By Richard Goldstein
“…In the sixties the direction was toward breaking down the walls between people. Look for people to build them back up again…”
The great stone wheels of media are churning to the notion that a new urbanity is in the air. Art directors are photographing New York City as though it were a vodka ad. Models are posing against the Chrysler Building instead of waterfalls. Ordinary women are trying to look like Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon. People who used to think almost anything was more important than style are wearing jewelry and body oil. All the nuances of refinement have become important again, as though by striving for some personal definition of elegance one might stumble upon some essential quality to stand out against the violence and austerity of our days.
The return to elegance means that people of all classes will be favoring formal entertainment over serendipity: going to dinner parties, taking openings seriously, rediscovering the discothèque, hanging out in cafés. It also means a new appreciation of the city as a physical environment (very different from the anti-urban, back to nature movement); it means choosing clothing which looks good against the New York City landscape of tenements and skyscrapers, or posing draped against the chipped kneecaps of some general in Central Park. The one landmark that everyone is interested in preserving is the New York style. People are trying to behave like New Yorkers in the movies, taking very seriously the classic urban demeanor, which is haughty/irascible if you’re poor, and haughty/graceful if you’re rich.
All this is very different from dressing up in the sixties, when everyone wore costumes and you “evolved” from being a cowboy to being an Indian to being a farmer to being a saint. These days, you don’t wear your karma on your sleeve. The fantasy is in the texture of your clothes not in their associations. Color and cut express ambience, as do their styles and accessories. The idea is to be moody, and somewhat melodramatic, but without violating taste. This year, we can talk about fashion as a ritual people partake of in a deliberate way, like manners or romance. It has a certain formality to it, a stylization which is the essence of swank, and it’s important to realize that this formality applies to street fashion as much as it does haute couture.
This year’s idea is distance—in clothing, in manners, in art—a heightened consciousness of irony and effect. We seem to be passing from the age of touchies to a time of politesse. The direction in interpersonal behavior in the sixties was toward breaking down the walls between people. Look for people to start building them back up. An important aspect of glamour is invulnerability. Being fashionable demands a certain stylization of one’s inner emotions, the discipline which taste imposes. You can expect to see emotion vented in more traditional ways—through eloquence and wit—as public rage and undue candor become uncool. What we lose by this decision is all that psychologists have said about the relationship between emotional release and health. What we gain by this decision is a heightened sense of style.
Look for a surge in the culture of discothèques, the growth of neighborhood jazz clubs and boîtes, a burgeoning of pubs for hanging out (as opposed to cruising) as people who once considered themselves too soulful for bars begin to despair of organic cellars, where the soy sauce smells of Raid. At concerts, watch for heavy boozing and dancing in the aisles. No more nodding while the band plays on. Elegance demands that people work hard at making every gathering a great urban bash. Which means that going out will be a formal occasion for people of all ages—and that teenagers will be as involved in the nuances of urban demeanor and dress as anyone.
This year’s street swank is almost entirely a creation of Latins and blacks (as opposed to white hippies who dominated the field during the sixties), and that, too, reflects the traditional supremacy of non-whites on the turf of hip attire. During the late sixties, white teenagers abandoned Seventh Avenue for the Army-Navy stores. But this year, they will begin to pick up on a new street look, which is superbly suited for strutting with a radio pressed to your ear, and dancing chic to chic. This year’s dance looks a little like the rhumba, a little like the jitterbug, a little like the frug: but it’s nothing like the mishmash you did in bell bottoms.
Of course, you can’t strut in Earth Shoes; you can do it, but your feet will feel like halvah. And you can’t really dance in a denim jacket. You need something that will billow in the breeze. And that’s where street swank comes in: a silk shirt (open at the neck to show that triangle of savagery), a pair of baggy pants so the hips can move . . . soon you’re shoving the workshirts to the far side of the closet. And that is precisely what teenagers in the city are doing, relegating the entire hippie ethic to the suburbs and insisting on a formality more in keeping with the return of urban elegance. This seems to me the very attitude behind classicism in high fashion; rich people and poor people will look as different as they ever have, but they will share a respect for glamour amid violence and austerity, the classic urban pose.
All this is reminiscent of the forties, which was a golden age of grace under pressure. The forties revival commands attention in music and films; it has also become an essential fashion pose. What we seem to cherish about the forties is not the heroism of the little guy, but the muted iridescence of people who felt damned. Still, it would be a mistake to ignore the current of melancholy which runs though our concern with elegance. The mood is swanky, but it is also blue.
* A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 1973 issue of New York Magazine.