Walking in my neighborhood on a recent sunny Sunday morning I noticed a young and attractive family out for a brisk walk. The father, mother, and newborn stroller-bound baby appeared to be soaking in the breezes and sunshine that made the morning of November 8, 2009 exceptionally beautiful in Lake Worth, Florida. I enjoy observing people in my neighborhood, particularly those that appear to be content and accomplished (probably because they do not appear to fit in what is mostly a border-line lower-income white neighborhood of over-the hill hippies, immigrants, and retirees). The wife, an attractive petite woman in her early thirties, was wearing tight and form-fitting workout wear that articulated a curvy figure, that, along with her confident gait, gave her an air of impetuous eroticism rarely displayed by women when they are with their children. When I looked down to examine her footwear my budding ardour was suddenly stricken down by her rubber and plastic Crocs. What made matters worse were the multiple pairs of Crocs worn by the entire family as if they were some form of signifier representing their political and social standing. In much the same way people used to wear Rene Lacoste alligator shirts in the 1980s, Crocs have become a type of status symbol for 30-something families who wish to project an illusion of comfort, practicality, and accomplishment.
How rubber and plastic, made from petroleum products, can be construed as accomplished or comfortable is only one obvious question that first appeared to me on that walk. Another may be how someone can find hideous, formless, rubber footwear filled with holes and held together with a riveted rear strap “stylish”. But alas, taste, as in beauty and love, is in the eye of the beholder and is also directly proportional to one’s independence of thought. That I find these “shoes” an affront to human dignity and appalling, is a reflection of my aesthetics. What most disturbs me about this fashion and all trends, is how Crocs are a relatively recent example of conformist thinking arrived at as a result of successful marketing campaigns geared toward a particular demographic, in this case a white pseudo-progressive upper middle class family. Those who wear Crocs are not only guilty of bad taste (in my mind) but also pop-culture brain-washing (perhaps their greatest offense). This guilt was a double wound to the visual sphere because once a Croc-wearer leaves the privacy of her home and enters the outside world the first offense of bad taste towards oneself (betraying a demeaned sense of self-worth), is compounded by polluting the visual sphere of a community.
Worse still is how Croc-wearers typify the continuing decline of self-respect and dignity when it comes to American social and fashion mores. Crocs are the final blow to fashion decorum that has pushed the United States over the cliff and into the abyss of “comfort and pragmatism”. This emphasis on practicality, coupled with the American obsession with “comfort,” was perpetuated by such monstrosities as Birkenstock sandals, flip-fops, and a seemingly infinite number of bad t-shirts and inane ball caps. American society has so degraded its understanding of formality and the difference between the private and the public realms that there is no longer any concern for one’s appearance in the world.
The notion of formal attire or respect for one’s community as displayed through one’s clothing and comportment, now seems a quaint and distant thought, like good manners and glamour in films from the 1940s. If we think of one who is dignified as one who is worthy of esteem, respect, and honor, then Crocs are attack on our collective dignity because they betray an inability to show esteem for both our individual and communal appearance. Crocs are an affront to good taste and a betrayal of the social fashion contract precisely because they demean those who wear them.
I remember hating the polyester green pants and dress shirts I was forced to wear at my Catholic high school, Cardinal Newman, in West Palm Beach. In hindsight, I am grateful for the experience because dress codes strip away the potential for fashion harm and competition and streamline appearances so that the task at hand, in my case, learning, can take priority. The interesting thing about our high school dress code was that we were still able to convey an individual sense of self and construct our identities through our choice of footwear. Our shoes are the single most important marker about our relationship to fashion, and hence, to our anonymous visual world. In my high school the preppy girls (this was the 1980s) wore burgundy dress penny loafers. The rich boys wore leather boat shoes, sometimes referred to as “docksiders” and the cool artistic dudes (like my friends and I) wore some form of Converse or Nike shoe (This was before Nike started exporting the majority of its manufacturing to sweatshops and before Nike came to be a cultural signifier for sports in general and Afro-American cool in particular).
When I was growing up it was paramount that regardless of my youthful protestations, I had to wear suits and ties to our Greek Orthodox Church, weddings, baptisms, and any other important community event. Women had to wear dresses, their best shoes, and so forth. This was not some sort of fashion competition or test for status. Rather, this collective sense of propriety in dress was meant to signal a respect for our community, our Greek culture, and for our religion. One simply did not go to church wearing jeans, t-shirts or anything resembling casual wear. It was just not done and it was a formative experience that taught me the relationship between fashion and dignity, formality and informality and when each was appropriate.
Lest one say that money is a factor in wearing good clothing I respond with two words: thrift stores. I have found handsomely-tailored high quality wool European three-piece suits on many occasions for less than $20! Money is not a factor in looking good any more than it buys love or makes one great. All dignity through fashion takes is imagination, effort, and respect for one’s self. A decent upbringing that comes with a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong in one’s appearance as much as morality in general also helps.
It is true that clothes do not make the man and that the man makes the clothes. In fact, the relationship is more symbiotic than we may care to admit but the bottom line is that we make choices with what we wear. These choices say so much about us. These choices present ourselves to our world and represent our relationship to our self-esteem and our esteem for our community. When we degrade these relationships with ill-informed choices or poor taste or when we are negligent with our appearance in the name of “comfort” or “trends” we demean ourselves in the process and our collective self-worth suffers for it as much as our good taste does.