Reflecting on Status and Culture

I finished my menswear required reading. Where do we go from here?

It’s not surprising to see fashion enthusiast fancy themselves as culture commentators. I mean it just makes sense: when you’re in a hobby that is all about personal expression, it’s natural to be conscious of how your expression plays with the world around you. Once your reflections get to experimentation, subcultures, and trends you’ll probably develop opinions on how these things take hold in culture, what non-fashion factors affect what we wear, and what benefits people could possibly have in participating. It makes our hobby a little more social-scientific, even if we end up being wrong. Perhaps the idea is that an armchair culture critic can be correct. Forecasting something and being right is always at the back of our minds. Like with weather, no one wants to be caught in a culturally rainy day. At the very least we want to look like we’re onto something with our insight, that we can sense something coming or perhaps notice what other’s can’t see…yet.

I’m obviously talking about myself here as my blog certainly took a turn during the pandemic, moving from a content centered on tailoring experiments and vintage finds to reflections on “menswear as a hobby” and what participating in it may say about you. After all, menswear has moved from being the de facto uniform for business and formal dress to being a fully fledged subculture of hobbyists full of guys using tailoring, milsurp, and jeans to communicate things about themselves (or at least they hope so). It’s been a lot of fun to think about each of the little trends that happen within this already niche subculture.

This is probably why reading Ametora was so interesting to me. In that book, W. David Marx outlines with great detail how American style took hold in Japan, leading not only to the preservation of Americana fashion and its manufacturing methods but to a whole list of Japanese subcultures that contrast (and sometimes echo) their American counterparts. For me, it was a great case study in showing how fashion-cultural movements can happen outside of the typical Western method; people got into it because they liked how it looked. But as we learn in Marx’s latest book, that’s not really the case is it?

In Status and Culture, Marx explains that all cultural movements (of all sizes) are in pursuit of status, or social rank. The entire book is a framework for how this operates, from defining different types of status (global vs. local) to how the nuance of cultural practices relate to how accurate your status value proposition is (aspirational or normal). It’s quite good and provides many examples that support his mindset; I can only wish I was as articulate and succinct in my own views on how trends work.

The book is pretty much Menswear Required Reading (MRR), as Marx’s framework works as a companion piece to multiple pieces of menswear media, like his own Ametora or Jason Jules’s Black Ivy. For me, it definitely enhances my own articles on Standing Out, Authenticity, or even Rule of Cool. I wonder how much those articles would’ve changed if I had read this book first! It might have enhanced the discussion, especially since Marx provided a lot of great terms to use in the future.

Spencer, MJ, and I have a lengthy discussion about the book on the podcast! We get into it right away, so I definitely recommend reading it since you might get lost. It’s not a proper review by any means, but a discussion about the topics presented and what it says about the future of culture, as well as what we can do about it. It’s honestly much more about applying the reading to our own views on culture. You have been warned!

Podcast Outline

  • 10:36 – Initial Book Thoughts
  • 22:09 – Benefits of High Status
  • 34:41 – Role of Taste
  • 44:27 – Cultural Creativity and Attention to Details
  • 1:03:56 – Putting Observations Into Words
  • 1:07:14 – Menswear Discussion
  • 1:38:09 – Wrap-up

After recording the podcast and discussing it in realtime with both Spencer and my discord, it’s pretty obvious that I am marred by my own biases on culture, especially as this book is mainly being applied to how I consume and participate in menswear.

One of my main qualms with the book is that I really wanted more anecdotes on low status or at least more nuanced examples of counter culture, rebellion, and innovation. To me, the book’s examples seems to have everything fall neatly in line with the pursuit of status (whether it’s higher or normal) despite the fact that many things are complex. I’d personally love more examples of failed cultural movements, not in kitsch but with low status consequences; I’m thinking like nerd culture or Disney adults, two things that people opt into despite those groups not having much in the way of traditional benefits. This is most likely because I tend to view “menswear as a hobby” as a type of nerd, low status subculture, something that in today’s age doesn’t make much sense to participate in, especially when compared to other fashion groups.

