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Wed, May. 13th, 2009 09:24 am
Ravished, in America, by India

I'm sitting with my ex-wife Shazna in the cafe at Kinokuniya, the new Japanese bookstore at Bryant Park. It's Sunday. I've just come down through a gorgeously sunny Central Park only marred by... the clothes. The shark-shaped bicycle helmets, the cheap-looking wrap-around "insect" shades, the terrible goatee beards, the reduced colour palette of whites, beiges and blues, the mesh caps and offensive running shoes. Americans dress, on the whole, very badly.



"I really enjoy coming here," I tell Shazna, "but I can't shake the feeling that Americans are living wrong. Their aesthetic of everyday life is simply incorrect. And I can't help feeling that the longer non-Americans stay here, the more they get absorbed into this wrongness, and start to see it as, if not right, at least acceptable and convenient." Shazna knows exactly what I mean. If there was ever a time when there were "beautiful Americans", it's gone.

When would that time have been? Well, perhaps when cowboy movies were all the rage. Or perhaps when the rock opera Hair introduced us to American hippy styles. Now, though, to "dress American" means to dress badly. I've been struck, this trip, by the fact that only people from the Indian subcontinent are impressing me. Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, south of the L train stop, is a sort of catwalk where you're probably going to see the best -- in purely visual terms -- that New York can offer. I did see some people in stunningly beautiful outfits: an Indian mother and her daughter, who had on a turquoise top and a bright red scarf falling across it. The colours were simple, bold and optimistic . Adjectives we might once have used about America we now tend to use about India and China. The pure sexiness of optimism, expressed in colour and form, is now theirs.



Outside PS1 in Queens I see another Indian -- Shazna says she's probably a Bangladeshi -- this time wearing pink and green, a combination filled with the freshness of spring. It's pretty much inconceivable to imagine a white American wearing that combination, and yet it's gorgeous. Somehow I find the colours in subcontinental clothes "chromatically trustworthy". They express not only positivity about the future, but a traditional culture thousands of years long.

I feel the same way about Indian music. The show before the one Aki and I appeared on up at the Columbia campus radio station, WKCR, was called Garam Masala, and consisted of such gorgeous Indian classical music that I asked Gerry not to play any of my music during our interview. I felt it would sound crude and shoddy in comparison to the glowing, throbbing drones, scales determined by the hour of the day, and divine voices in the Indian court music.



So, an emerging theme during this visit: I am totally impressed by people from the Indian subcontinent. These -- not hipsters, not Harlemites, not Japanese art students, not affluent gay couples walking little dogs in Chelsea, and certainly not the weary, nervy people I see on the streets of the Upper East Side -- are the people tweaking my aesthetic antennae here in New York. These are the people I'm noticing, and admiring. Make of that what you will; my conclusion is that I really need to visit India itself soon. Or, at the very least, Jackson Heights.

51CommentReply

contentlove
contentlove
Content Love Knowles
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)

Visiting Austin might make you smile. That is all.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:07 pm (UTC)

My God. Glorifying Billyburger hipster, anti-Americanisms and blatant orientalism - all in one post! That what we call a Momus homerun! (A "Momo-Home")


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:39 pm (UTC)

Well, I was trying to say that the Billyburgers were pretty unimpressive these days. It was hardly a floral tribute to people in skinny jeans and keffiyehs, was it? There are some good Ginsberg beards about, though.


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diotina
diotina
diotina
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:16 pm (UTC)

Do you not feel you might be orientalising a tad?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)

Taking orientalism away from me is like taking a rattle away from a baby! Or a fishing rod from a fisherman! Don't be mean!


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newstandsophist
newstandsophist
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:32 pm (UTC)

It's funny, back in the 1950s, rich white people ("preppies") would have been the only people in the U.S. you'd see wearing pink and green together. You can probably still see the combination on WASP matrons in Lily Pulitzer dresses on the beaches of Nantucket.

Generally, though, I agree. Americans are poor dressers. We've really let ourselves go over the past thirty years or so.


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ajkandy.myopenid.com
ajkandy.myopenid.com
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC)
Mad Men

Classic American dress sense in every frame of every episode, and I love it. Maybe it stems from having part-Indian background, but I love classic Western prep-wear, from Chariots of Fire argyle patterns to Banana Republic high-street interpretations. One day, I will own a Savile Row suit...(hey, I'm allowed to occidentalize, aren't I?)


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)

It's hilarious you feel you can comment on peoples dress sense with any authority. I mean come on some of the tat you wear is horrendous and dare I say a tad American if anything.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)

Well, we get caught up in the commentary Catch-22 here, don't we? If I champion something I do myself I'm a narcissist, if I champion something I don't do I'm a hypocrite, and if I champion someone from another country I'm an orientalist.


