Thursday, February 7, 2008

Thom Browne's Schooldays

Thom Browne's mission is one of education. Men, he feels, are incapable of moving beyond the closet of the eternal boy. Said boy wears jeans around his lower hips and exposes his boxers; his shirt of choice is made by Hanes. Even when the boy takes on one of life's greater responsibilities--a job--he remains a sartorial Peter Pan.

The American workplace has changed. It is now a bigger battleground than ever, thanks to a spurious "benefit" known as Casual Friday. Men were unable to interpret Casual Friday to their advantage and floundered while attempting to decode it. If one wore a suit on Casual Friday, one would not be seen as atta-boy, one of the gang. It wouldn't do to wear the clothes one wore while washing the car, either. This would be a mark of disrespect and worse, a sign that the wearer either wasn't serious about his career or was a Class-A idiot.

Neither outcome boded well for the white-collar male.

The Casual Friday dress code generally held that collared polo shirts and khaki trousers were acceptable workplace attire. But polo shirts and khaki trousers were in many ways more of a symbolic stranglehold than the suit. Suits at least varied in cut and men have since time immemorial been fairly expressive with ties. Browne felt that business dress demanded rehabilitation, and when he accomplished rehabilitation the previous mode of dress would become obsolete. The idea was not a new one. Adapting dress to serve the needs of the wearer and to improve his appearance dates back to the Upper Paleolithic period. Browne's premise was simple and sensible. More importantly, it solved a critical social problem.

With no formal training, Browne took on the gargantuan task of overhauling menswear. Men's professional clothing had devolved into uselessness. He rapped some knuckles in his debut collection: Ankles and wrists must be exposed. This was the first indication that Browne's signature look would consistently refer back to the Catholic schoolboy and the schoolboy's short, emasculating trousers.

Short pants have always been a linguistic metaphor. The expression "short pants" refers to the act of being one-upped, generally with no small amount of embarassment. Men do not take kindly to being short-pantsed, either on military or on workplace battlefields. Someone who has been short-pantsed or someone who is wearing them will probably spend the next year trying to live it down.

Thom Browne envisioned the working man as needing a rigorous set of rules, and then he formulated those rules using his peculiar Catholic logic. Men were not dressing organically. A Thom Browne suit would do away with the question of current style or fit: His suits would be straitjacket-tight. He wouldn't be concerned with either art or beauty, because art and beauty have a tendency to get in the way. Once he had adapted men's business dress to his rules, he would take on every other decorative aspect of a man's life. In a 2006 interview, he stated that he intended to author entire lifestyles.

And so Thom Browne fought the illogicality of men's dress and replaced it with aberration.

Aberration is a subjective--and probably pejorative--term that arises from critical response to the ongoing evolution of Thom Browne, designer. His suits sell well in Japan, home to a generation of fantastically erratic dressers. In America, the designs have at the very least created startled (and often repulsed) buzz.

Browne's Fall 2008 collection may have boosted that buzz to a lunatic's cry. In a fine punk moment, Browne channeled his inner Johnny Rotten with a show he set in an asylum circus. History may be on the verge of repeating itself. Rotten famously jeered "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" at his Winterland audience, right before he walked off the stage and quit the band that made him famous. What he meant was that the jig (or gig) was up. The joke, he sneered, was on you.

You, of course, were a moron for buying a ticket.

So preposterous was Browne's fall collection that it is hard to see it for anything other than a middle finger to both the fashion industry and to that part of society that hasn't reached a point in its evolution where it can appreciate and applaud Browne's stylistic kink. Or it could have been an onanistic display of his own sexual desires, in which case we're in trouble. His original logic in bringing the working man closer to his business culture failed so badly in this instance that the exact opposite occurred.

In order to appreciate Browne, the customer needs to consider overall message. Men's clothes do not fit properly and men do not often update or adapt well. Men excel at many things, but sartorial evolution isn't one of them. Browne makes a good case for a slimmer suit; it enhances and smartens the body the way the best women's designs do.

That, however, is the only solid point he made. Structurally, he was as focused as he has ever been. The trouble is that this is now an older focus, and one that Browne chose to update and reinforce through self-indulgent absurdity. Parading around the circus ring were malchik altar boys, a feathered Yeti, Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and a Siamese-twin Tweedledee. Many wore knitted dunce caps; one wore a baby's bonnet. A few wore cloaks of acolyte fetish.

Underlying it all was a sense of aggrieved nose-thumbing. The message, maybe: Men are nothing but children who run amok in the corporate world and probably keep odd collections of beetles at home. Corporal punishment would solve the problem, but until such time as we revert to the rod we understand that men are deviant schoolboys with a madman's sense of style.

