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Michael Bettencourt

To Clothe Their Nakedness

One can't take the New York City subway system every day and not become a fashion critic.  No Fashion Week runways can keep stride with the thousands of choices thousands of people make every day to clothe their nakedness and go forth into our fallen world.


My use of the word "fashion" applies mostly to women, since the men colonizing where I travel (the Wall Street area) don't really display "fashion," if we mean by that word variety in color, shape, and function with a nuance of flair or humor.  Suits, ties (sometimes), button-down Oxford shirts, and single-tone shoes – those are the Wall Street district male uniforms.


Many women seem to believe that skin-fitting tights – tights that look like (but aren't) jeans and tights that are just tights (or "leggings") – really do function as outerwear rather than underwear. I disagree, in part because tights do not clothe the nakedness but, instead, highlight it.  I wish to know my fellow humans but not whether they are wearing thongs or to see flanks and buttocks stuffed into clothing like a chorizo.


But it's not just tights.  There seems to be a constant warring between the amplitude of many women's bodies and their desire to deny that amplitude by shoehorning it into wide-hipped but narrow-legged jeans, topped off (or bottom-offed) by shoes with heels ending in a little nub of rubber or leather.  The image is of an inverted pyramid trying to defy gravity and deny its bulk.


(And oftentimes low-slung jeans, where the back belt loop is stressed downward by a stretched belt and butt-cracks rise up with any forward bend.  Butt-cracks male or female are a sight that makes for sore eyes.)


Knee-high pirate-type leather boots with those tights – also a wide choice for women.  Not sure what effect they are going for, but I imagine an epée in hand as they stride down the concourse.


Some men handle this body-bulk thing differently. In the summer, many men wear cargo-style pants that come to mid-calf and tent-like jerseys (sometimes sports-themed) that drape but don't outline rounded stomachs and slack flanks.  Of course, it also makes them look like children, especially when they top it off with a baseball cap cocked at some secretive angle and bottom it off with untied sneakers, but that seems a price worth bearing.


Low-slung pants on young men are another fashion choice that fascinates me since it clearly requires constant tuning.  The pants have to be carefully cinched and balanced somewhere between waist and knees, otherwise, they will give in to gravity – usually bisecting the buttocks is the preferred low-water mark, drooped enough to show a good swatch of underwear.  The back pockets hang many inches lower, so anything in them (like a wallet or phone) is out of arms-reach and requires a bend and twist to snag. And walking requires a constant up-pull of the pants and a kind of waddle since the wearer can't do a full stride (like the hobble skirts of old for women).


I always want to know more about how each of these people decided that morning about what they chose to wear.  I know it's none of my business, and I know I shouldn't be making aesthetic and moral judgments about their choices, but still I am curious about how they decided that the way they look is their best way of displaying themselves to the world.


And then there are the hipsters with skinny jeans and pork-pie hats, the tag-ends of goth or punk (spikes-on-leather, distended earlobes), vintage clothes, various national or religious gear (chador, agbada, keffiyah), uniforms (armed forces, police, security guards, medical personnel).


But lest I think myself immune from my own critique, what do I wear?  Of late I have simplified my work attire to three shades – black, white, and grey – with the three colors for shirts and black and grey for pants (white pants? don't think so).  This way I can pull items from the closet and mix-and-match without thinking about it.


And why do I do this?  Because my puritan humorless part, the sumptuary bend in my character, sees fashion as a cheat and a distraction.  But since as a species we have required ourselves to wear clothes, I make sure that this fiat takes up the least amount of my time and attention, and it irritates me when I see what a sinkhole fashion can be for people, letting it shave away their precious ground-time on the earth for something decorative designed to create false impressions and pump-up one's pride.


And as I think this, I hear a voice from the wings saying, "What a scold you can be!"


And that's when I job in the jester from the wings, so that when I see people wearing things that make me shake my head and judge their choices, Jester ridicules me for my narrowness, reminds me of my own imperfections, keeps my pride in check, and makes me feel less for thinking less of others.


My observation about clothing, like my observation about anything, is not really about the clothing but about myself.  And the lesson learned?  The Quakers believe that every human being carries the divine spark of life, and if you let that spark go dim or die out, then you can do cruel things without remorse.  The Jester is my divine spark, the thing that takes the piss out of my high-handedness and brings low my pride – and lets me watch the human flow with a dose of loose humor and a dusting of affection.


Because it's not even there but for the grace of God go I.  It is this instead: there go I in everyone that passes me by.

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June 2015

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |





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