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tropigalia
tropigalia
Dewy-Eyed Disney Bride
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 03:28 pm (UTC)

My mom agrees with you. I have to tear her away from Jo-Mar fabric stores and Indian women who I assume don't want an over-zealous white woman harassing them about making saris.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 03:33 pm (UTC)

I wonder if there's a parallel world where American women en masse adopt saris? I used to think that those huge t-shirts black kids wear would evolve into robes eventually.


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tropigalia
tropigalia
Dewy-Eyed Disney Bride
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)

Also, is Trouble Andrew your doppleganger?


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC)

What's wrong with goatees? How are they so different to the hobo ten-day growth look you sport?

It's all so ridiculously subjective. If American women did suddenly start wearing saris, you'd probably rock up to tell us all how horrible they were. Do you find keffiyehs horrible on Arab guys? Probably not. Americans could all adopt the Momus mismatch-homeless-guy-everything-too-small-and-ill-fitting-Vladimir-and-Estragon look and you'd still say it looked vile.


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endoftheseason
endoftheseason
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 07:53 pm (UTC)

I couldn't help laughing.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)

If you look at the previous posts the comment counts are pretty low. How to remedy the situation? Talk clothes, trash some whiteys, celebrate a non-western aesthetic, and -perhaps most importantly- incite the hipster debate to get the numbers rising. I daresay we'll see 40+ before this time tomorrow.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
But those people see YOU as a bicycle hemlet and fly shades guy

Surely this is the problem of admiring parallel conservativism and labelling it alternative. You're a hub man masquerading as a spoke. There's nothing more gentle or honest in these clothes that isn't in a preppie shirt and chinos. In fact the men ARE in conservative shirt and chinos. What you really mean by this article is "Women should be more traditional", an understandable cry from the modern male.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
Re: But those people see YOU as a bicycle hemlet and fly shades guy

No, it's not a gender issue. But the women do sport the most gorgeous colours.


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jermynsavile
jermynsavile
jermynsavile
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)

I spent about ten years closely involved with the Sikh and Hindu communities in England and always loved the colours of women's saris. Parties and weddings would see some extraordinary colours and combinations. At weddings the women can change outifts four or five times during the course of the day. It can be quite a display. I would always be disappointed when I went to similar events predominantly populated by westerners where the then standard uniform for men and women tended to be fatigue pants and either monochrome or camouflage. It was a bleak old time to be going out.

The colours you are celebrating are generally limited to the women though. Young Indian males tend to wear bog standard American hip hop wear like everyone else and middle-aged men a standard party uniform of white shirt/black trousers that made them all look like waiters (sports shirts and dark trousers when at home). The older men can look more interesting though, with a mix of colonial-influenced styles and traditional dress.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 09:38 pm (UTC)
Saris ARE a feminist issue

I agree that it's more of a gender issue. Indian men puffing on cigarettes will condemn Indian women for doing the same. Women wear saris while their husbands wear slacks. Hub or spoke world - women will be expected to conform to standards that men do not. Be it a veil or a sari.

Until the huddles masses cast off the yoke of ethnicity we'll never know what exciting new social forms will be found, or how they will dress.


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kineticfactory
kineticfactory
this is not your sawtooth wave
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC)

I don't know; those two checked blue shirts in the top photo look somewhat cheap and ugly. Which means, of course, that we might soon see hipsters wearing them as an anti-fashion fashion statement.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 08:57 pm (UTC)
US

Yes, momus really great post. I've stopped thinking about the negative aspects of the dress code recently. But I too have really enjoyed the Indian colors. I am completely floors almost every time an Indian woman walks by in the street dress in colors. Amazing. Wberg is a bit too cliche to mention as far as fashion goes, but I get your general point. But skinny jeans blah blah blah... the young ny hippsters, hey, at least they are putting some thought into their look. Copying? etc, so what... its way better then the trashy non-style that fills most of NY...
--------
Who else dresses well... older chinese women have been amusing me for years! the combo of madmax style utilitarien mixed with teenage girl cute... clashing patterns, walking sticks, some of them walking around w huge bags of recycling cans.... THEY ALSO are amazing. And cool too: if you wave or smile, out of their old wrinkled face usually comes a smile back.
Dominican girls... are looking FLY... they have an amazing look, sometimes. Total Caribbean super model ... done, I'm sure on budget.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC)

It's not really about saris per se though, is it? It's Indian women wearing saris. It doesn't translate to Americans. Actually, it's not that much of a stretch to imagine that saris might become trendy for NY hipsters. After all, that's what happened to keffiyehs. But if that happened, you'd find something wrong with it. It wouldn't translate, because the a priori notion about Americans as bad dressers would prevail. It's a red herring to think it's about women wearing more colour or something.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, May. 13th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
jackson heights and indian food

Momus,
If are still in Jackson Heights and are still hungry, try the Jackson Diner. You will be ravished even more. It is really good and not to expensive.


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