>Last evening I had the very enjoyable experience of taking a visiting friend from Barcelona and a few colleagues around the village to do some shopping, followed by a good dinner at Leopold’s, where we ran into some other friends of mine. Georgetown is, of course, part of Washington D.C. proper these days, but geographically and stylistically it continues to have a sense of “otherness”, which is very noticeable, particularly if all you have seen for several days has been the inside of a hotel ballroom in Crystal City. For me the benefit of the experience was not only catching up with an old friend and meeting new ones, but also having an experience the antithesis of yesterday’s cautionary post about Twitter – which seems to have struck a nerve with a number of people – about using social media to build real connections.
When I arrived back at the manse, I proved this last point by engaging in an email conversation with a conservative friend I met some time ago via Twitter – the proof being, we do not merely tweet to each other but communicate outside of it on several platforms. We talked briefly about a number of subjects, including personal style, and it was pointed out that I come off as a strong-willed person. Less kind persons might have said “stubborn”, but it is a fair assessment.
Second-hand, I have heard myself referred to as “intimidating”, which certainly ought not to be the case at all. Someone’s being opinionated should not intimidate others, if they have their own developed sense of self, though I have occasionally had to step back and apologize when I fear that I am being too forceful. I suspect that the combination of being rather tall, a trial lawyer, and a conservative would do it, if my personal habit of sometimes affecting what I like to call “biker preppy” style does not do it alone. Exterior appearances may easily deceive the untrained eye, particularly where conservatives are concerned.
To those on the outside looking in (and perhaps even to the majority of those within), there is often an apparent “sameness” of appearance among people marked as conservatives. Yet among genuine conservatives there are people who espouse certain affectations which may seem incongruous or surprising. Part of this surprise has to do with a false assumption that everyone who believes in conservative principles ought to look a certain way. Yet part also has to do with the inherent human desire to name and categorize, which is inescapable. Let us consider each of these in turn.
Whatever the liberal press may tell you, a conservative can have just as much style, if not more so, than your average Hollywood bleeding-heart liberal fashion plate. Of course, the fact that Hollywood is dominated by the latter type does not mean that the film industry fails to show us examples of idiosyncratic style among people who have decidedly conservative views. When they do appear, it is not only their point of view but their style which surprises us, when we pay attention to detail.
This evening for example, I am going to a dinner party where we will be watching one of my favorite films, “All About Eve”. Director and screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was as bleeding-heart as they come, probably intended the witty, urbane, but somewhat shady character of Addison De Witt (George Sanders) to be the lone Republican in the ensemble, given some of the searingly vicious lines which he has Addison say. Yet also, I think notably, Addison is distinguishable by what he wears, as much as by what he says in conversation, or what he writes in his newspaper column.
Unlike the other men in the cast, Addison is shown on multiple occasions to enjoy wearing hats. He also likes to wear what looks to be a very expensive overcoat lined with fur – probably vicuna – and often smokes using a long, ebony cigarette holder. Addison not only has a hugely expert eye with respect to the theatre world, but in his personal style he stands out from the others. This is not just because he is considerably taller than the rest of the men in the room, but also because he has a clear appreciation for style and attention to detail. He pulls off looking different from the men of his day because although he dresses appropriately for the occasion, he also knows what he likes, and does not care whether others also like his choices or not.
Addison is, interestingly enough, quite the ladies’ man despite his seemingly aloof, foppish and snobbish personality. We learn that he picked up the stunning and considerably younger Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe) dancing at the Copacabana nightclub; later Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) discovers that she “belongs” to him after he bends her to his will. In the scene where Eve comes to understand this, he is very much aware of the importance of appearances: when Eve throws open the door to her hotel room and tells him to get out, Addison scoffs, “You’re too short for that gesture.”
As the scene continues, we get a glimpse of Addison’s respect not only for the political change of heart after Pearl Harbor which gave America a new role in the world, but also his appreciation for human decency. When Addison catches Eve in a lie about her supposed fiancee, killed during World War II, the realization that she has been found out sends her into a paroxysm of rage. “That was not only a lie,” he chides her, “but an insult to dead heroes and to the women who loved them.”
That line of Addison’s always reminds me of the character of Lieutenant Fred Boynton, another crypto-conservative, in Whit Stillman’s brilliant film “Barcelona”. Fred Boynton (Chris Eigeman) is a naval officer being shown around the Catalan capital by his cousin Ted (Taylor Nichols). A rather trashy-looking group of Catalan youths pass them and sneer at Fred’s naval uniform, calling him a fascist. Ted tries to calm his cousin down by explaining that it is not his uniform which is the problem; if you comb your hair and put on a tie, those types of Barcelona youths will call you a fascist. Fred then goes off into a diatribe where he points out that men wearing the same uniform died ridding Europe of fascism. He is, in effect, showing the ignorance of the liberal in mocking his style of dress.
