Bling!

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Ta-Nehisi Coates rips into a fairly stupid piece by Mary Battiata on the hope that Obama offers the black community--a hope of a future filled with snugly-fitting jeans:


Lately I've been wondering what an Obama White House might mean for the future of bling. For the fate of heavy gold, medallions, below-the-butt denim, the whole hip-hop gangsta fashion habit. What if January 20, 2009 turned out to be not just a cultural and clothing pivot point for adults -- a return to the minimalism of sleek, 60s-era sharkskin suits, the containment of golf-ball sized Barbara Bush costume pearls -- but a watershed fashion moment for teenaged boys? Picture it. On Inauguration Day next year, thousands and thousands of young men and boys from city street corners to suburbs, look up from their X-Boxes and catch a glimpse of the impeccable President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama climbing the steps of the Capitol and suddenly feel... unfashionable. Out of it. Old. What if they are overcome by the same stunned, something's-happening-here feeling that teenagers in the early 60s, their closets full of sock hop regalia, felt when they first laid eyes on The Beatles in 1964, on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show. For adults, this kind of moment is, at most, something to take note of. To a teenager, it's a gale force warning of imminent social tsunami, an urgent prod from the eyeballs and the amygdala that to everything there is a season, and now is the time to change, change, change. Ask not what you can do for your closet, but what your closet, if ignored, can do to you.

This week in the nation's capital, Washington Post's Metro columnist Courtland Milloy wrote about the street scene in the mostly African-American, inner-city neighborhood of Trinidad, where D.C. police have set up a Balkans-style traffic checkpoints in and out of the neighborhood in an effort to stem a recent spate of drug related murders. Sitting on the front porch of 67-year-old Willie Dorn, a retired corrections officer, Milloy noted the antics of a group of teenaged boys "shirtless, pants below their behinds," who, as Milloy and Dorn watched, launched a plastic bottle at a passing scooter, nearly causing an accident. "Maybe a President Obama could help restore some pride in the black community," Dorn said.

The relationship of clothing to behavior is real. Clothes may not "make the man," but they shape the mind in ways large and small. Ask any stay-at-home parent, freelance writer or invalid who has spent one too many days in baggy sweats and stained T-shirts and begins to notice (in a semi-alarmed, detached sort of way, of course) a dwindling of discipline and energy. The well-known Rx for this condition is a shower and a change into grown-up clothes, the kind with seams that may pinch the body, but can help focus the head.

One doesn't even know what to say. Start with the bizarre assumption that black teenagers have never seen a black man in a suit before--as Coates aptly notes, suits are even a part of the degenerate hip-hop culture that Battiata is worried about. Then ponder the equally bizarre idea that teenagers want to dress like the president. Obama inspiring suits among black teenagers seems about as likely as McCain inspiring Goth kids to scrape off the black nailpolish and put on a cardigan.

I don't know where Battiata grew up, but in my high school, anyone who had come in dressed like Barbara Bush would have spent the next few years ruing this decision at their very own cafeteria table. I wore . . . well, baggy jeans. Also ratty sneakers, tentlike t-shirts, and flannel shirts about eight sizes too large that used to flap around my girlish figure like a shroud. Nonetheless, I seem to have managed a rich and fulfilling life.

The freelance effect that she notes is real, but that's not some magical property of the clothes--I felt perfectly stylish and adult in baby doll dresses in the early nineties. It's a reflection of the fact that all of your friends are dressed differently from you. If pajamas were the new work uniform, you'd feel like a natty professional even in the privacy of your own couch-cave.

Teenagers don't want to be like adults. If that's a fault of society, it's a general fault of all America, not some special, pernicious feature of inner-city culture. But frankly, I'm kind of creeped out by sixteen year olds who dress like adults. A nervous breakdown must lurk somewhere in the not-too-distant future. Put down the purse and stick some anarchy stickers on that jacket, young lady.

Even the "bling" phenomenon has a considerably more benign explanation than that attributed by moralizing whites. As Erik Hurst has shown, members of groups with low average socioeconomic status tend to spend much more of their income on visible signals--cars, houses, jewelry, clothes--than members of higher-status groups. This is not unique to blacks. Poor southern whites do it, people who live in poor neighborhoods do it, single mothers do it, hispanics do it, etc. And it makes perfect sense for them to do this; otherwise, they get whatever unkind treatment society metes out to the poorest of the poor. Assuming arguendo that "bling" is bad, it will take much more than a black man in a suit to eliminate the phenomenon. That will only come when blacks fully join whites in the economic mainstream.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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