Saturday, December 30, 2006

On Taste

I've been reading a book about taste called ... Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things by Stephen Bayley (1991). In it, I found this odd little table about fashion:

The Cycle of Fashion

Indecent: 10 years before its time
Shameless: 5 years before its time
Outré: 1 year before its time
Smart: —
Dowdy: 1 year after its time
Hideous: 10 years after its time
Ridiculous: 20 years after its time
Amusing: 30 years after its time
Quaint: 50 years after its time
Charming: 70 years after its time
Romantic: 100 years after its time
Beautiful: 150 years after its time

James Laver, Taste and Fashion, 1945

I expected to see the cycle change back to fashionable sooner than 150 years. If my 12-year-old self saw the subtle flare in the legs of the jeans we wear today, he'd recoil in disgust: bell-bottoms, however mild, looked like a mistake of the 70s in the 80s.

Still, I would argue that taste is something one has or one doesn't have. Good or bad are irrelevant as long as one makes choices consciously, and with at least a limited knowledge of one's other options. I can wear bell-bottoms for the next twenty years as long as I am wearing them deliberately. My personal style can comfortably fly in the face of current fashion as long as I am aware of current fashion. Think Tom Wolfe in his white suits.

Irony plays a role. I remember how guilty and snobby I felt when I realized that I was looking down on an acquaintance for liking Rupert Holmes' cheesy 1979 hit Escape (The Piña Colada Song), a song I enjoyed for its kitsch-factor. The guy seemed like a rube because he seemed to genuinely like the song. My enjoyment somehow seemed more legitimate because I was more aware of how schlocky the song was. My condescending attitude may explain some of the rift between red and blue states in America.

But the truth is, some people don't care much about the way things look. Most of the people I know who don't put pictures on their walls aren't upset about how bare they are; they don't actually notice the walls. And then there are those of us who live with a constant idealized vision of what we and our environment looks like. Just as one doesn't notice the power lines and taxis marring the travel portrait until it comes back from the developer, we pretend that there isn't a stack of newspapers and magazines in the corner of our living rooms -- that everything is in its right place.

Of course, all of this is seems rather decadent when we are forced to deal with real questions of ethics, survival, and how to treat one another. Who cares what things look like?


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