I wouldn’t say I’m a fashionable person. I don’t really follow fashion at all. I don’t keep up on trends or what’s in or out of style. From what I gather, I’d need to pick up a few pairs of skinny jeans, trucker hats, a fixie, and a self-righteous hipster attitude to catch up and fit in a bit better. Not that I don’t have style, though. Everyone does, it’s inevitable. I know what I’m comfortable wearing. Jeans, t-shirt, and my boots. Professional, fashionable, well, maybe not. But it’s my style and I’m sticking to it.
All that said, I do love style as a topic. The history of style, the evolution of style, the psychology of style. How does style emerge, how does it evolve? What influences its changes, and what does that say about the society in which it exists?
It’s interesting to consider style not as a modern concept, but that it’s always been around. As long as there have been civilizations, there has been style. (It’s an ever-present, ever-changing, indefinable concept, just like culture.) And within those civilizations, there’s stratification and class structure. So I guess you could say that the history of all hitherto existing society has been the history of style struggle.
Think of archeological digs, ancient history, what you find in museums. Jewelry from Mesopotamia, Egypt. Lapis lazuli, ivory, gold, bronze… necklaces, beads, rings, etc. Fashion, the garb of the wealthy. People decorating themselves in certain elaborate ways to show their identity, wealth, and social class. I don’t know, maybe it’s not so interesting, but for me I think it’s pretty wild to flip through fashion channels on TV and consider that the fashion industry has been around for thousands of years. If prostitution’s the oldest profession in the world, fashion has to be up there too. Somebody had to dress the prostitutes up.
So what influences changes in style over time? How does it evolve? How long will the hipster wave last until it crashes, and what will the next wave look like? Along with a discussion of evolution of style is the idea of the culture/counter-culture dialectic. And for this, look no further than the fantastic documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, about the arrival of “skater” culture in LA in the 1970s. Ten or fifteen kids created a new style, they pushed the boundaries, broke rules and were bad asses, and it was cool. And it spread. And all of a sudden what these kids had created in an LA ghetto took the country by storm, and became popular culture. These kids were now famous, for good or for ill. But what’s initially attractive about the style of the counter-culture is its difference, its breath of fresh air, how it questions the status quo. But then it becomes popular. And then that initial spontaneous energy, that beautiful spark, can often turn into a destructive blaze that destroys its initial appeal, and sometimes, its creators.
I like this idea of the evolution of style as a dialectic. I’m sure it’s overly simplified, as when you distance yourself from the past, it’s easy to draw lines and map progression, but the closer you get to the present, the murkier it all becomes. And I’d like to believe that the evolution of style is spontaneous and genuine, but it’s probably not the case. Unfortunately, the world’s driven by money, so the almighty dollar is probably behind the progression of whatever the current cultural or counter-cultural styles are dominant. But how does it all work behind the scenes?
What influences style, and how does it vary depending on place? I’m surprised now by the dominant style in Georgia. Before I came I followed some forums, and most people said to bring black clothing, as everyone wears black. I thought, okay, I guess most people wear dark colors. Maybe I’ll bring some dark shirts or something. It slipped my mind. When I got here, though, it hit me: wow. Everyone wears all black, all the time. An exaggeration, sure, but it’s not too far from the truth. I’ll stand up in front of a class, and it will be a sea of black. Black pants and black leather jackets for the guys, and the women usually have black on too (but vary from the leather jackets.) Old women hobble down the road in black shawls, old men stand on the side of the road, chain-smoking, in black from head to toe. But it varies, too. Sometimes it’s very shabby black clothing. But young people like to make it stylish. Diesel, Armani, D&G, all sorts of other designer brands of black jackets out there wandering the Georgian streets. Since this is Georgia, and they’re all dealing with a Georgian salary, I assume they’re ripoffs bought in the bazaar, but still – this is highly fashionable black on black.
But why all the black? I’ve heard some say it’s the tradition in Georgia. In our orientation week, the question was raised in the “intercultural learning” section. Our trainer said that it’s indeed partly due to tradition. That it grows out of the custom of wearing black clothing during the mourning period following a death. I forget whether she said that everyone was in mourning all the time that it sort of caught on, or whether people wore black for extended periods of time to mourn tragedies for the Georgian nation, but the answer I’ve heard is that it’s emerged out of a sense of mourning.
(Far be it from me to presume that a nation wears black all the time due to prolonged periods of death and sadness, this is simply an explanation I’ve heard. But the rest of my thoughts on the issue hinge on this poorly defended explanation, and the podium is mine! I recognize the undefended pawn in my argument, but still I press on. Silence! Protesters be damned! Stop reading, never visit this blog again for all I care! Know, however, that my rambling on the issue will continue!)
