COLUMN: Old school without even trying

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, April 17, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Old school without even trying
By Aaron J. Brown

It happened, like many things, in Target. A good marketer can tell you that there’s an innate difference in the aesthetics between major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart. These cathedrals of capitalism play to different parishioners. Target is the place where you shop if you’re a hipster on a budget in a small Midwestern town. Everything from the lighting to the interior design aims to make people who think they’re smart feel OK with a corporate retail plan that involves them making impulse buys every bit as unnecessary as those found on the end caps at Wal-Mart.

That’s also why in the back corner of the Target men’s clothing section you’ll find a selection of fedoras fitted for small/medium, medium/large, and large/x-large heads, which are pretty much all the kinds of heads. One day, with time to kill, I tried on and ultimately coveted these fedoras, some brown, some faux straw and varying degrees of black, gray and charcoal.

The hat display itself indicated what Target Corp. wanted me to think about them. On one side were ball caps with ironic statements and overrated beer logos. On the other were retro t-shirts depicting things that were genuinely popular before the targeted consumers were actually born. These fedoras insisted upon themselves. “We are fedoras,” they said. “Fedoras are old and stodgy, but not when you wear them with these slovenly chic clothes. You will look even younger and hipper, because old people would never try to wear a fedora with a bright green Scooby Doo shirt.”

I tried on a tan hat, tucking back my head to properly display the soft chin of a man with a mortgage and multiple children. The result was a picture of my great-grandfather.

I actually already own a fedora that I bought from Alto’s Menswear in downtown Virginia when I was still in high school, still long after these hats had faded from fasion. I was in my Blues Brothers phase. The hats perched behind the counter in such a way that you could see them but not touch them. They came in black and gray. An old man measured my large noggin, more deep than wide, and fitted one of the black ones for me. I wrote a check, one I’m sure he regarded warily until it cleared at the bank next morning.

This hat is in my closet, waiting for me to age back into it.

Last week, I read with interest a 2009 column by George F. Will, the erudite conservative commentator prone to baseball analogies and long sentences, so long as to be considered something relating to Reagan and John Locke and so forth, the stuff after the fifth comma being for the educated elite, most notably this final statement espousing a general fondness for the Whigs against Mr. Van Buren in ‘36.

In this Will column, the writer opines that denim jeans appear to be lowering the common denominator of our nation, spreading a doctrine of informality and irreverence to an empire in decline. Though not normally my bailiwicks, I found myself agreeing with nearly every aspect of what Will was saying. What does this mean?

In my natural state I wear khaki pants, a button shirt with a pocket for my blue pen and notebook. My fedora would smell of cigars even though I don’t smoke them; the hat would produce this smell independently. I would look in the mirror and the generations would stare back at me, and I would stare into the future at kin to come.

If our fashion is to be derived from a bygone day, may we empty the steamer trunks of our attics and wear the vestments of our ancestors. Why not emulate the best of our past instead of the most garish? Because it is not cool? That is precisely the sort of criteria great-grandparents would advise us to ignore. Just a few more years, hat. Our time will come.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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