Joseph Epstein’s essay on Americans as perpetual adolescents is a must read. This piece is too good to summarize.
Epstein begins with some reflections on the way even crowds at baseball games used to wear suits and fedoras. Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” was blaring from speakers of the café where I was reading this, and I realized that Lavigne was answering Epstein. For Epstein, our casual clothes show that we think of ourselves as adolescents. In contrast, when Lavigne’s boyfriend puts on “preppy clothes,” she chews him out for being inauthentic. For Epstein, Lavigne’s world betrays and unbecoming refusal to grow up. For Lavigne, Epstein’s universe looks like pretentious and inegalitarian social climbing.
Why the difference? Epstein points to affluence, which allows modern Americans to put serious life-choices on hold for years. Affluence is key, it’s true-but I think the secret of our contrasting cultural modes lies in the connection between economic necessity and obligations to others. In Epstein’s examples of adulthood, the theme is responsibility for others. The Depression forced even youngsters to support a family. World War II taught discipline, cooperation, and risk in the service of a higher goal. Alan Greenspan’s careful words are obviously governed by his responsibility for others.
Formal clothes say that we are ready, willing, and able to subordinate ourselves to interests beyond ourselves. Adults have learned that discipline and sacrifice on behalf of someone or something else is actually a higher form of self-fulfillment. But to Epstein’s perpetual adolescents, the discipline and apparent uniformity of adulthood is both a repudiation of self, and a grasping at oppressive hierarchy.
What makes Lavigne appealing, though, is her secret participation in the pleasures of hierarchy. Lavigne seems to be fighting for egalitarian informality. Actually, she’s discovered a way to strike a pose of angry superiority-and enforced uniformity to boot.
By the way, for a very deep reflection on the connection between fashion, democracy, and modern culture, see Gilles Lipovetsky’s, The Empire of Fashion.