Vintage Politics: The Awl’s “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green’”

By Guest Contributor Mimi Thi Nguyen, originally published at Threadbared

Awl writer Cord Jefferson just penned an incredibly thoughtful piece on the phenomenon of “nu prep” or what passes for “classic Americana” in men’s style. In “White People Clothing and ‘Old Money Green,’” Jefferson wonders what to make of garments whose appeal is narrated through unsubtle references to histories of racial degradation and economic privilege — Ralph Lauren Polo’s “old money green” chinos, J. Crew’s “plantation madras” button-down, and J. Peterman’s “owner’s hat” (the copy for which reads, “Some of us work on the plantation. Some of us own the plantation”).* Jefferson ends his piece:

I like Barbour jackets a lot, and Tod’s driving moccasins. I even like “Nantucket red” pants with a crisp white shirt and a blue blazer. But, as a person of color with no family crest of which to speak, I wonder if I should. It would be one thing if the current fashion trends were merely sentimental for grandpa’s favorite pair of shoes. But here, amidst the money greens and plantation nostalgia, it seems as if they’re also rooted in grandpa’s stunted cultural outlooks as well. I now see a sick irony in myself and kids in East New York wearing bow ties and sweater vests. Not new money kids, not old money kids, but no money kids who, apart from the slacks, look nothing like the Take Ivy boys everyone’s heralding, copying, designing for and listening to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, “I would go out tonight, but my ancestors were crushed under racial oppression for centuries.”

The piece is hilariously tagged with: “PLANTATIONS?, SOLID EUROPEAN STOCK, THE NEW NICE RACISM, WHITE PEOPLE THINGS.”

Referentiality –or knowing what cluster of ideas we refer to when we say “old money,” for instance– is an unstable thing. Does aestheticization deracinate a plantation history, or merely insist that such a history does not matter? For what might an “owner’s hat” be nostalgic, if nostalgia is the modern phenomenon of borrowing a “lost” sentiment or sensibility from the past for present usage? What does it mean to apprehend or be attached to something understood as lost, when the spatial or temproal dimensions of that loss cannot help but include chattel slavery or colonial racial rule? The dead do not stay down while their clothes come forward.

That said, how do we track their ghostly traces across living bodies which may or may not match their original wearers? One commentator suggests that despite the advertising copy, the circuitous routes some blue-blood dress styles take interrupt their straightforward claims to colonial privilege: “Also: can’t we say that nu-prep–at least in part–is a possibly unconscious appropriation of a ‘black’ style, which itself was an appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was sorta kinda a different kind of appropriation of a ‘white’ style, which was originally an appropriation of many many different styles from around the world?”

As black style becomes global style, does the appropriation and revision of fancy clothes produce another historical consciousness, another origin story, for these dress styles? Consider the sartorial performances of the immaculately attired Andre 3000, the calculated precision of the self-fashioning Fonzworth Bentley. We might also recall Monica Miller’s Slaves to Fashion, in which she argues black dandyism “makes both subtle and overt challenges and capitulations to authoritative aesthetics.” Miller suggests, “Dandies are not always the wealthiest, but they aspire to other things and show that existing hierarchies can be broken. It’s about making something out of nothing.”

So does the meaning of a garment emerge from consumers’ usage, or from its conditions of manufacture, both ideological and material? In response to a commentator’s smart observation that “I would pause before associating Japanese fandom of this look to a deep dream of giving off Landed Class vibes,” Jefferson clarifies:

Not to dive even deeper into the rabbit hole, but I suppose what I find problematic about the trad blogs is how whimsical they are about longing for the days of yore. It’s very easy for middle aged white guys to romanticize the 50s and 60s (http://www.acontinuouslean.com/2010/02/15/las-vegas/), because then they would have been even freer than they are now. For me to think of the ’50s is to consider times of terror, heartbreak and violence.

While these garments’ manufacture is new, some of the questions I asked earlier of vintage politics seem relevant here.

What are the vocabularies of vintage clothes and how do these vocabularies produce value for the vintage-clad self? What feelings do vintage clothes and their histories inspire, in whom? What do these feelings do — to our understanding of the past, other bodies? As I consider these and further possible queries, it would appear that vintage can be about the evaluation and preservation of an item or an ideal –a beautiful dress, a beautiful woman– against the ruin of time, or vintage can be marshaled to mark ruin as important, as a significant event in the social life of that thing or ideal.

As Jefferson points out, the evaluation and preservation of a beautiful item from another time and place might easily slide into the evaluation and preservation of an associated (terrible, no-good) ideal. Nostalgia for a particular era or its sensibility can become dangerous, especially when such a sensibility might include qualifiers such as “dignity” or “freedom,” “classiness” or “old-school glamour,” which are also shifting measures of human value. (Consider some of the nostalgic remarks about “respectability” here.) But the adaptation of these dress styles can also fashion defiance, marking the ruin of these eras in these styles’ unruly revisions by those once denied their wearing.

Perhaps we must distinguish between the meanings that self-fashioning persons assign their clothes, and the meanings that lend a bloody social life to things like an “owner’s hat.” They may overlap; they may not. I think that there’s no coming down on one side or the other here: it’s a “both”/”and more” situation.

* Okay, J. Peterman is crazy nuts. So many of the “men’s things” are accompanied by nostalgic remembrances of multiple imperial moments. The “19th-Century British Dhobi Kit” is described thusly: “The British called them ‘dhobi’ after the ‘wash boys’ that they hired by the hundreds in Burma, Madras and the Punjab. They became such a necessity that viceroys, governors-general and trade ministers had them handmade in London before heading off to postings in the far reaches of the British Empire…. The perfectly civilized way to start your day – no matter where you find yourself. Imported.”