Naked Philosophers and the Dream of the ’90s is Alive in This Vest

One of the nice things about moving–which I’m doing today, Lord help me–is that you rediscover things you didn’t remember coveting.  And if you’re a pack rat with zero attention span like I am, then basically every corner of every room holds some treasure that you totally obsess over and then forget about the very second you put it down.

Take John Harvey’s 2008 book Clothes, which I bought at the tail end of my lengthy career in bookstore retail.  Dreading the loss of my employee discount, I went nuts buying every new book with a halfway decent cover.  (That saying about books and covers and judgment: a lie.)  And Clothes has a really nice cover!  See:

The Complete Idiot's Guide To How to Keep a Year-Round Farmer's Tan.

It’s part of Acumen Publishing’s The Art of Living series, in which various British academics tackle really general topics about how we live.  (Other titles in the series: Fame, Deception, Sport, Illness…)

Clothes is also short–124 pages, if you don’t count the bibliography–which makes it an ideal book to read on the morning that you’re moving out of your apartment.  I mean, sort of…  I legally have about eleven hours left until this place isn’t mine anymore, and I have, I don’t know, maybe 63 hours of packing and cleaning and hauling and spackling to do before then.  Ha!  Good times, good times.

I did, however, at least take some time this morning to read the first chapter, “Why can’t we trust our clothes?”, in which Harvey lays out all the various philosophers and semiologists who think of clothes as a disguise of the real self.  From the Bible to Nietzsche, from that big jerk Plato to that bigger jerk Heidegger, the clothes themselves are usually the villain in these arguments.  Even those sympathetic to the cultural force of clothing tend to view it rather harshly:  Economist Thorstein Veblen, for instance, saw clothing as a class war wherein the poor attempt to dress like the rich and the rich respond by changing their styles so as not to be confused with the poor.  And so forth.

My favorite observation, from the 20 percent of this very short book that I’ve actually read, is this:  that philosophical and academic discussions of clothing are nearly always written with a nonsensical degree of distance.  “[T]here is a curious effect,” Harvey says, “when an author begins to write about clothes…he comes to speak of clothes as though always they are worn by other people…as though they themselves neither wore clothes nor went naked.  They place themselves in the unimaginable.”  Take that, Kierkegaard!

If Thorstein Was A Rich Man (Da da da-da da da da-da da da da...)

Next week, hopefully, I will have a more thorough opinion on the book, once I am done wondering where the hell to store these 30 or so other boxes of perfectly good books that I can’t take to my new place.  (I am not exaggerating, sadly, and will take any/all suggestions.)  In the meantime, I just thought I’d mention something I found in my back hallway, which I see every day but never think about: my duct tape vest.

It’s not the first garment I ever “made” myself…  Though I came to DIY costuming rather late in the ’90s, my senior year of high school was spent wearing a home-stenciled “du bist sehr schöen” t-shirt.  That is, until my physics teacher politely though tragically pointed out to me that I had actually spelled “schöen” without the “e.”

But no, this is something even nerdier and more terrible than a physics teacher pointing out a German typo (spraypaint-o?)!

Yes, Darling, But Is It Art?

I had no idea how to make shapes, so I took my least-favorite t-shirt as a starting point.  The t-shirt was the official shirt of my Academic Decathlon team, and there were photos of the whole team looking up and down and sideways at each other like The Brady Bunch.  Except that we were… are you ready for this?… The BRAINY Bunch.

I was at least smart enough to cover that up as quickly as possible, and the result was a slightly-functional garment that I wore once, nearly sweated to death in, got made fun of a lot for, and then hung up as a treasured possession of my reckless youth (or whatever), until today, when I decided that it belonged in the trash once and for all.

Before I go, some details:  one of me, and one of the Academic Decathlete that all the girls (and boys) had a crush on:

Dreamboat Nerd ca. 1997.

Portrait of the Blogger As A Young Man.


About Matthew Lawrence

Probably I am taller than you. I am not good with children. I publish a magazine called Headmaster. I could go on. is my website.


  1. It’s been a good ten years since I took a critical theory class, but didn’t Judith Butler have some nice things to say about clothing? As in, it’s a lie, but we’re all liars, so let’s have some fun. Also, Dick Hebdige wrote a not-too-stuffy book called Subculture: The Meaning of Style, and you get the feeling he does actually wear clothes. Possibly even duct tape vests.

  2. Pingback: Multimedia Alert! Teddy Girls in Image and Sound « Ironing Board Collective

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