Looking back, especially from the perspective of a brain on fashion, requires a certain amount of rose-hued nostalgia. For instance, I would not actually like to live where my style fantasies are located, in the ’40s and ’50s. As racist/homophobic/transphobic as we are today, everyone knows we’ve come a long way since the stewardess butt-slapping, pre-Stonewall era, as Mad Men regularly reminds us.
But, on the other hand, sometimes a guy ends up at a dance night and sees that the swag has now rapid cycled from neon to flannel, and said guy just gets depressed. These are the decades we’re glorifying? I mean I get the parallel of the morally reprehensible economic booms of the ’80s and aughts, and the grunge backlash of the ’90s was in response to that ’80s yuck, but grunge was…I’m sorry, high school self, but grunge was silly looking.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking around today. Once again we’ve got city slickers going way over-the-top with salt-of-the-earth hunting gear, looking more like fat cats with country homes than damn-the-Man New Hampshire Libertarians. Don’t get me wrong, I think heritage brands like Woolrich Wollen Mills or doing a bang up job. Just a) take one thing off, dood and b) remember that the only people who can really afford to look like cabin-in-the-woods pheasant hunters in the city are the Man. (And I’m not even touching the recent blue collar fashion fetish a la Levi’s “We Are all Workers” campaign, but check out Carrie Leilam Love’s recent post and the comments beneath it for an important discussion on the complexities of appropriation and race/class/culture.)
In moments of sartorial weirdness/confusion/burn out, I often comfort myself by returning to the classics. And, for me, style inspiration has remained remarkably consistent across time. Style hero: classy James Dean, rebel with a little bit of an intellectual, poet-y vibe, like so:
Nice, right? So today, for your pleasure, I have curated an alternative vision of anti-Wall Street, non-normative, bohemian rebellion. Motorcycles! Poetry! Leather bars! I’m talking about, of course, the counterculture of the post-War years!
Those were not so good times for a lot of America, no doubt. The Man was, literally, a Man–back from war and stealing jobs from the obviously capable woman who’d replaced him. MLK was just getting started. The (white) Man was really fucking things up for everybody.
Meanwhile, teenagers, with their attendant hormones and lack of responsibility, got to stop dying in war and became, instead, a social class who spent a majority of their time giving Mom and Dad the finger. And the bohemians, though often white men themselves, were dropping out and forming an anti-establishment creative class that required way more guts than today’s maverick counterparts: wired, endlessly self-referential, and potentially sociopathic Mark Zuckerberg types. Oh, and all of us day job-y or starving artists. Not so romantic.
And, I mean, imagine: back then people were freaking out about poetry! When I say that my gender is “poet,” this is what I mean:
These guys are all about the subtle signifiers. Like the ’90s emphasis on throwing out the suit and tie, Beats and Bohos said Fuck this to fedoras and suited up in crew necks, work shirts, and Levis. But, even with all the bad ass dishevelment, their shit FIT.
And, again, poets were the ultimate rebels. Sensitivity wasn’t a whiny, emo mark of ostracism stemming from years of pseudo-traumatic elementary school teasing or learning you weren’t actually the center of the universe. It was a badge of artistic honor, a lens in which to see the world. Sensitivity was (actually) sexy.
This kind of rebellious, languid masculinity is, of course, the hallmark of James Dean, as well. He wasn’t a poet (that I know of) but he had a poet’s soulful face. He also had something rough about him, a fact I attribute in part to his association with motorcycles and other sources of speed (of course, ultimately, this was a tragic association indeed).
Motorcycle clubs were swiftly earning a reputation for violence, which culminated, of course, in the super-scary ’60s-era Hell’s Angels. But forget the crazy outliers–hardcore Bikers (as evidence by the metaphorical positioning of the Dykes on Bikes at Pride parades) have long been the leading edge of counterculture. And the 1947 Hollister riot + its immortalization in Brando’s The Wild One (1953) set the stage for a relationship between bikes and social outsider-dom that maintains to this day.
Plus, they look amazing. A little later on the timeline, but check these guys out:
I love bikers. And to bring this back around, there’s a way that outlaw motorcycle culture can merge with refinement and poetics without losing the lone wolf edge. It’s definitely possible to class a bike way up:
And maybe this combination of masculinity, marginalization, and aesthetics is part of the queer appeal that so resonated with the gay leather community, also in its infancy in the post-War years:
Look at these two:
If you were to write a story about them, what would it be? I know that my favorite sort of biker is the gentleman above. He’s hit the balance between refined and ruffian perfectly, and I imagine that his lady friend is brassy and quick. I like to think that, right after this shot was taken, they took off for San Francisco and met up with the Beats, had experimental gay sex and whiskey-fueled nights, and then settled down and wrote each other epic, lifelong odes; there, in that last Bohemia, so long ago.