Zissou! On Iconic Apparel

One of my favorite assignments in my AP English class was the villanelle.  As an aspiring poet, I enjoyed the challenge of being forced to work within such a profoundly structured, antiquated form: five tercets followed by a quatrain! Nerd!

The point is that I appreciate the concept of assigning a stringent formal challenge and seeing what happens. I also love the idea of iconic fashion: like Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou and his team of orange hats in The Life Aquatic, I like the subtle originality that blossoms when people wear a uniform.


The Life Aquatic: HAT


I like anticipating similarity (orange hat: check) and then seeing the way people express themselves even when limited in their apparel:




Why am I thinking about this? Because I am seriously considering imposing on myself a fashion challenge: three months of black t-shirts. I’ve been thinking particularly about the appeal of the classic. The black t-shirt serves as a clear-cut fashion basic and a great canvas over which to explore a diversity of styles.

James Franco: Black T-Shirt as Dean

I mean, look at James Franco! Granted, James Franco would probably look awesome in a neo-Rave neon explosion, but bear with me. His style here obviously echos the cool confidence of James Dean: a man who knew the benefits of picking a look and sticking with it. But Franco updates the look with a fitted, expensive-looking designer motorcycle jacket.

There’s something kind of gorgeous about bucking trends (hiking boots! Mountain men! Muscles are the new skinny! Pendleton x EVERYBODY) for something you really believe in, something tried and true and, ultimately, timeless. I love the idea of waking up, throwing on the black t-shirt and deciding: dress up or dress down? Rebel or gentleman?

Speaking of, take a look at the master himself: Mr. Dean. A quick Google search proves that the guy practically lived in black and white: turtlenecks, t-shirts, collars and button ups. The end. None of this fussy pattern nonsense. I bet his closet was a monochromatic dream:




Leave the rebel/gentleman out of it for a minute. How can you consider style iconography and sheer commitment to a look without thinking about Andy Warhol?



I mean, talk about epic. I worked as an Artist/Educator several years ago at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and I used to contemplate on a daily basis Warhol’s religious devotion to the (shhh) wig. One of Warhol’s many projects was his own fame, and he was so brilliant at creating an enduring image through repetition. He understood, as did Dean, the effect of committing to something concrete.

Iconic looks are consistent. They can manifest in something as highly visible as Warhol’s hair or as subtle as Dean’s cool color reduction but, however you slice it, you recognize it immediately.

Maybe it’s that we live in the Age of the Internet–by which I mean the iPhone upgrade, the 80’s fashion flashbacks, the pomo-nerd-chic, the 90’s fashion flashbacks (?! WHY), the BIGGERBETTERFASTERMORE–but we seem to have lost sight of the concept of picking something and sticking to it. I mean how horrifying is it that this is what Jon Hamm dresses like this when he’s not playing the most stylish man on television:


Mom Jeans


Or that the most consistently well-dressed actor of this generation is also our most ironic, self-conscious and obnoxious:


Dork Chic


And I get the irony of the fact that Wes Anderson is how I got into this whole topic in the first place, but that man gets the concept of enduring style even if it is precious:


The Royal Tenenbaums



Anyway, I find a disconcerting flippancy in this moment of chameleon style and super-groomed celebrities. There’s something startlingly inauthentic about it all. I am disturbed by the lack of appreciation for the classic, the enduring, the rugged cool of the well-fit, good looking commitment to a capital-L Look.

In other words:  the black t-shirt experiment is officially on.


About Thomas Page McBee

Gentleman first, always. James Dean is my patron saint, poet is my gender. More about me here: www.thomaspagemcbee.com


  1. Michael von Braithwaite

    This is inspirational. Now I REALLY want to try all monochromatic outfits. Head to toe, navy. Head to toe, black. Head to toe, white or cream. And then really awesome accessories.

  2. Michelle Tea

    This is SO GOOD! I am really looking forward to hearing the results of your experiment!

  3. carrieleilamlove

    this is so interesting! i am really into the ways that individuality is asserted despite uniform dress, it is absolutely a poetic exercise to notice and document this. also i would die if i just had to wear one color all the time. but the idea is calming. maybe i should try it too, like a fashion cleanse. hmmmm…..

  4. Leo Plass

    A friend and I were team Zissou for Halloween once. Someone kept calling my friend Papa Smurf all night.

  5. Pingback: Winter Boot Economics « Ironing Board Collective

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