At least that's what it looked like from the sidelines.



Bobble Bee said...

Browne is definitely the most interesting tailor these days. There are amazing and really avant-garde men's wear designers but he is using something as "old fashion" as tailoring rules to make bold statements.

Suzanna Mars said...

That's exactly it, P.! This collection shows less possibility than it does limitation, to me. The same point is always going to be reinforced in his typical Pee Wee Herman-ish way, so it really has to be pushed to some truly outrageous moment in order to reinforce it. For me it wasn't so much a statement as a restatement for the purpose of entertainment and keeping buzz buzzing.

WendyB said...

Great post...and I definitely want a Siamese twin suit. Oh, maybe not. Most people annoy me.

Suzanna Mars said...

WB, better stick with the butt bow!

(Comment about most people annoying you has made my mornin. Another wonderfully humorous WB gem!)

Anonymous said...

I think what you stated in your first comment epitomizes Browne's problem - 'the same point is always going to be reinforced'.

Browne, it seems, fancies himself as the daring, dashing dandy and is eager to surprise, appearing uncaring as to whether he invokes delight with his designs. He really needs to re-examine his vision and perhaps change course, even just subtly, as, although I enjoyed this latest collection, it seemed just a tad melodramatic for Browne.


Suzanna Mars said...

DCB, I was hoping for someone to weigh in with the male perspective (especially someone as stylish and intuitive as yourself)!

Seems to me Browne is setting himself up. It's as if he's trying to pioneer that which has already been pioneered (viz himself, of course), and in so doing has now created a kind of exasperated expectation.

Either that or he's riding the "all publicity is good publicity" wave, but he's cresting too near the top of the ridiculous. Still, one waits to see what will come. In these terms this collection was a great success.

That, I might restate, is only my opinion. I know many people were thrilled with this collection and considered it a triumph and another large step towards this exciting, socially conscious modern world that has of late been a very popular theme in fashion.

enc said...

Men's fashion has been a one-ringed circus for too long.

How many guys take risks in their office clothing? And how many offices would tolerate it if they tried a simple ankle cuff trouser?

susie_bubble said...

I don't like shock for the sole sake of shock value.... and this collection smacked of that.

Bobble Bee said...

You know, this collection actually reminds me the best moments of Viktor & Rolf, so baaaaack in the days.

Thomas said...

Because I enjoy so much of what Browne has done he makes me ask what has become a recurring question in a far more serious tone - what purpose fashion?

As I have pored over the collections from Milan and Paris, and as I prepare to engage New York, I was struck time and again by clothing that was simply beyond me. In many instances they ceased to register as clothes at all, and seemed more like the ridiculous skins of an extinct, and fairly stupid, animal.

I am not meant to wear the clothes, so I suppose the assumption goes their purpose must be to make me think. But think what? A little ankle is good - a little ankle shared with someone else's ankle is just kind of silly.

Perhaps I need to read more Foucault (always, always more Foucault).

riz said...

not necessarily Foucault. But Zizek. I initially thought it was is shock for the sake of shock, but of course he's not Galliano, so it's much more complicated than that. If it is unabashedly the middle finger, well, at least there's adamancy there. No need for the postmodern circus antics.

PS - I'll probably review this at a later point.

Eli said...

but that collection he did for women was absolutely amazing!

Suzanna Mars said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzanna Mars said...

Riz is right; there's far more to this than shock value (although at face value many may just leave it at that knee-jerk reaction).

The whole of it is so complicated--too many sexual themes going on involving the Catholic church, ball-breaking mother figures, and some avian alter ego.

Viewed this way, it was the collection closest to "art." Now, whether we can accept it as art depends on how we define art--and for this I am going to refer the fine mind of Rizvana here (for question of what constitutes art--some here are very conservative):

Methinks you're going to write one hell of an essay, girlfriend!

Suzanna Mars said...

Riz, if this URL doesn't post in entirety, google:
Portrait of the artist as a dhimmified man.

Bobble Bee said...

note: the link shows when we highlight it and copy it, so no worries :)

Anonymous said...

oh, i had such a pleasure reading this and it was funny because i posted an essay on a similar topic today and i feel like a messy scholar comparing to you. still have so much to learn.
i guess browne is a prisoner of his own success. once he was shocking and daring and then all the scoup of milan and paris shows followed his steps. instead of giving up the schoolboy-meets-puer-aeternus stuff (which is extremely freudistic to me) he decided to make it even bolder which, at some point, brought it to caricaturism. yet, i loved the show and it was such a breath of fresh air to me. sometimes fresh air is the one which stinks.