Friday, July 25, 2008

The Beautiful People

I first learned the phrase "the beautiful people" from my older brother David, who was giving my 11-year-old self a tour of the University of Illinois Campus, along with the rest of my family. David was what was known as a "skater" and I'm sure he was indicating some fraternity guys with collars popped and sweater tied firmly around their shoulders in 1988.

I latched on to the phrase as perfectly describing that elusive statis I longed be identified with but could never manage to achieve.

While "the beautiful people" still exist and I still can't blend with them, I don't mind so much anymore. What's more, the term continues to sound in my head with the same derisive tone that David used 20 years ago when I think about expensive and sparkly halter tops and stilletto heels on women too drunk to walk in a straight line from John Barleycorn to some Irish-themed bar with it's name written in gold on a dark green background.

This shift came as my brother's "skater" aesthetic became a more dominant force in our consumer society. To be alternative or "indie" (short for independent) is now so prevalent as to be mainstream. Hipsters are the argument made by skaters ad nauseam. Hipsters oppose the conformity of society by taking little pieces of pop culture and re-presenting it in a way that says, "I am aware that this is trendy and by choosing to partake in a piece of the trend I am subverting the rules that say I must partake in the entire trend in order to be popular/successful." Of course, over time this has created its own aesthetic which must also be subverted. The demographic has become an oubouros, post-modern in the fact that is constantly reacting and responding to its own statements on several levels at once. In broad terms, this aesthetic can be described as artistic, edgy and social justice-y. It manifests itself in piercings, tattoos, disjointed combinations of clothing in different formalities and styles, assimilation of working class culture, incorporation of nostalgic elements especially from the 40s, 50s and 80s and an emphasis on hand-made or, at least, personally assembled.

On Sunday, I volunteered for ReadyMade Magazine for two hours at the Pitchfork Festival, mecca for hipsters. In return, I got free entrance to the festival, a free renewal of my subscription and a free American Apparel t-shirt that I could customize with any number of subversive stencils provided. I chose a luchador.

Because I don't care about the music at all, I spent the time before my shift observing the sub-culture at its finest and examining my relationship to it.

I had this weird sense of anonymity as I walked around the park. I have figured out the language of style enough to fit in, with my sweatshop-free knock-off Converse low-tops, pigtails, dark jeans cuffed into floods, a black tank top, my domino necklace and my horn earrings.

The words, "these are my people," kept running through my head and my consequent desire not to be associated with the trend marks me indelibly with its label.

Because in this environment, I feel like even my lack of tattoos and piercings is "in" because my chasteness is itself a "statement" against their trendiness. Leaning against a tree and taking notes in my journal seems poseur-ish, something "these people" would do. And here I am doing just what the world expects me to do!

I am horrified at the thought because this means that I should be painted with the same brush as the guy wearing exactly the same clothing he wore when he was 11 years old: a smallish t-shirt that has been worn down to rice paper thinness, green gym shorts with a white stripe down the side and an elastic waistband that is too big for his tiny ass and so show his greying tighty whiteys underneath. There is a deliberate uglification of most hipsters. No one would look at this crowd and say, "Wow, she is really lovely." Many are aesthetically pleasing or attractive but none are beautiful. Or if they are, they hide it quickly with greasy hair or plugs in their earlobes.

But the tags of this demographic are my tags. I'm drawn to the aesthetic, especially the bits that take pop culture from previous decades and re-jiggers it in a modern context. Look at the snowglobes I made awhile back with a Planet of the Apes figurine and an old toy astronaut. My personal style leans in the hipster direction, with my large collection of Threadless t-shirts and long straight bangs. I would like to think that I'm not a slave to the description, but all of us want to think that.

A couple of weeks ago, I had lunch in the suburb where I used to live. There was a craft fair going on outside the window and I reveled in how tacky, unnecessary and unsophisticated all of the wares were. Baby blankets made of plastic yarn, tissue box covers with Sox and Cubs logos, generic but hand-painted water-colors pastorals. I thought that the giant there-but-for-the-grace-of-God feeling I was having was the moral to that story but I think now that the LaGrange Craft Fair was just a set-up for the epiphany I'm having now.

My children will mock the hipsters more than I do.

But the won't do it with a sense of kinship. They'll say things like, "Oh my god. I have to go into the city to visit my parents on Sunday." They'll walk through the Renegade Craft Fairs that we'll still be having and roll their eyes at pendants made "from a photo of a real heart-shaped potato," our re-melted plastic bracelets, or the re-styled 70's dresses that have been Frankensteined with too-small faux gym shirts.

The ironic part of my brother's coinage in my life of the phrase "the beautiful people" is that he is part of the inner circle of artistic, edgy, social justice-y folks that planted the seeds for this aesthetic. He went to the University of Illinois in those years that indie bands were coming out of there like monkeys coming out of the proverbial butt. His friends are famous designers and musicians. But there is nothing sinister about their motives. No one created this aesthetic to rule the world through the spending of the next generation. It just kind of happened.

I guess that makes it OK for me to be one of them.


Mike Clawson said...

Wow, just reading your description of the "rules" for being a hipster make me feel tired. :)

What about those of us who have just never had the skills or the mental energy to keep up with fashion trends whatsoever? In the past my "fashion" has been "whatever feels comfortable and I vaguely think looks good". Lately it's shifted to "whatever is ethically produced and Julie thinks looks good". :)

Anonymous said...

PrincessMax said...

I know! Doesn't that rock? I did a little photoshopping with that one and gave it to my stylist.

I'm so proud/ashamed.