We have our pollsters and our market research people and our survey experts and our political soothsayers by the score, all in business to tell us what we think, what we want, how we've changed and why.
My favorite guide to the times comes from none of these sources, no matter how valuable individually or collectively. It always arrives about this time, just as summer and vacations end, Labor Day approaches, school starts and the real new year begins.
It rests before me as I write, and, as ever, doesn't let me down. It still provides the surest clue to where we are and where we're going. I refer to "Fashions of The Times," the annual offering of The New York Times Magazine, 280 pages of golden ads and breathless text previewing the latest in styles as dictated by the pooh-bahs of the fashion industry.
The look is luxury. It's back in glorious style.
Thematically, as the Times tells us, we seek the allure of luxury, and, it seems, we've found it. Or, as the Times puts it, in headlines and text, "At Long Last--Luxury.
"Thank goodness, it's back--that froth in the confection of language, that lovely whipped cream of a word--luxury.
"At this very moment, it is returning to its rightful place in the scheme of things, rescued from years of undeserved disrepute, restored from ignominious exile, refurbished, refreshed and ready to wallow in, wrapped around fabulous furs, buttery leathers, wonderful wools, gossamer chiffons and whispery silks. All courtesy of the fashion industry."
No longer do you have to feel shame-faced and sinful about indulging your lusts for luxury, we're told. The new allure of luxury makes everything okay. It's even going to be "an absolute bonanza for charities," because of "absolutely legitimate deductions on a tax return." Get your gown now for the charity ball and keep the receipt for the IRS.
After similar helpful advice, the Times gets right down to it:
"So luxury is back, and what does it all mean?"
I admire that kind of straightforward promise to examine and reveal all, that unblushing intent to answer the really cosmic questions. And the answer to what it all means becomes clear: "A lot more than meets the eye."
One thing it means involves the center of haute couture, the rarified designer salons of Paris. Tough times there, folks. The country's gone socialist, and it's hard not to be gloomy about selling the really good goods. But despairing they're not.
There's presently something of a state of defiance in Paris, it seems, a defense of luxury in the face of socialism, you know. Even though the couturiers know the tax bite will get really worse on people in the highest brackets, even with "many people expecting fewer parties and grand entertainments next year," even though they don't expect domestic sales to rise, they're not concerned.
The reason concerns change in the United States: "Several designers observed that, with Nancy Reagan in the White House setting the example, women in the United States will more likely be dressing festively next winter than will those in France."
There you have it, the explanation to all those elaborate color picture layouts of beautiful women swathed in layers of wool, silk, leather, or fur, posing in their $490 wool culotttes, $550 blouses, $998 suede skirts, $285 shawls, $1,421 wool coats, $3,200 molten gold evening gowns, $3,950 beaver jackets, all showing off the look that's In this year: the "casual luxe," "plush panache," "luxurious lingerie" (they fancy alliteration in these things), "sensuous satin" and the rest.
The Reagan era signals a new age of luxury, and you'd better get with it if you want to be In.
For the new luxe to debut in conjunction with Labor Day comes as a fitting coincidence.
All around us this weekend we hear set speeches of union leaders bemoaning the present. Lane Kirkland, who heads the AFL-CIO, tells Americans that organized labor, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, observes this holiday "in a mood of deep concern, for these are difficult and uncertain times, and we in the labor movement are troubled about the direction in which our country appears headed."
As well they might. Reagan's election further threatens trade unions, and the words their leaders speak are filled with metaphors of class struggle: the economic jungle and survival of the fittest, the capturing of the White House and the compliant Congress by forces of economic royalism, the assault on the hungry, the sick and the destitute by the wealthy and powerful, the big breaks for the special interests and the new writeoffs for the corporations and the rich.
So far none of this seems to have set off sparks among Americans, including union members who represent a minority of U.S. workers. The people like Reagan, and his style. They are not easily moved by summons to class warfare or warnings of economic oppression. And Reagan strikes just the right note of easy informality, the cowboy at rest, smiling and pleasant, that disarms his critics--again, at least so far.
How well he fares when he doffs his western jeans and open-collar shirt for Washington white tie and tails amid what appears likely to be greater economic difficulties ahead raises another prospect.
But for now herald the return of the new luxury, about to be installed back in its rightful place for this fall and winter season. Certainly as fashion it wears as well as other memorable imports. And as for all those grumblings from the workers, the fashion people know what we want and how to provide it. As another Parisian put it, let 'em eat cake anyway.
Note: Happy Endings Department:
Last month, in this space, I reported on the story of Clyde Slocumb, the former "Flying Tiger" shot down over Shanghai in 1945. Some weeks ago the Chinese man who saved his life and helped him escape tried to renew the old friendship by writing a letter, in Chinese, to "the Washington Mail," seeking help in finding Slocumb. He had only Slocumb's name and what he remembered to be his serial number.
After enterprising detective work by the Postal Service, Slocumb was located, the letter translated and delivered to him, and he and his Chinese friend were back in contact, by mail, after 36 years. They began a correspondence.
Another Flying Tiger of that time, Gerhard Neumann of Lynn, Mass., read the story and wrote Slocumb in his home town of Doerun, Ga. Neumann said he and his wife would be in Shanghai Oct. 4, as guests of the People's Republic of China, and "would be happy to deliver a small souvenir to your Chinese savior." He writes: "So Mr. Clyde Slocumb, now retired, sent me a beautifully engraved quartz wristwatch dated April 2, 1945 (the day of his bailout), to deliver to his Chinese friend Huang Ming-Chu. We shall try to meet this Chinese-American friend personally next month."