A long time ago I bought a red cap. It cost around $25, which is far more than I used to pay for hats.
When I started to lose my hair, or when I was in Center City Philadelphia and a new chill came to the air, I bought caps from street vendors. They were of the one-sized fits all variety, in many colors, made of cheap durable fabrics and rarely cost more than $5.
I favored hats that lacked logos, sports icons, slogans, the names of cities, or anything that promoted a person, place or thing. I did not want to wear advertising, or a symbol that would connect me to a commercial or institutional entity. Later, I learned from some architects that, if we look at culture as a complicated and contradictory collection of signs and symbols, everything we wear is an advertisement, or contains a message or value statement, about our identity, our history and our hope for social and gender membership–whether we know it or not.
I did not especially desire to learn this. Growing up as a fat kid, I did not enjoy wearing clothes or shopping for them. I shared the generational prejudice that fashion was false, ephemeral, calculated (blatant planned obsolescence!) and impractical! Why, everybody knew that blue denim pants lasted forever, while polyester-based weaves like Dacron and orlon pilled, faded oddly, developed holes in embarrassing places, didn’t “breathe,” and–most embarrassing of all–lasted too long.
I did not want to believe that blue denim became popular with my generation when it was associated with farmers and all things “natural,” though the garment was designed for gold rush prospectors in the 19th century, who notoriously despoiled the landscape in search for wealth. Who would have thought that, by wearing a polo shirt, which I thought was slightly better than a T-shirt, I was connecting myself with middle class ethnic fantasies of an upperclass, European lifestyle (even if the game was invented in the Middle East and–according to legend–played with severed heads)?
Yes, fashion comes from someplace, and it isn’t just about selling stuff. It is one of the most intensely imaginative, creative human activities. It paradoxically breaks down social barriers while enforcing them. And its meaning–which can range quite broadly–can change in ways that are not always welcome.
Take my red cap. When I was a kid, “red caps” were baggage porters at train stations. They wore their caps to be visible among the passengers. I bought my red cap for a similar reason–when I wanted my wife or family to spot me quickly in a crowd.
I didn’t wear the cap often because I tend to favor muted colors and earth tones. I was hoping that it would eventually fade to a ruddy brown.
Instead my cap’s color was one of three used in a presidential campaign. The colors were obvious enough: red, white and blue. The slogan embossed on them wasn’t original. The name of the candidate had been, up until now, on hotels, condominium buildings, clothing, wine and casinos.
The campaign was successful and that shade of red identical to my cap, became associated with the personality, policies and public rhetoric of the President of the United States.
A few days ago, at protest regarding the potential relocation of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few of the neo-Nazi, white supremacist protestors were seen wearing the red version of the cap from the Presidential campaign–not the white or the blue.
The color, on a cap, now has connotations I don’t want associated with me.
My speculations as to what to do with the cap tend to reflect the larger dilemma of responding to the political factionalism in our nation. Possible strategies include:
- Do nothing and wear the cap anyway. It’s just a color and if people judge you incorrectly, or prejudicially, that’s their fault, not yours.
- Do nothing and put the cap away. Fashion, and its meaning, changes rapidly. Until then, save the cap because I paid for it and what is extreme in one era can become mainstream in another.
- Give the hat to a used clothing store, duplicating the manner of aristocrats who passed down worn and no longer desirable material goods to those they considered less fortunate, or socially beneath them. (I don’t believe people who shop in used clothing stores are beneath me. I enjoy shopping in used clothing stores far more than any other form of retail.)
- Adorn it with a counter-slogan that mocks, contradicts or threatens to neutralize its current connotation.
- Destroy the hat, with the hope of removing dangerous “weaponized” artifacts from existence.
- Dye the hat a different color. With blue, it may become purple, the traditional Roman color of aristocratic power. The Roman Republic and Empire were built with slave labor, and it is not accidental that many contemporary tyrannies look back to ancient Rome for inspiration in their architecture, apportioning of resources and ideals of civic engagement. I could try a black, which would give me a crimson hue suggesting blood or corrosion.
- Permit extreme events to incite an extreme response in the form of an outright rejection. Stop wearing hats!