Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring Style

A sun-blanched grey formica tabletop with a faint 1950's style cross-hatch pattern, against which a sole sprig of lilac is silhouetted, sets the scene. The phenomenal acoustics of the Berlin streets allow every nuance of every conversation in every mother tongue to be heard individually or as a wall of sound, replete with the dreaded accordion player and children shrieking playfully auf Deutsch. The cafe's proprietress emerges with a custom made order of French toast, without syrup, fashioned from that morning's croissants. "Especially for you!" she chimes in musical second-language English. I tuck in to its rich eggy delights, not so bothered by the lack of syrup, normally ladled on with such abandon by those dicke Amerikaners. She beats a retreat to the rear of the cafe, fittingly dubbed "Schoenes Cafe", to her American partner and their son, who swings from Deutsch to English with preternatural ease.

There's a third language in which Berliners are fluent, and that's fashion on a budget. It may be a poor city, but (most) people have a way of looking impossibly glam in whatever they deign to turn themselves out in. (Clothes almost seem to be an afterthought, especially in summer, when nudity is default mode). It's a certain carriage perhaps, or the way mismatched items seem to work in a sort of clothing Gestalt. Zum Beispiel, the woman sitting chatting directly in front of me is wearing a puffy blue frock, jeans, bright yellow flats, glittery striped socks (they were called "disco socks" in my youth) topped off with a form-fitting white cardigan and creamy, buttery string paisley pashmina. Now that takes some goddamn guts. This potentially tragic ensemble is more than the sum of its -- when taken individually, admittedly goofy -- parts. But it's not about the look, it's all about the deconstruction, dahling.

Germans test the limits of fashion's versatility in so many ways. Take the simple scarf, for example. Not content to drape it around one's neck, the German turns the classic Schal into a craft of cloth Origami which would do fashion icon Little Edie of Grey Gardens fame proud. They create novel twists out of the scarves: bows, knots, curtains and head-kerchieves (sort of a Little Edie in reverse). I saw a woman just today who had fashioned hers lopsidedly into a makeshift tent to keep out the sun. So pragmatic. Who needs Sonnenbrille? The most shocking example of this phenom was when a woman walked down the street with a male companion wearing a thick wool knitted scarf wrapped completely around and obfuscating her face. Whether she had recently been disfigured or was simply a misanthropic eccentric remains a mystery.

The most exciting thing about Berlin fashion is the risk. And risk goes skipping hand in hand with what? The flaw. The appropriation of the well-placed flaw is an earmark of good fashion sense, humanizing the whole enterprise while at the same time putting an individual stamp on the product, a kind of self-branding. The best style moments occur when something is just slightly off. For example, a pair of silly boxer shorts riding up one's crack, revealing an ample amount of male backside cleavage while riding a bicycle, could be carried off in Berlin, provided the wearer was also wearing a suit.

By way of counterexample, when the flaw becomes near universal, and the personal tic removed, it is therefore neutralized. Such as the case with the ubiquitous low-riding pants now worn by every b-boy and his brother -- you know the ones, that look like they are constructed to support a diaper and it's contents (I've dubbed it the poop pouch or poop droop). I was riding the UBahn with a young male companion last summer, who was sporting such droopy trousers, without a belt, that they began, as he gripped the safety bar, to slide off of his skeletal frame. Still flying from from the previous evening's shenanigans, a kernel of telltale crystalline snot clinging to the outer rim of his right nostril, the lad kept yammering on obliviously, much to the entertainment of an elderly couple, who sat agog, eventually collapsing into gales of laughter, for about ten stops.

And so we must establish the rule that when the flaw becomes a) too common or b) the object of ridicule, or both, then it ceases to be stylish. See also: heads shaved into countless loops, swirls, curlicues and punctuation marks (more on hair care later). This is this antithesis of style, though it makes rather ham-handed overtures towards it. This is the exception to the rule of organic Euro-cool. Style never tries too hard. Like a temporary tattoo, these "hair statements" (and I include Verlaengurungen, or hair extensions in this) are gauche and timid at the same time.

Mainstream media takes the deployment of the flaw theory to another level. Take Deutschland Superstar, for example -- the German counterpart to American Idol. In spite of the campily glitzy garb, I have never seen so much bad lighting, orange makeup, flyaway hair and obvious Pickeln (zits). It is a triumph of the flaw conflated with trash/kitsch national sensibility.

