The September issue of InStyle (538 pages!) arrived this week, and about a third of the way through there was an advertisement for Aveeno featuring Jennifer Aniston, who, as in seemingly all ads in which she is featured, is wearing something wispy and diaphanous and without recognizable shape. Which, I concede, is not at all a bad gig for a woman who'll be 50 before you know it. And it's a change from those bottled-water ads she was doing for a while, in which she wore, um, nothing. Or almost nothing anyway; since she's never actually wearing shoes in these ads, you can make out Aniston's toe ring, a simple unadorned metal strip, so narrow as to be almost unnoticeable. It occurred to me that Aniston is probably the only person this close to the A-list who even wears a toe ring anymore; there's always been something vaguely downscale about them on any given weekend, maybe five percent of grocery shoppers are wearing them and they don't really lend themselves to the sort of ornate designs that rings for one's fingers do. Besides, multiple rings on the fingers are no big deal; multiple rings on the toes seems somehow weird, as though the wearer is trying too hard.

After pondering this matter for what seemed like an awfully long time, I found myself pondering something else: why am I, a guy in his sixties with no actual connection to anything fashionable, a guy so indifferent to clothing in his own life that he buys basically several iterations of the same items to wear to work day after day and immediately peels them off the moment he gets home, spending time contemplating arcane fashion issues like this? And why am I reading something like InStyle anyway?

"Damned if I know," I said. But there has to be some reason for this. Certainly it wasn't a factor in high school, where everybody wore the same thing day after day, and in college I was too bewildered to contemplate such matters. My stint in the military, of course, got me back on the daily-uniform track. But my particular specialty, at least Stateside, got me something resembling a civilian work schedule, and every other weekend or so I'd take the bus (two bucks in 1974) into Boston. And in Boston's Back Bay I discovered Newbury Street, less than a mile long, with the highest density of high-end shopping I'd ever seen before. I couldn't do more than window-shop, of course, but inside those windows were sights I'd never before seen. It took about ten minutes to discover that there were comparable sights outside those windows as well.

Still, I might have forgotten about this altogether, were it not for the fact that every now and then, something would jog the memory. And those somethings came from the oddest places. In 1977, Joan Baez signed with CBS's new Portrait Records label, which she would later describe as "the stupidest career move I ever made"; but on her first album for them I found a snappy little rap track (yes!) called "Time Rag," a sardonic story of Fresh Publicity, containing the following couplets describing getting ready for the Man from the Media:

I swept the driveway and polished the phone
Put on a Kenzo knit in two-tone
Fluffed the pillows in the burgundy chair
Made up my eyes and brushed my hair ... all in that order

Perfect, I thought. Kenzo was just right: exotic enough to be interesting without going over the top. It seemed like an odd thing for Joan Baez to be doing, given her sensitive-folkie branding, but I was still young enough to think that what you did and what you were necessarily overlapped. I played the heck out of that track, mostly because of the Booker T-ish groove laid down by Duck Dunn, Mike Botts and Larry Knechtel two guys from Bread, who knew? but eventually a deeper message came through: your look is at least as important as your attitude.

By the late 1980s, I had absorbed enough of this philosophy, if philosophy it be, to present myself at the gate at a Los Angeles-based cable-TV channel specializing in fashion. I sought a non-creative position closed-caption operator, since I could type, and, perhaps more usefully, I could spell but I figured it would be interesting to be in some proximity to people who knew something about fashion. They never got back to me, and perhaps it's just as well: QVC apparently bought them out shortly thereafter, and I had no compelling desire to relocate to Pennsylvania.

Still, I hadn't quite sussed out the seeming inconsistency between a fondness for clothes and a growing tendency not to wear them. It took a young woman in an AOL clothing-optional chat room whose name I've forgotten, circa 2000, to make it simple for me. "If I'm going to be seen," she explained, "I'm going to wear the best stuff I can afford. And if I'm not going to be seen, there's no point in wearing much of anything."

Which brings me to today, perhaps wise enough finally to separate the spiritual from the superficial, but not willing to give up either of them. Street style fascinates me; at the same time, I make no assumption about its practitioners other than "Maybe they aren't on a tight budget." I will renew InStyle after the first of the year. And maybe I'll figure out the difference between having a ring on one's second toe, which seems to be the more common placement, and on one's third, as Jennifer Aniston does. At least I shouldn't be bored.

The Vent

  16 August 2015

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 Copyright © 2015 by Charles G. Hill