I’m sure Marx would counter and say the existence of the classic menswear microcosm is a prime example of local status or creating a subculture. And plus, his book is a framework, not a documented analysis of every cultural phenomenon. Perhaps Ametora spoiled me by being a fantastic example of Marx’s thesis in action, where people would make groups in order to give themsleves status in a way.

I also got the vibe that the book is dreading the future of culture. Perhaps this is mired with many current discussions about culture. With the internet/social media creating our modern monoculture, it can be difficult to see how progress will occur. Subverting mainstream conventions at the apex of cultural proliferation (or mass culture) is needed to inspire innovation, but this is difficult when so many things can co-exist in the zeitgeist even while being antithetical to each other. I’ll admit that it does feel weird to not have a defined, cohesive theme on what is “good taste” in the current culture and that mass culture dominates the zeitgeist more than ever before, almost resulting in an abandonment of taste. Honestly, it may not even truly be about taste, what I call a personal reference point with intention and reason, but rather about promoting participating/enjoyment without true (or introspective) engagement.

For example, Spencer and I like to talk about Marvel movies and how theaters today are full of franchises; Scorsese and many others have used this to show how film has become less varied over the years. I could say the same thing about the proliferation of Hans Zimmer’s minimalist-yet-epic, audience-pandering BRAAAM music that defines many film scores today, which take the place of more complex, orchestrated music. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative, since culture today doesn’t seem to be looking to innovate. And here’s the thing: I don’ want to be so negative. And in reflecting (again) on the book, it’s clear that Marx doesn’t want to be either.

The best part of the book is near the end where Marx offers a few suggestions on how to [potentially] improve culture. The medicine list includes reducing the benefits that “high status” individuals get to claim as well as treating high status people as peers; we can look at many successful businesses that adopt this model to promote more camaraderie. Marx also recommends complexity as a tool, promoting cultural movements that constantly reference and reinvent of tropes and conventions of the past and present to create a new cultural identity. It is here that Marx is positive and hopeful…and where I feel like the book has more to say than to simply observe. Status & Culture is not a gotcha on how you can predicting the future, but perhaps a friendly reminder that change can happen and we should do our best to get there.

When thoughts start to go about the future of culture and if “good taste” (or at least, innovation) will continue, the sentiment can feel dangerously close to “my thing that I like and is good isn’t being talked about”. If someone who is reading this book is concerned with monoculture as the avenue for things to survive (perhaps proliferate is the better word), you can feel like time in the sun is needed to maintain your status, provided that cultural relevance is something you hold important. I’d call it “reverse hipster-dom” or intentionally trying to invoke artist status, where you want as many people as possible to appreciate and do your “thing”.

It’s also easy to fall into the trap of upholding whatever holds “high status” (or perhaps mass culture status) as a the metric for proliferation. Vintage-heads routinely praise Ralph Lauren as the bastion of their taste, being happy when the brand aligns with their POV and being offended when it doesn’t; J. Press undergoes the same thing with ivy-heads. It’s a bit of a shame as there are still plenty of designers and brands who do the niche “thing” with more accuracy: high or mass status is still seen as a metric for success (and perhaps validation).

This is where the book’s pieces on subcultures and rebellion are pertinent, showing that focusing energies to local status is perhaps the best way forward, where small groups can still retain culture and perhaps undergo innovation. Classic Menswear isn’t a monolith anymore– you can drop into any various subcultures depending on your personal taste. Your “thing” will still survive provided that you are there to keep it alive and as long as you’re okay with not achieving mainstream status.

Granted, this new status comes with increased strife, non mainstream things are harder to partake in whether its romcoms actually in the theatre or neckties (tie factories are literally dying). You either have to dig deep to find it or normalize the idea that what was once common is now an artisan commodity. Derek Guy has a great article about why today is the best time in fashion and Marx’s framework certainly applies to explain why. Many of the things we like are still around; you just can’t walk into the mall and grab it. People just don’t like this required extra effort needed to participate. And as someone who is quite used to things being niche, this effort is just par for the course.

