On bellbottoms, beards, bustles and mutants

Or, is there such a thing as low fashion?

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2003

Fashion, in retrospect, is always comical. Pantaloons, periwigs, shoe buckles, bustles and bellbottoms are apt to leave the most disinterested time traveler simultaneously snorting and chortling. The marcelling of the 1920s looks as if it has been applied with a frosting knife, doesn't it? And its cousin, the hair helmet popular with 1970s yuppies, asks us to subscribe to the peculiar notion that all men shall be Alley Oop.

The Last Word by Fern Chandonnet. He can be reached at fchandonnet@juneauempire.com.

It was in fact a hair ad in the newspaper that precipitated that induction - about the ridiculousness of fashion. The "before" snapshot is of a distraught woman in possession of long, ratty tresses. In the "after" picture, the woman's straight hair hangs from her skull in a newly healthy and beautiful way. She is no longer distraught.

Never mind that not long ago the ratty tresses (tight ringlets depending from the point at the top of the head to shoulder level) were de rigueur.

Understand that I ascribe neither fault nor irony, here. To me, subscribers to the old 'do were simply Ramen-heads (because of the similarity of the ringlet to the popular noodle). And now the Ramen-head has fallen from grace.

'Twas ever thus.

When I was a boy, my sister came home one day looking very much as if she had tripped and fallen headlong into a cotton-candy machine. I remarked as much and after an initial curse or two was informed that the hairstyle was new and called a "bouffant."

Our household was French, and so I was able to remind her that the word "bouffant" was dangerously reminiscent of the words "bouffi," meaning "fatso," and "bouffon," meaning "clown."

Whereupon, as was the custom, she spat on me.

I must say that Sister's new hairdo, after she'd rolled around on it for a night, looked in the morning like she'd filled a large sock with sand and pulled the open end over the top of her head. But she was nothing if not persistent and was later to go on a date wearing not only that enormous, rejuvenated dust-bunny, but a highly fashionable "sack" dress as well - so that one was left with the impression that she had eaten of the confection atop her head and thereafter experienced profound and unfortunate intestinal distress.

Marie Antoinette, another stylish Frenchwoman, wore headdresses that approached 3 feet in height and which were adorned with brilliants and the gewgaws of the day. It is said that one such wig was topped with a model of a sailing ship and another (though this may be post-Revolution calumny) with a piece of cake.

Lest women seem to be bearing the brunt of my attention, let me make it clear that men inspire as much awe in their hairy predilections. Witness the beard, usually worn, as we all know, to camouflage a face undistinguished by character. In their own defense, the bush-faced claim a proximity to Nature that the bald-faced can't. But I would counter that a trimmed beard - which is most of them - is no more "natural" than one that is shaved.

As for the untrimmed beard, that is a manifestation of syndromes best left to the likes of Stephen King to describe.

I sometimes wonder whether beards wouldn't be less a signal that there is an insipid face lurking behind them if their owners took their cue from Ms. Antoinette and added a little something - a small sailboat, perhaps, or a toy bird. (I certainly would not recommend cake, since the world has been witness to breadcrumb- and condiment-infused beards for long enough.)

In even a short essay on fashion such as this, it would not do to eschew the shoe.

It is a testament to the power of that item that it could, ostensibly, make delicate and attractive the appendages of such as Imelda (The Collector) Marcos, she of the fireplug build and Weimaraner temperament. Conversely (and perversely), that power - fallen, as it has, into the wrong hands - can make the sveltest legs look as if they are growing out of a tubful of peat moss. I give you today's tree-trunk heels, Frankenstein soles and box toes with enough auxiliary room in them to store, say, a sandwich and beverage.

The American male adolescent, that apotheosis of vulgarity, has somehow also become the paradigm for mindless adhesion to fashion.

We've all been subjected to the sight, in public, of trousers worn in a position more suited to the exercise of a daily necessity than to the demonstration of haute couture. To relate to the phenomenon at all is difficult, but I am not without vocabulary: As a boy, I subscribed to the contemporary fashion - later embodied and made comical (something it wasn't in its day) in The Fonz - of tight dungarees, greased hair and a T-shirt with rolled sleeve containing a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes.

I was a skinny 12-year-old and so the sleeve often unraveled, scattering my cigarettes - which my guttersnipe friends and I then brawled over. (At a prohibitive 23 cents a pack, there was more than honor at stake.)

It isn't easy being swank.

The question arises (relating to the pants-at-the-backs-of-the knees, if not to all fashion): Why?

Adolescents, by their very nature, strive to nurture their parents' greatest fear - that their progeny are imbeciles. The parents, themselves fearful of the substantial evidence among their own siblings and parents, are hoping against hope that Junior's genes are mutant. And Junior, aware of nothing else if not of this, is happy to demonstrate that he - like them and their forbears - is a simple slave to fashion.

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