It is inspiriting that, in an age of excess and in a nation not long on understatement, Bill Blass has given an example of almost Athenian moderation. Blass, a "designer" who has just given the world its first "designer chocolates" (candy with his initials on it), has rejected a request to bring forth designer caskets.
But perhaps it is immoral for such a promising field of enterprise to be left fallow. The living are denied the delicious anticipation of being laid to rest in a casket with green-and-red Gucci stripes, or with an Oscar de la Renta fragrance, or Yves St. Laurent emblem. Death where would your sting be then?
The most ubiquitous designer things are designer jeans. They raise this question: why do millions of Americans pay a premium to turn their bottoms into billboards advertising Bill Blass, Calvin Klein and other entrepreneurs? John Brooks, a writer who senses hysteria beneath the skin of American consuming, suggests an answer in his book "Showing Off in America."
Brooks applies to contemporary America the categories of Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Class" (1899). Veblen argued that snobbery and social pretensions--"fighting with property"-- play an especially large role in egalitarian societies. American society is ideologically and actually egalitarian, with upward mobility and no hereditary aristocracy. So status is tantalizingly up for grabs. For that reason, status is much more of an obsession than it is where it is limited and assigned.
Remember the 1950s? Books deploring "conformity" were mass-marketed--everyone was reading them. They expressed the perennial American anxiety about being submerged in a homogenized crowd. Today's "designer" products are little lifebelts for people eager to bob to the surface.
The proliferation of "designer" products serves what Veblen called "conspicuous consumption." It is the old business of seeking reputability through competitive display. But today, unlike earlier eras, the coveted display is of "style," not wealth. Brooks argues that today the most effective style of status seeking is a style that mocks status seeking. It is status seeking with a clear conscience, or at least with minimal embarrassment. It is seeking status in denim.
Societies are defined, in part, by their regularities. A regularity of our democratic civilization is regular elections; but another characterizing regularity is the annual model change in the automobile industry. It injects inequalities into one of the most egalitarian markets. Everyone can own a car, but you still have to hustle to keep up with the Jones' new model.
Jeans, too, are a democratic commodity. Or they were before they fell into the hands of Calvin and Gloria and the rest. Now jeans are instruments for competition involving gradations of style.
Jeans have given rise to sociology. Charles Reich, author of the worst book since the invention of printing ("The Greening of America" in 1970), saw jeans as symbols of Consciousness III, "the sensual beauty of a creative, loving, unrepressed life." Marshall McLuhan said, "Jeans represent a rip-off and a rage against the establishment."
What rot. Designer jeans (the "designer" element is, I gather, stitching on the back pockets) are a response of corporate commerce to the masses' desire for individuality.
I, like Brooks, am intrigued by magazine advertisements for Dewars scotch. You know the kind: "I'm Judy Jones, 28. I am your basic sky-diving, Everest-climbing, Mozart-adoring, Proust-memorizing Boston astrophysicist, and I drink Dewars."
To whom are such ads supposed to appeal? Twenty-eight-year-olds? Bostonians? Mozart listeners? Proust readers? Mountain climbers? Sky divers? Astrophysicists? No, such ads are supposed to sell whisky to middle-aged businessmen in Duluth who read Luke Short westerns and listen to Dolly Parton and who (or so Dewars hopes) want to think they are like that paragon, Judy Jones.
I think--I hope--hell's bells, I know: Duluth businessmen have more sense. But there is a low hum of anxiety in America. It is too low for the ear to hear, but it is insistently felt by the American soul. It is the fear of not measuring up to shifting standards of style.
It is enough to drive a person to drink, perhaps even to drink Dewars, or to offer a friend chocolate candy adorned with the initials of a stranger like Bill Blass. That is something for the sober middle class to ponder as it grazes through Bloomingdale's in search of the Jordache look.