Discover more from Kneeling Bus
Adam Greenfield wrote a great newsletter a few years ago in which he examined the flood of nostalgia unleashed by his purchase of a new Schott leather jacket (his previous Schott had been stolen from a Lower East Side house party in 1982). In the course of his reverie, Greenfield makes a point about leather jackets that should have been obvious to me but wasn’t at the time: “A Schott is heavy. It’s functional outerwear, meant to protect you in the event that you manage to dump your bike on a rainy corner…So it feels, in the first instance, like urban armor.” I remembered that line in particular a week ago on one of those chilly spring days when leather jackets proliferate in New York, far from any glimmer of physical danger that would necessitate a layer of protection. In Greenfield’s curmudgeonly manner, he compares the leather jacket to the punk rock with which it’s culturally linked: “Any power the thing might have had to connote resistance has been drained from it by overuse and overfamiliarity, if not outright recuperation, but by the same token it is massively reassuring and comfortable.” Like so much fashion, the leather jacket evolved from a functional garment into an image of itself.
I like the idea of a leather jacket being a form of armor—the notion that the outside world is a harsh wilderness and clothing is the only layer shielding you from its threats. That is something to be nostalgic about in the present condition, where we’re embedded in layer upon layer of additional protection, and only by artificially engineering those man-vs-nature situations (by getting on a motorcycle or going camping) does clothing’s protective role kick in. Marshall McLuhan wrote that “clothing and housing are near twins…housing extends the inner heat-control mechanisms of our organism, while clothing is a more direct extension of the outer surface of the body.” By that definition, cars, too, are a kind of clothing, yet another outer layer, even an exoskeleton. When I owned a car and lived in a place where I could drive everywhere, I rarely wore a coat, and haven’t plenty of us summoned an Uber after getting caught in the rain unprepared? Rem Koolhaas observes that “air conditioning has launched the endless building,” and if we’re always effectively indoors, our need for functional outerwear diminishes accordingly.
Clothing today is more casual and comfortable than it’s ever been, and the urban environments that once spawned Greenfield’s leather-armor-clad punk rock aesthetic are now the vanguard of Allbirds and athleisure. That shift is easy to gripe about, but it feels like a truer embrace of the clean, safe 21st-century experience, where a climate-controlled escape from the elements is never more than an app-click away. Venkatesh Rao recently started exploring an aesthetic he calls "domestic cozy," that takes this casual comfort a step further, connecting it with our digital retreat from public social media toward private communication channels: Domestic cozy "seeks to predictably control a small, closed environment rather than gamble in a large, open one." The latter requires armor; the former just requires better infrastructure, and urban public space has actually led the internet in the process of subdividing itself into privatized enclaves. By wandering these spaces in sweatpants and slippers, we're finally dressing for the environment we have, not the one we're nostalgic for.
A great Paul Ford essay on his conflicted relationship with tech, how his kids will understand computers differently than we do, and why he still loves it anyway. Technology is "just another layer in the Big Crappy Human System along with religion, energy, government, sex, and, more than anything else, money."