Rambling thoughts inspired by a billboard I pass during my daily stroll to work
This might be the first case of this site ever being timely or tied in with current events. Savor it like a fine tobacco smoked in an antique pipe on a chilly winter’s eve in front of the fire, with a tumbler of single malt close at hand. And then I will thank you to kindly stop smoking in my parlor. Anyway, the impending release of The Great Gatsby, in which Australian director Baz Luhrmann has decided a Jazz age drama demands more pointless CGI than The Hobbit, reminded me of the time my college roommate and I decided, round about 1993 or so, we were going to invent something called Gatsbycore. It was to be a flippant combination of the styles of the Roarin’ Twenties and our own, more familiar (at the time) punk rock aesthetic. There were really only two small problems with the idea: first, we had no idea where to get 1920s style clothing in Gainesville, Florida in 1993 on a $30 a month living budget; and second, we were pretty terrible on following through on weird ideas we had at two in the morning.
Step into the TARDIS and jump ahead a roarin’ twenty years however, and my current style of dress is something very close to what we dreamed up that night so long ago, minus the fantasy of having an anti-racist skinhead girl named Mimsy piling into the rumble seat of our jalopy as we motored out for a picnicking holiday along the coast. Despite my love of classic menswear (and persistent inability to afford nice examples of it, my money often being siphoned off mysteriously into the coffers of Amazon and local wine and spirits store), it would be a betrayal of my past if I was to abandon the accoutrements of my formative years. And so waistcoats and pocket squares must learn to coexist alongside the occasional punk, rockabilly, or mod affectation.
Back when the scheme was first hatched — which may seem obvious now but I assure you was revolutionary in the 1990s, a decade I feel showcased the very worst fashion has to offer — there was a full two or three days during which we were committed to researching it. That research was intense. We went to the video store (for those who don’t know, video stores were these places that were like a store full of Netflix) and rented The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford (and also Lady Chatterley’s Lovers starring Sylvia Kristel, but that may have been for less sartorially inclined motivations). The Great Gatsby was one of my favorite books when I was growing up (and remains so today).
As a skinny young kid in semi-rural Kentucky (by the time I read the book, we had an interstate exit put in, making us somewhat less remote than we had been in the 1970s), this vision of the glamor and indulgence of the New York elite during a time of glittering American excess and abandon was something that captivated the portion of my imagination that was not occupied with devising survival scenarios for when the Soviets started a nuclear war and I would have to go out into the woods with a band of loyal friends to rebuild society. I understood the underlying sense of melancholy and ennui in the tale. I understood the emptiness of Gatsby beneath his many layers of finery. I did not care. I was entranced by visions of smart men in smart suits, of saucy ladies in flapper dresses waving about long cigarette holders, of wearing a tuxedo, hooking arms with a beautiful woman, and walking down some grand art deco staircase beneath a shimmering chandelier.
Being prone to letting my mind wander, I would construct elaborate fantasies about arriving in New York, a penniless country boy in a ratty suit and riding cap, fresh from toiling in the fields of his family farm (yes, we actually toiled — tobacco don’t harvest itself, and someone has to load and unload those hay bales) and ready to make it in the big city which, for some reason, still had trolley cars even though I’d seen The Taking of Pelham 123 and knew that New York did not have as many flappers and zeppelins as it did in my mind’s eye. But hey, you have to do something to occupy your brain when it’s a hundred degrees outside and you have a lot of manure still to spread on the crops.
I assume somewhere in the burnt-out urban landscape of New York in the early 1980s, some kid was dreaming about escaping the city and showing up in the country, where everything was fresh and clean and we all hung out drinking lemonade on the veranda before sitting down for a big meal of chicken, black-eyed peas, and mint juleps. I would not have broken that kid’s heart by telling him mostly we just ate TV dinners, shopped at Ayr-Way, and spread crap on fields, so I appreciated him not dispelling my New York fantasies.
It took a long time after I moved to New York to realize that my old dreams had actually come true. I may not have been going to glitzy champagne and cocktail parties in a tuxedo, raising my glass to the bob-haired debutante looking to anger her overbearing father by having a fling with some rough-around-the-edges Kentucky yokel, but I had moved to New York City with nary a cent to my name, so that was at least a partial realization of the dream. And if not champagne wishes and caviar dreams (which was fine — I cannot abide caviar), I was at least eating strange food at dawn after staying out all night with an insane Israeli friend who took me to oddball parties and slightly seedy dive bars and introduced me to weird arty men and women. It was more on the Bohemian end of things than my old fantasies, but I had no problem with that.
A few years after moving to New York and slightly more settled in than during those early, somewhat desperate and struggling days, I revisited The Great Gatsby. I still loved it, though the underlying sadness of it was more pronounced in my slightly older-aged reading of it. I did decide though that it was high time I put a little more effort into my dress. The city at the time was undergoing a small but dedicated revival in interest regarding all things Jazz Age (or maybe it had always been there, and I was only just noticing), which meant I could start applying myself not just to dressing up a little, but also to seeing 20s jazz revival bands and drinking cocktails instead of Coca-Cola (neither of which have proven advantageous to my waistline).
Ah yes, perhaps I am just playing dress-up. A cocktail cosplayer and Prohibition-era re-creationist (or recreationist). There is a criticism to be laid at the feet of always looking to the past instead of the future. I acknowledge but do not agree with the sentiment that this is a negative thing, or that by embracing some aspect of a bygone era we are tacitly approving of every aspect of that era (despite liking Marion Harris and bow ties, I can do without polio, segregation, and women not having the right to vote just fine). Some things I feel do not need to be over-thought, and if that makes me a shallow, empty shell-like Gatsby, I can live with that false assessment of my character. Much like my dismissal of people who “hate hipsters,” I don’t really like screwing up my face into a disapproving sneer when I see someone enjoying themselves in a way in which I myself am not indulging. Even douchebag bros have a right to go out and have fun.
Although I suppose I have to admit dreaming up Gatsbycore decades ago on the steps outside Gainesville Hardback Cafe had precious little influence over later trends in New York City, the core of Gatsby core is strong and fully realized now — folks with not a lot of money have seized the forgotten decadence of yesteryear’s rich and turned it into their own thing, with a dash of smirk and healthy helping of punk style DIY attitude. I guess it’s time to read Gatsby once again, since I doubt I will be seeing the new movie. I have nothing against Hollywood latching onto a subculture in which I am active; I do have a lot against directors who glop on endless CGI when a regular shot would be perfectly fine — seriously, Luhrmann, you couldn’t find an actual river or lawn? You had to CGI that? And while I may be poorer that Gatsby, and while my life may be less lavish, I can’t complain about my motivating energy coming from fun rather than loneliness.
Now if I could just procure that jalopy with the rumble seat. Somehow, the Honda Insight Zipcar I use just doesn’t have the same panache.