While Fred may have been ill-advised to wear a naval uniform when not on duty – we later learn that he has brought no civilian clothes with him, and needs to borrow from Ted’s closet – one suspects that he is secretly glad to be wearing it, as a stylistic indicator of how he sees himself. Its unexpectedness in the setting is what makes it – and him – stand out. We find it hard to believe that Fred has really forgotten his civies, and instead realize that this affectation comes about because he knows he looks good in a uniform, and because he likes how the uniform sets him apart.
Similarly, in Whit Stillman’s earlier film “Metropolitan” the character Nick Smith – ironically enough also played by Chris Eigeman – has a conversation with another character, Tom Townsend, in which he explains his own personal affectation, that of wearing dress shirts with detachable collars:
Nick: “You haven’t seen this? Detachable collar, not many people wear them anymore, they look much better. So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience.”
Tom: “I had no idea anyone wore those anymore.”
Nick: “It’s a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents’ generation was never interested in keeping up standards, they wanted to be happy. But of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.”
Tom: “I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents.”
Nick: “Oh, it’s far worse. Our generation’s probably the worst since…the Protestant Reformation, it’s barbaric. But a barbarism even worse than the old-fashioned, straightforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.”
Tom: “You’re obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars…“
Nick: “Yeah, I am.“
When we leave the world of moving pictures for the real world, things become a little less clear. If Georgetown, in its best sections, has a sense of otherness, much of white-collar Washington has a sense of “sameness”. However, not everyone in Washington who wears a blue blazer and khakis to work is a conservative, as the first-time visitor often mistakenly believes. That is simply the local mufti, worn irrespective of party politics. In its blandness perhaps it tells us more about the general population of the capital area, rather than anything about those persons who adopt it, as individuals or party members.
By trying to class people through their style we are of course naming and categorizing, and by naming and categorizing we are engaging in something which we as a species have done from the very beginning. In the Bible we are told how God created the universe, from sun, moon and stars, right down to the animals and human beings. But the observant reader will note that while God Himself names certain elements and principles of His creation – “day”, “night”, “earth”, “sea”, and so on – and He also names Adam, it is Adam himself who names the animals.
Certainly God could have named the “things which creep upon the earth”, but He chose not to do so, leaving that job up to Adam. It is interesting to note, by the way, that in the Koran it is God rather than Adam who names the animals. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are some important considerations we could take from this difference between Judaism/Christianity and Islam, but that we shall perhaps leave for a future post.
As creation unfolds, God wants to see whether Adam is going to become particularly attached to any of the animals, so that they will be his companion in creation:
So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name.
As it turns out, none of the animals prove to be fully satisfying to Adam, which brings about the creation of Eve. Thus, the human female is the very last element of the universe which God created. Women should recognize that fact with some understandable pleasure, and men should be aware of its significance, for God was clearly aware of the fact than men are usually not so good at taking care of His creation all by themselves.
When God brings His final creation to Adam in Genesis 2:23, Adam does not at first give her an individual name, as God did to him. Instead he calls her “woman”, recognizing that she seems to be part of his nature as a human being, having been formed from part of Adam himself, but at the same time not seeming to fully understand exactly what she is. One could make the observation therefore that man’s inability to completely “get” women is of primeval origin. After they have sinned by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but before they are cast out of the Garden of Eden, Adam recognizes the woman as an individual who fully shares his nature, and his fate, and gives the woman the individual name of Eve, Genesis 3:20.
When they are finally thrown out of the Garden of Eden, God does not give Adam and Eve seeds, or ploughs, or even teach them how to make fire. The only thing He does do, is to make them clothing out of leather, to replace the leaves that they themselves had unsuccessfully tried putting together to cover themselves. God Himself becomes the first true couturier. [N.B. Just imagine having the label “Hand Made by Almighty God in the Kingdom of Heaven” on the back inside lining of your biker jacket.]
Ultimately, the conservative recognizes that it really is all about Eve. Sin, death, salvation and redemption are all woven around a single decision she made, long ago, to exercise her free will, and to convince Adam to do the same. That recognition of the supreme importance, spiritually and philosophically, of the concept of free will, is foundational to the Western conservative, operating in the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity and of himself.
When a conservative fellow stands out a bit from the crowd then yes, he is probably hoping in part that an attractive eye will bat his way – that is all about Eve, too. But outside of that fact, he is also engaged in exercising his free will in order to say something about himself: what he enjoys, what he supports, what he appreciates. The more stylish he is, the more unique or subtle the exercise.
Centuries ago the choice of a particular color, pattern, symbol, etc. in a man’s dress or accoutrement would have been endowed with a great deal of symbolic significance not only by the wearer but also by those who saw him. Today, as Nick Smith points out, many do not take the time to think of such things. Among those who do, it is with men of a conservative persuasion that the exercise of free will often proves particularly interesting.
George Sanders and Anne Baxter begin to form
their unholy alliance in “All About Eve” (1950)