In Pattern Recognition, William Gibson describes his heroine's style of dress thusly:
CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units. That's what [her friend] Damien calls the clothing she wears. CPUs are either black, white, or gray, and ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention.
What people take for relentless minimalism is a side effect of too much exposure to the reactor-cores of fashion. This has resulted in a remorseless paring-down of what she can and will wear. She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000.
Reading Cayce's principles of fashion laid out so clearly struck a chord of recognition; the passage revealed that my garment selection algorithm isn't much different. Most of my clothes shopping up to this point has been guided by raw, unadulterated instinct: either something "feels" aesthetically right and I buy it, or it doesn't. It usually doesn't; I'm lucky to dig up two or three suitable items per hour under normal shopping conditions. Only now have I realized why this is: I'm scanning for shirts, pants, shoes and the like that possess the widest possible chronological range of normality, and those are a tiny minority.
This means that if I could have worn a particular garment "to a general lack of comment" for the last ten years straight, it's acceptable. (Though several of the more regrettable sartorial trends of 1999 remain with us today, visors, baggy khaki shorts with chunky fabric belts and frosted-tip pointy-in-the-front haircuts seem, happily, to have bitten the dust.) If I could have done the same for the last twenty, it's solid. If I could have worn it since 1979, it's choice. If I could have worn it for an uninterrupted four or more decades, I must purchase it on the spot; money is no object. I have, as yet, been unable to find anything truly amenable to Cayce Pollard's 1945-2000 stretch, though I haven't stopped looking. I do find that the mindset narrows the range of available colors, though. Good old black, white and gray would have looked as reasonably normal in the past as they do in the present, and I find that certain shades of blue have put in a fine show through the decades. Note that, as with any other element of design, colors that were only normal in a previous era aren't acceptable: just because burnt orange and avocado green were str8 money in the 1970s doesn't mean they're the colors to choose now, even if they happen to undergo a revival. The key is continuous normality.
This, it seems, is my hack to answer the central question of fashion: how to avoid the Scylla of looking like an energy-drink-pounding tool of 2009 and the Charybdis of looking like an out-of-it Aspertarian who mistakenly believes spending time and energy on his appearance to be beneath him? Thinking is no protection, nor is the ability to do so an exemption. As Paul Graham observes in "What You Can't Say":
Whatever the reason, there seems a clear correlation between intelligence and willingness to consider shocking ideas. This isn't just because smart people actively work to find holes in conventional thinking. I think conventions also have less hold over them to start with. You can see that in the way they dress.
The tightrope between dweeb and D-bag is of a frightfully thin gauge; donning an Ed Hardy t-shirt and harshly-angled pleather shoes with oversized buckles is as fatal a move as yanking beige socks up to knee height above elaborately velcro'd sandals and below triple-pleated Dockers. Asking myself "How long ago could I have started wearing this?" provides a quick and dirty navigational heuristic.
This works especially well for footwear, a shopping trip for which I happened to make just this weekend. When I last posted about shoes, I sung the stylistic praises of the Adidas Samba, the Puma Turin and the Converse Farley:
In addition to some replacement Sambas — I should just buy like thirty pairs at once and work my way through them for the rest of my life — my latest journey into the brush bagged me the Timberland Toya Lake and the Puma Benny Breaker:
The Timberlands I've actually owned before; they're a model (and broader style) I used to wear all the time in high school, and now I actually miss them. My creeping fears of teenage atavism notwithstanding, I do find that they actually do damn well in the time test; they'd have flown at least two, two and a half decades back, right? And I feel as if the Pumas would serve me well if I were suddenly thrust back in time as far as the later 1960s. (If skater Vans sold in the middle of that decade, these particular Pumas would do just fine.)
But you've probably already identified the gaping hole in my shopping strategy: how does it prevent a descent into the no-win mire of ironic hipsterdom? Most wearables with the sort of timelessness I'm talking about (though I try not to use that term) have a somewhat "retro" flavor by their very nature, so I feel as if I ride a dangerous line. There are a few simple hacks that help ("Don't buy anything at Urban Outfitters"), but as yet I see no better strategy than brute force vigilance. One point on my side: hipsters tend to choose clothes that are not only not aesthetically pleasing in the context of 2009, but were never aesthetically pleasing in any era.