Lately I've been wondering what an Obama White House might mean for the future of bling. For the fate of heavy gold, medallions, below-the-butt denim, the whole hip-hop gangsta fashion habit. What if January 20, 2009 turned out to be not just a cultural and clothing pivot point for adults -- a return to the minimalism of sleek, 60s-era sharkskin suits, the containment of golf-ball sized Barbara Bush costume pearls -- but a watershed fashion moment for teenaged boys? Picture it. On Inauguration Day next year, thousands and thousands of young men and boys from city street corners to suburbs, look up from their X-Boxes and catch a glimpse of the impeccable President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama climbing the steps of the Capitol and suddenly feel... unfashionable. Out of it. Old. What if they are overcome by the same stunned, something's-happening-here feeling that teenagers in the early 60s, their closets full of sock hop regalia, felt when they first laid eyes on The Beatles in 1964, on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan Show. For adults, this kind of moment is, at most, something to take note of. To a teenager, it's a gale force warning of imminent social tsunami, an urgent prod from the eyeballs and the amygdala that to everything there is a season, and now is the time to change, change, change. Ask not what you can do for your closet, but what your closet, if ignored, can do to you.
This week in the nation's capital, Washington Post's Metro columnist Courtland Milloy wrote about the street scene in the mostly African-American, inner-city neighborhood of Trinidad, where D.C. police have set up a Balkans-style traffic checkpoints in and out of the neighborhood in an effort to stem a recent spate of drug related murders. Sitting on the front porch of 67-year-old Willie Dorn, a retired corrections officer, Milloy noted the antics of a group of teenaged boys "shirtless, pants below their behinds," who, as Milloy and Dorn watched, launched a plastic bottle at a passing scooter, nearly causing an accident. "Maybe a President Obama could help restore some pride in the black community," Dorn said.
The relationship of clothing to behavior is real. Clothes may not "make the man," but they shape the mind in ways large and small. Ask any stay-at-home parent, freelance writer or invalid who has spent one too many days in baggy sweats and stained T-shirts and begins to notice (in a semi-alarmed, detached sort of way, of course) a dwindling of discipline and energy. The well-known Rx for this condition is a shower and a change into grown-up clothes, the kind with seams that may pinch the body, but can help focus the head.
Until Barack Obama came along, the most visible pop culture exemplar of 1960s suit-and-tie style was the tightly-wound Rev. Louis Farrakhan. But Farrakhan, for all his former high visibility, was never mainstream. It's no surprise that he failed to inspire a national craze for slim suits and buffed oxfords.
Barack Obama is different. Barack Obama is the suit next time.