Mental illness is also a heavily stylized imperfection, but again tics are highly individualized. Better that they take the form of a mild personal eccentricity (think of the mysterious Isabelle Adjani constantly covering one side of her face: a bout with Kaposi's sarcoma? Or is she just weirdly stylish/nuts in an actressy way?) When you see hundreds of people twitching along to their Ipods or talking apparently to themselves but actually using the Bluetooth, we realize there is scant difference superficially between the widespread embrace of technology and collective schizophrenia.

When diversity and a fashion attitude is once again flattened by the monoculture, we must turn once more to the body and grooming for the origination of style statements. Lack of effort, as outlined before, is of paramount importance in this case. Filth, or its illusion, is always stylish (see Robert Pattinson of the Twilight film). Unfortunately for US residents, an epidemic of manscaping has taken over that great nation, and you can hold the hair- and dirt-phobic Queer-eye-style metrosexuals accountable. Thankfully Berlin sits on the shadow side of the hair spectrum -- it's not how you groom it, it's how you grow it (twist it, curl it, braid it -- yes, I'm referring to body hair). One admirer of the fur tugged at my chest growth, importuning, "Es ist so kurz!" (it's too short!)

Regarding hair in the upper hemisphere, for both woman and men, virtually anything goes. For women, my favorite is the classic wedge cut or the German version of the chunky bang. There does seem to be a disproportionate number of whites of both genders wearing dreadlocks, sometimes with half the hair shaved off, and straight women with butch lesbian haircuts. One does see the odd giant Afro as well. Additionally, the ponytail never died here. The German version can be sleek, but still reeks of Robert Palmer video. (There is a high co-occurrence of the ponytail with attache cases.)

In another inversion of the American model, Berlin men are also notable for their lack of muscle. Tattoos are fine, as long as they rest on a chicken chest or a negligible lump of bicep. Any form of exertion, is again a no-go area, simply the opposite of modisch. No accomplishment should ever signify a modicum of effort, simply the wearer's (chicly indifferent) personality. But the rules here are finely nuanced. The first exception is if you are a member of the Schoeneberg muscle/leather scene. A fetish is always an excuse for something uncool, because we have no control over our proclivities. Enough said. Though in this case the funny little waddle caused by too much sportmachen is definitely uncool, especially in a country where a willowy elegance is prized even by men.

Going to the Fitness Center is definitely demode, but a finely toned frame as the result of "sportmachen", i.e. actual athletics, it's perfectly fine. This is the second exception. The Deutsche are an active people, and, like clockwork, never seem to stop moving, the gears always turning. Especially in the summer months, the parks are bulging with bikers, joggers and the like, and the Badminton halls are booked solid through August. Triumph of the Will and all that.

I mustn't forget the exception-within-the-exception of these rules of corporeal comportment. The Bauchfett, or beer belly. German men of all walks of life wear these protuberances proudly as their one mark of hedonistic indulgence, and it's one collective flaw that's quite endearing. You'll see the most scarecrow thin Kerl walk into a room, and nine times out of ten you look down and it's as if he's got a bun in the oven! I find this little mark of reprobate slobbery endearing.

These days I say I am anti-fashion, but still, a thing cannot exist without its opposite, and one often bleeds into the other, such as when non-conformity starts to resemble a conformist phenomenon (see again droopy pants, "artfully" shaven heads). I keep thinking of porno-hating radical feminists who end up looking not unlike their evangelical Christian nemeses.

I am attempting to rationalize this fashion dialectic -- all or nothing, all at the same time -- in light of my own lack of fashion savvy. The positive symbol also represents its negative. The appearance of effort, and the absence of it. Aesthetic follows form, or lack thereof. But I know my friends would see right through it, because they know I wear practically the same thing every day (this is a sure way to garner compliments, because when you do finally wear something new, it really pops!) . Fortunately I think they are looking at me as a person and nicht die Klamotten. And well, what's depressing me today is, they're seeing an American in aspect, if not fashion. And we're not exactly renowned for our innate sense of style, are we?. Something tells me a pair of gold Turnschue (trainers)would be an ill-advised investment. (It's called trying too hard!) But, I am here, and as long as I sit steeping in the atmosphere, watching the beautiful Leute going by with their Brot und Zeitungen, I can hope against hope that some of the soignee and Euro-hauteur will rub off on me...

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