overturned by a solipsistic conception of identity: the true self. This is a self that does not answer to societal pressures, to norms, to fickle trends; if the sad terminus of this conception wasn’t a man in sweatpants shopping for Eckhart Tolle books on a thousand-dollar smart phone it would almost be Byronic.
What does any of this have to do with your cars or my underpants? In a nice write up about yesterday’s fashion show staged amidst your stunning collection of cars, that 1956 Mercedes 300SL convertible is described as “the vehicle in his collection [Ralph] likes to imagine looks most like it would be Ralph Lauren’s ride.” It is heartening to know that all these years and billions later, you still feel like you are performing Ralph Lauren.
Some may roll their eyes at this, see it as a form of vapid fantasy at the centre of a rapacious industry; but I see it as something else. It is an honest accounting of how we construct ourselves, not the true selves of post-me generation soul seeking, but the self that gets out of bed every morning, pulls on a pair of pants and tries to present something or someone cohesive to the world. It has never been easy to do, but in these fractured times, when storms both real and metaphorical rage and late-consumer capitalism packages and sells identity (be it a tweed jacket or an Amazon recommends ancient Japanese philosophy list) it is a chore, to say the least.
Forgive me, I’ve just got too much to say so I’m going to break this into two letters.