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As I internalize Style & Culture, it’s quite clear that I am obsessed concerned with increasing status as any person described in the book. But instead of vying for general high status through disseminating knowledge or even artist status through novelty/innovation, I feel like I am attempting to achieve normal status. And this blog, podcast, and personal style are all my efforts in making that happen, to normalize and demystify my approach to clothing. If anything, I want try and remove the status of those things and bring them to an accessible level: to wear it because you like it, not because you’re trying to appear higher status. At its core, this is all about simply wanting not to be misunderstood, which is the basics of normal status.

There is a temptation to reduce personal choices to gain status in a subgroup and claim it as a “gotcha”. Even with Marx’s great framework, I detest the idea that everyone is optimizing every choice in a the most status benefiting way. After all, it requires awareness that there are status benefits to every personal decision you make. While this is much easier now thanks to the current form of the internet being a much better facilitator for all sorts of outlets and groups for every niche hobby you can think of, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes things just happen!

Getting into the menswear hobby was never about trying to join the counter culture. I wasn’t even aware of that any of these things had communities to join in; I found out about vintage Facebook groups (and by extension, found Spencer) as well as MFA and Styleforum after I had already started wading through menswear. I was honestly quite used to being alone in my hobbies, which is most likely why I considered my self as having a form of “low status”. That label is definitely bit of a misrepresentation since I obviously had friends this whole time (not fashion ones mind you), but I also knew that developing an interest in “bold clothing” didn’t do much socially, at least not until much later. In the past, it involved the faux trauma of “why are you so dressed up”, which is usually deserved especially in the early days of my style. However, this “menswear trauma” can prove annoying (at least) to make one yearn for normal status.

After all, I have to remind myself (and you) that my menswear hobby started a few years before I made this blog. It took a long time to get true “esteem” for the look I was trying to do. The spearpoint wearing, beret hatted, suit guys only existed in old photographs or movies, at least in the beginning. And while I may have met figures like Mark Cho or Ethan Newton now, they really were just “[menswear] famous guys I saw online” and not of peers in a community. I guess online mutuals occupy a different space compared to friends/people I hang out with IRL despite figuring a bigger part of the culture I participate in.

This view on the menswear subculture may have tied into my own skewed perception of being “low status” as I didn’t tangibly connect with people in my hobby. Participation, at least early on, didn’t do much for me but I think that view is why my friends and I all were comfortable to stand out; there wasn’t any high status to maintain nor were there explicit rewards for doing what we did. Everything was equal for us. We understood that we liked our own things and that empathy for our different interests provided camaraderie. It probably helps that we went through this development before becoming working adults and more nuanced people.

I did these things because I liked them, regardless of if they had an effect on my status. It wasn’t until much later that esteem came for our choices. What is funny to note is that quite a few things of what we like have made their way into the zeitgeist, like big pants, berets, or white socks. It’s not mainstream, but it certainly isn’t as weird as it was considered before. Unlike how Spencer felt on the podcast, I feel like I would still have my current taste even if they were popular or mainstream. We’ll never truly know, since at least when we started, there wasn’t many people who dressed like us. It took MFA years to get behind wide legs. high waists, or even a tie worn for fun. You might say that Spencer and I inadvertently created our own status group, though it wasn’t to proliferate our style but to feel “normal” in the choices we made.

Maybe that’s the whole point: we are all trying to improve status…but most of us are trying to be considered “normal”. Or maybe less “weird”?

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Fashion friends or friends who happen to be into fashion?

Getting to that conclusion through Marx does generate some hard questions. Am I intentionally moving to be part of zeitgeist in an attempt to normalize my own approach to menswear? How much of it is due to increased wealth status and being able to more accurately execute the vision of Old Ethan? How much of this is just coincidence or just maturity in how I internalize and apply influences from new contexts? Are there even social benefits (outside of notoriety) that come with this? Is any of this high status, perhaps even local? Has my approach changed now that online fashion communities and citing the internet as precedent for style choices are both more common? It’s gets even muddier when you realize that what I like have always been enjoyed by subcultures, which is proof of my own lack of true innovation (and lack of artist status). A garment or style move’s status as “niche” is really just relative in a subculture filled world. There’s a lot to think about for future blog posts and podcasts.

