#135: Never Ending Casual Friday

A year ago, I wrote about the increasingly casual nature of American attire and the aesthetic that Venkatesh Rao calls domestic cozy. I said that “by wandering the city in sweatpants and slippers, we're finally dressing for the environment we have, not the one we're nostalgic for,” meaning an environment that is increasingly safe, controlled, and comfortable—outdoors as well as indoors. While the leather jacket evolved from functional outerwear (or “urban armor”) to become a countercultural symbol during an era when cities like New York were widely perceived as gritty and dangerous places, Allbirds and athleisure became the most appropriate clothing for the recent zeitgeist, signifying the growing comfort and safety of urban life. In his 2001 essay “Junkspace,” Rem Koolhaas proclaimed that “air conditioning has launched the endless building,” leading to our unbroken experience of interiorized, mall-like architectural space. “The more we inhabit the palatial, the more we seem to dress down” is an observation that will resonate with anyone who’s been to Vegas. That pattern soon expanded to the outdoors as well, sans air conditioning: Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg accomplished the Disneyfication of the formerly seedy Times Square in the ‘90s and ‘00s, while unassuming urban districts everywhere became gentrified playgrounds for the affluent, and many public spaces quietly became private, complete with heightened security. The more recent explosion of shared scooters in those same districts marked the trend’s apotheosis—a twee iconography that reframed downtown areas as campuses or leisure zones.

Now, of course, there’s a pandemic, and our physical worlds have contracted. When we’re not literally at home, we’re likely to be somewhere equally safe (even if air conditioning and the “endless building” are now disease vectors). Sure enough, our prior wardrobes have proven surprisingly suitable for this moment, and we can safely put our remaining formal attire in storage. But something has changed: The outdoors has re-emerged as a sinister environment, not just because of an airborne virus that could seemingly waft anywhere, but because of the pandemic’s secondary effects: economic wreckage and a perception of increased chaos on the streets. I have heard many people say, both critically and approvingly, that New York currently feels like it did in the ‘80s or ‘90s, and while this is surely an exaggeration, it reflects a sense that an era is ending. Brightly-colored clusters of branded scooters feel tone deaf in the pandemic-stricken city. Masks are the new leather jackets. Outdoors is the new indoors, and vice versa.

But the sterile enclave—the Allbirds Zone—was always a myth made possible by who and what were kept out. The technology for defining the boundaries has just become more refined. Even during the recent boom times, San Franciscans, ever ahead of the curve, complained about the growing presence of homeless individuals in public spaces, seeming to care less about their existence or plight than their visibility and the city’s failure to warehouse them somewhere else. This, in turn, has bolstered demand for further innovations in insularity. In cities, the gated communities rarely have gates. Koolhaas acknowledges that a population excluded from junkspace by day is called upon at night to maintain it: “Between 2 and 5 a.m., yet another population…is mopping, hovering, sweeping, toweling, resupplying.” Our recent forced retreat indoors has only intensified our sensitivity to the exterior while providing more popular rationales to keep excluding it. The murder of George Floyd called vital attention to the apparatus that enforces these boundaries and sparked a momentary union of the two spaces as protestors flooded the streets around the world in solidarity with the groups that are pushed out. During those weeks in June, and even still, we glimpsed a utopia we may not have realized we’d drifted so far away from—a version of public space with no dress code, that admits everyone.

If you enjoyed this, consider subscribing to the premium newsletter, which is 20% until August 31. This week’s issue was about ubiquitous urbanization and how it’s impossible to truly leave the city even if we move out.