So. (If this is a plausible explanation for the high percentage of Georgians wearing black, and for the sake of a few more paragraphs, it is.) What does this say about a nation, whose sense of style and fashion has evolved from a tradition of mourning and sadness? In many Eastern European countries, the nationalist version of their own history tends to fall a wee bit on the side of playing the victim. Stories of how they were victims of horrors by all their neighbors. (Not that they weren’t but most of these stories leave out the horrors that they committed against a bunch of other people.) So I’ve heard statistics about people smiling in public in Western vs Eastern European countries, and they usually range. I’ve heard different things. (The Czechs, no, it’s the Hungarians, no, it’s the Russians, no, it’s the Ukrainians, smile the least.) But it’s true. People generally don’t walk around smiling all the time in the Eastern European countries I’ve been to. Which is okay for me, as I don’t either. I feel like I kind of fit in, walking around, scowling all the time. (Why smile if you’re just feeling normal? Smiling is for when you feel happier than you normally feel! Smiles are reserved for special occasions. You don’t want to cheapen your smile.) But I’ve never heard of a country that had so much sadness that they turned mourning dress into the dominant fashion style.
No, people don’t meet your eye in the street, smile and ask how you are all the time. This isn’t to say that everyone just looks sad all the time, though. There are plenty of expressions of emotion. Walking down the street, or riding in a marshrutka, you’re bound to encounter angry men gesticulating wildly and shouting violently. It looks like someone’s going to get their teeth knocked in!Or even in the classroom, arguments sound horribly violent. Well, Georgian men love to argue, I’m told. Not that they get into fights, I’m just told, and have experienced, they just really like to yell.
Well, what about at supras, at the traditional Georgian feasts? Oh, god, that’s nothing but emotion there, and it’s not sad or angry in the least. There are vast amounts of food, Georgian music and dancing, not to mention unhealthy amounts of wine and cha-cha. No, they’re not sad. But I feel I must take this happiness with a grain of salt. (What I’d like to find is an expression of pure joy of being.) A supra, I think, is less a purely happy occasion, and is more a prideful celebration. On one hand, it’s very nationalistic. It’s a Georgian tradition, this is a celebration of Georgia. Georgian food, Georgian wine, Georgian music, Georgian dance. Not that I’m criticizing at all, no, it’s a happy occasion, but I feel it’s rooted in national pride. (I feel it’s also a celebration primarily by men, for men. So male pride in there too.) The wine is always flowing, too, so there’s happiness there as well. But aren’t the joys of drunkenness simply communal delight in the act of forgetting? (Plus, homemade wine and liquor leads to wicked hangovers.) So supras. I recognize that they are happy occasions, but I’d still like to find an example of pure, unadulterated joy.
I witnessed one such moment a few days ago. It had rained for about a week, and then there were a few days of nice, warm weather and sunshine. Me and British host brother (I’ll call him the Expert, because that’s his official chess ranking, I believe) went for a walk. He had not yet been up to the Bagrati cathedral, so we went and sat on the fortress walls, enjoying a few brief moments of peace, sunshine and a beautiful clear day. And then, below the walls, in the grassy area of the cathedral, I saw a stray dog. He was playing all alone. Running around in circles, and rolling around on its back, without anyone chasing it, or throwing a ball or anything. Completely spontaneous. And then it disappeared back into some alley, presumably to lay down in the sun. I could feel the faint traces of a smile emerge on my face and remarked to the Expert: “You know, that is the single happiest thing I’ve seen here. That was amazing.” The image has stuck with me.
I don’t want to say that everything or everyone is sad here, that’s not my intent, and it’s not how I feel. (But you just made a whole entry about how sad Georgian style is and then concluded with how the happiest thing you’ve seen in is a dog playing in the sun, you twit! you readers, who have stuck with me after my weak pawn move earlier, will inevitably respond.) Yes, I know, but it really isn’t how I feel. (And how the hell did you conclude with that stupid dog, having started out with talking about Mesopotamian jewelry and Dogtown and Z-Boys? That one, I can’t give much of an answer. Doesn’t make much sense to me either.)
Things here do tend to land a bit on the darker end of the spectrum, what with the recent war, years of turmoil before that, and many years of living under the Soviets. (And I acknowledge that I tend towards a darker personality as well.) But to paraphrase “The Laughing Heart,” a Bukowski poem: there’s light out there, and it beats the dark. And if you’re actually looking for it, you’re more likely to find it. So. I saw a dog playing, rolling around in the sun, and I was amazed at an expression of pure, unadulterated joy. So I’m looking, I’m on the watch.
Have I come to any conclusions about Georgian style, or the evolution of style at all? Well, no, not at all, really. This could all even be horribly offensive! And in the while I’ve been mulling this topic over, I couldn’t have thought I’d have concluded my musings about style with such an anecdote. It even seems silly to me. But isn’t there something delightful in spontaneity?