Perhaps if I developed this hobby today, where Reddit, IG, and Tiktok can bring the “niche” to your fingertips much easier than a , decade go, I would have been aware of these groups (and their benefits); I probably wouldn’t have made any of the decisions I made during this whole journey. At the very least, I would have felt more comfortable opting into things— there would have so much concurrent precedent to reinforce my decisions instead of just old photos! It doesn’t do much help to dwell on the past; I should be happy with my current status, whether it’s a coincidence or due to my own efforts in sharing my outfits.

The fact that my niche moves have become normalized has probably resulted in the fact that I haven’t done any “new” style moves in a while. As my taste and perhaps status have normalized, I’ve since shifted my focus to writing about what clothes signal and you view those signals, instead of say leveraging them for higher status rewards. I’m still interested in innovation as a la Marx, my personal menswear approach incorporates a bit of complexity in its execution, which makes sense considering that my tie-wearing take on menswear requires much more components for a look compared to more minimal (or casual) take; there are simply more options involved in my outfits which naturally prevent sameness.

Though perhaps thanks to the internet, there will always be a group to bestow you with esteem for your efforts— how lucky we are to have developed this interest in the current age! Even then, we are still presented with a paradox of sorts: you can still dress like your heroes and comrades on the internet…while being surrounded by nothing of the sort. It then becomes a question of where you choose to get your status (or esteem) from and how long you think you can commit to that choice.

For me, relying on the internet only for status can still feel a little fake. Perhaps I’m traumatized by how much I had to dig to find circles or even content that spoke to me. While I don’t doubt the legitimacy of the friends I’ve made online (or how helpful that content was), I fear that I may be stuck on the something more “real” or tangible. In other words, no matter how many friends or colleagues I have online, I will tend to focus more on the people I can Tangibly see. But more on that next time.

Marx doesn’t make his book out to be a cheat code to gain high status and be accepted at all times. But it does provide insight on how it works and why we potentially enjoy higher status, at least compared to what we had before. For my goal of turning menswear into no-context (but highly intentional) dressing, it just makes sense to downplay the status connotations that menswear has had, at least in the ways that most media makes it out to be. It should be a way for you to feel good and to express yourself, whether that means dressing in the ideal proportions you like or dressing like other #menswear favorites like Brycelands, Drake’s, or J. Mueser. You can always game the system for the purposes of your own pursuit of a POV. Just keep in mind that partaking in this menswear hobby may not get you to mainstream appeal nor does it allow you to be considered innovative or even truly counterculture. I mean it might happen, but it shouldn’t be the goal. We should do this thing because we like it. No benefits, no status.

Though I guess you can get those things on the internet. And if you want status (or esteem) from me, you already know what you should wear. Just read through the blog 😉

EDIT: 11/15/22

It looks like we weren’t the only ones who had strong reactions to the book! I hopped on stream to discuss the book with Henrik, contrasting Marx’s views on culture and taste with other philosophers. Henrik also pushes me on my self-view of being low status, bringing up the very good point that low status is typically characterized by a lack of education, specifically when it comes to the appreciation of aesthetics. The stream later goes into about being in positions where you don’t need to concern yourself with people’s esteem, how much of a currency “coolness” is in the everything-goes world, and how most people, through Marx’s framework, are likely opposed to the view of menswear as a hobby. There’s also a section where I get to the concept of “cultural patina” , where you introspect and show how long you’ve been into something, which is honestly super hipster.

Again I’ve gotta hand it to Marx— his book has opened up so many avenues to explore when thinking about how we participate in menswear.

Thanks for listening and reading along! Don’t forget to support us on Patreon to get some extra content and access to our exclusive Discord. We also stream on Twitch and upload the highlights to Youtube.

The Podcast is produced by MJ.

Always a pleasure,

Ethan M. Wong

Big thank you to our top tier Patrons (the SaDCast Fanatics): Philip, Shane, Jarek, Henrik , and John.

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