You would think that after time away, the hardest part of visiting New York would be braving passport control, baggage reclaim, and then finding a taxi from JFK. Instead, I find it the dilemma of what to wear.
The director Whit Stillman once advised me, regarding an upcoming film-development meeting, “Wear a suit, a blue suit. In truth, it’s worked out terribly for my career, with people mistakenly thinking I might be on the business side rather than creative, but it does still create an impression!”
For writers, every day is casual Friday, and we rarely pay close attention to fashion trends. Tom Perrotta, author of the novels Election and Little Children, said that for most meetings, he wears a short-sleeve shirt over a long-sleeve shirt, the same uniform he wears every day at the desk. Living, as I do, in the staid North London neighborhood of Highgate, I could expound on what retired opera critics are sporting these days, or maybe a judge, but I couldn’t begin to tell you “what the kids are wearing,” let alone the media warriors of our digital age.
A friend who edits a magazine remarked that during fashion season, the right shoes are paramount. Since there is so much time spent waiting around for shows to start, and it’s rude to stare people in the eye, everyone looks at one another’s feet. Taking his hint, on my first day in New York last month, I gave prolonged consideration to my choice of footwear. I decided to keep in reserve the vintage Tiger running shoes, circa 1978, that a girlfriend had picked up for me in Bangkok, and instead unleashed a pair of tan suede desert boots, appropriate, I thought, since I was in town to discuss a documentary we would soon be shooting in the Middle East. En route, in the bustling crowd around the Flatiron Building, I noticed, to my dismay, a preponderance of flashing white leather tennis shoes.
My documentary partner, a chic Beiruti and refugee from BBC News, explained to me that those shoes, similar in appearance to the ones Jerry Seinfeld wore on his show in the 1990s, were a manifestation of “normcore”—not so much the normalizing of fashion as the nothing-izing of fashion. I said I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing them to a barbecue at my mom’s, back in my hometown.
She glanced down at my desert boots and giggled.
“You know, the streets are paved here,” she commented. “No sand dunes.”
“How long will this whole normcore thing last?”
Aside from the annual trip to Brooks Brothers to buy socks and a few dress shirts, I have always found shopping a chore, and anything I bought specially, and inevitably late-in-trend, was rendered almost immediately “so last season.” I resolved, then, to project my sartorial needs far into the future. As luck would have it, I was headed that week to an annual gathering of prognosticators and future-thinkers assembled by the Swiss-based New Cities Foundation, for its annual summit.
They were meeting in Dallas, a city rejuvenated in the past decade by smart urban planning. The agenda included panels to ponder the questions of whether self-driving cars could obviate the need for individually owned automobiles, whether cultural districts reduce crime by keeping the streets full at night with law-abiding citizens, and how to deal with the challenges of water, power, and sanitation when, in the next thirty years, more than half the world’s populations will be living in megacities.
I felt sure I’d get answers in Dallas, maybe even to the question of clothing.
At a mixer for attendees, hosted at Gilley’s, the bar made famous during the era of urban cowboys, I met Marcella Prieto, the glamorous young cofounder of CulturePath, an arts-related tech start-up based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
As we watched couples in cowboy boots two-step and line dance, I asked her whether, in twenty years, jeans would be wide-legged, skinny, or boot-cut.
“All three?” she ventured tentatively. “Perhaps they’ll be adjustable.” In any case, she assured me that the future of the arts, and what artists wear, was very bright. “Performance—whether opera, theater, or dance—will have an augmented-reality component,” she said.
I said that seemed obvious to a forward-looker such as myself.
Challenged, she continued, “Costumes and wardrobe will be reduced to just a few lines of code embedded in the audience’s wearable vision-tech.”
“Fantastic,” I said. “That’ll create serious cost savings.”
“The flip side,” she said, “is that this will be even better for performers. It’ll make stage fright a thing of the past, since, embedded in that code, will be the option for artists to finally see their audience actually, rather than just proverbially, naked.”
At this point I blushed.
For further futurism, I turned next to Frank Schell, an international banking consultant. He ventured the following: “What is worn in the future will not merely be high-tech-enabled but should be able to interface with many ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum. Perhaps also drone-enabled, with laser access. Why Taser someone when you can laser them? Equipping men’s and women’s clothing to interact with subatomic particles at speeds approaching c [186,000 miles per second] is a sine qua non of futurist designers. Eventually, people will be festooned with subatomic particles, with conditions simulating the big bang and subsequent quark soup. One note of caution—kit should transmit and reflect light, so as to not be confused with what lurks behind the so-called event perimeter: black holes.”
I did not major in the sciences, but this sounded to me like a lot more than twenty years out and unlikely to be useful for stay-at-homes such as myself. His predictions were also more about function, when I was primarily interested in form…appearances.
Over lunch, I put my question of the future of fashion to Jordana, a conflict-resolutions specialist at a London-based nongovernmental organization. She pondered for a moment, as if she had never given this matter any thought, then pronounced: “Clothing will have a vast array of bioindicators and sensory-enhancement technology, all of which will be linked and liaised both interpersonally and across a vast network. Microinjections of Oxycontin are a possibility, and that tech is at hand even now. When you meet someone, whether socially or for a business negotiation, you will really get to know them.”
The future sounded sensual, certainly, but did this mean we will all dress in a minimalist and vaguely unisex fashion, as in The Jetsons?
“The Jetsons?” she asked.
“A TV show in the 1960s. Everyone wore tunics.”
“Different show, but sort of.”
“That Spock uniform, very shibui,” she remarked, employing a Japanese term for Zen-like simplicity.
“But I wonder,” I said. “Maybe styles of dress will be more baroque, sort of a Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette vibe?”
Jordana responded, “Well, do you mean in summer or winter?”
Somewhat overwhelmed by the technical possibilities of future fashion but not the least bit helped in my quest for what to wear next season, I thought about venturing to Century 21, to see whether the garment industry’s leftovers might give indications about where fashion would be headed next year. Instead, I decided to get Tom Perrotta on the horn again.
Perrotta was busy working on the second season of The Leftovers, his TV series about individuals passed over, like past-sell-by dairy products, in a possible rapture-like event, but he took a moment out for this prediction: “Clothing in the future will be more of a personal digital habitat—no longer the heavy coats in winter and tank tops in summer. Instead, a climate-controlled environment in a world of extreme weather, like a space suit without the helmet.” Perrotta was betting, then, on a smart version of the short-sleeve T-shirt over a long-sleeve T-shirt.
Before I flew home, I saw—fleetingly, in a news clip from Cairo—a man I was due to interview in two months. There was yet another crisis, and he was striding down a hallway, trailed by cameras. He wore a blue suit and a white shirt, and he looked cool, calm, and collected, even in the heat of an Egyptian summer.
Days later, in London, I was standing one rainy evening, after dinner, when I caught myself daydreaming, staring at a store window outside of Liberty, near Oxford Circus. In the window, a midnight-blue suit…or, rather, as I now saw it, a vintage, analog garment. Suddenly, that seemed the most impossibly courageous choice in our brave new world.