Would I wear a sweater with a picture of a teddy bear wearing Polo business clothes? Or a Polo Golf tie with an illustration of a golfer on it? Or a black leather Polo suit? No way. A jacket that says “SNOW BEACH” on it? Absolutely not.
So why did we feature ‘Lo Heads in our first episode? Wearing clothes that I wouldn’t wear myself, in ways I wouldn’t wear them?
Dressing is a fundamentally discursive act. The most sophisticated dressers are engaged in a three-way conversation – between the creator of their clothing, themselves, and the people they interact with while dressed. This happens in the context of a broad set of only semi-shared cultural values. The designer intends one meaning, the wearer recombines it, recontextualizes it, and gives it new meaning, and then that meaning is interpreted by the people the wearer interacts with in ways that the wearer could never have conceived.
I think that these guys, deeply immersed in this ‘Lo Heads culture, are incredibly fluent at this discourse. They’re living it. Any of us, no matter what our personal sense of aesthetics, or our personal goals for can learn from their example.
So let’s break it down a little.
The first level: there’s an interesting statement made, of course, when a black or Puerto Rican guy from the hood wears clothes that are self-consciously associated with activities (yachting, skiing, golf) that have powerful ties to whiteness and richness. The guy from the hood is subverting those values. His act is a thumb in the eye to the rich (and white) that says that not only can those symbols of privilege be appropriated by the downtrodden, the downtrodden can rock that shit better.
Dallas describes the Polo-obsessed culture as a function of “Aspirational Apparel.” I think that’s part of it. When you’re “sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as one guy put it, you want to represent something for yourself that’s more than that. But here’s the limitation of that description: this is not a literal act. These are not poor people striving to be as much like rich people as possible. This is a symbolic act.
We asked person after person, “would you get on a yacht?” “Have you ever been skiing?” “Do you like golf?” and to a man, the answer was a laughing “HELL no.”
In other words: these folks don’t aspire to be the rich. They aspire to success, sure, like any of us, but they aren’t supplicating themselves before upper-class white culture, asking to be let in. They don’t aspire to join the club. They aspire to take the symbols of privilege and give them new meaning. To rock them better.
In fact, if the clothes are worn in new ways – think of Dallas’ tie-outside-sweater look – all the better. Like hip-hop slang, the goal is to create an insider’s argot, a way of recombining these symbols of privilege into something with one meaning for people who “get it” and one meaning for people who don’t. Alienating the outsiders is part of creating an insider culture.
There’s also something fascinating to me about the specific preferences that Polo collectors demonstrate. I was wearing a corduroy Polo blazer the night we recorded at Lo Goose on the Deuce (“all eras, all styles welcome,” it said on the invite). Needless to say, there weren’t a lot of other guys there rocking corduroy blazers – despite the fact that corduroy has a rich sporting heritage.
Polo collectors like stuff with graphic and textual representations of the abstract class ideas they’re pursuing. Abstractions of abstractions. Ties with pictures of golfers. Jackets with pictures of skiiers. The Polo Bear.
The Polo Bear is the perfect collectible for Lo Heads. He’s a brand icon who appears mostly on annually-released sweaters. A teddy bear who wears Polo clothes. That makes the Polo Bear sweater a representation of a representation of class, through an icon (a teddy bear) that’s completely non-human, for maximum abstraction.
The reason the Polo fans love Ralph Lauren is that while he has always admired the aesthetics of English schools and Great-Gatsby Americana, he himself was a poor, Jewish New York kid. His name and brand were made up from whole cloth. His creations are fundamentally (and shamelessly) inauthentic. Their value is in how perfectly they celebrate an idea of Americanness that is both tied to race and class and somehow self-consciously cut off from it. The premise of his work is that he’s going to grab the symbols and aesthetics and rock them better.
I don’t want to get too semiotic on you, but our clothes have very limited inherent values. Warm/not-warm and keeps the sun off are pretty much it. Maybe some portion of our aesthetic values are in-born, that’s an argument for a different day. Everything else about getting dressed is symbolic. You’re participating in a conversation. Learn to speak the language.