Slaves of fashion

Culture | Jeans, post-democracy, & other cultural buzz

Issue: "Alan Keyes: Can he win?," March 13, 1999
  • Tragically unhip
    Levi Strauss put a pair of jeans in every closet, but now the company has lost touch with the young market that turned faded blues into a fashion statement. Levi's have been around for nearly 150 years and went from being work clothes to generation gap symbol to a humdrum decline. The jeans are still jeans, but the rebel factor is gone. So Levi's has been forced to cut back. Last year, it closed 13 U.S. plants and cut more than 7,000 jobs. This year, 11 of its 22 remaining plants in North America will be shuttered, although much of this work will go overseas. Levi's execs are scratching their heads while they try to convince 15- to 24-year-olds that Levi's jeans are still cool. The problem is marketing. "There is no buzz for Levi's anymore," said marketing consultant Irma Zandl. "They missed the beat over and over, and kids have just moved on." The world is inundated with fashion ads tying overpriced clothes to hipness. That's old news. And, as numerous fashion designers know, mixing decadence in with the pitch can only help. But Levi's have fallen off the map. Since the 1960s marketers have tried to harness everything countercultural and subversive to move product. This so-called "conquest of cool" (see WORLD, Nov. 28, 1998) means that the money teens spend in malls doesn't just buy clothes, but also registers as dollar votes for various marketing strategies. Not that Levi's hasn't tried. One recent ad shows a dreadlocked kid in baggy Levi's standing with a sign that reads "Conformity Breeds Mediocrity." In a perfect bit of brain-dead marketing firepower, the ad campaign is titled "What's True," as if some meaning could be found in a pair of red-tabbed jeans. In fact, the decline and fall of Levi's isn't worth crying over. Its competitors are as fatuous if not more so in their advertising. Kids with more money can go for brands like the Gap and Tommy Hilfiger and the rest can save money with discounted brands. What makes this story interesting is that Levi's has fallen on the sword it taught the world to use.
  • Mother doesn't know best
    When is a woman grown-up enough to get married? The question takes a serious turn in The Other Sister(Touchstone, rated PG-13 for adult themes and profanity). Diane Keaton dominates the movie as a socialite driven to a stress headache. Years ago, her youngest daughter Carla was packed off to a school for the mentally retarded because she and her alcoholic husband could no longer handle her. Now she's grown up and back home. Juliette Lewis plays the retarded character, Carla. She still has her "special needs," but she's also dying to live like a normal adult. But Mom can't handle it and still sees her as a child. (Ms. Lewis herself is quite a story in real life; before making this movie, she spent time in a drug rehab program run by the Church of Scientology!) Soon Carla goes to school and meets Danny (played by Saving Private Ryan alum Giovanni Ribisi), who is also disabled and having a tough time getting around. They bond instantly and fall madly in love. But The Other Sister's lead characters are completely unbelievable and their interaction feels like it belongs in a play put on by an OK college drama department. Meanwhile, Mom keeps getting more irritating. The film plays her as a rich Republican hypocrite who can't let go of Carla. Soon we discover another other sister who is a lesbian with a girlfriend-and Mom can't get over that either. (That PC subplot hangs in the air like a separate story, as if someone added it with a staple gun.) Emotional scene piles on emotional scene until the whole thing becomes draining and uncomfortable. The scenes where Carla and Danny embarrass themselves in public are downright painful to watch. But it seems The Other Sister isn't really about those two anyway, but about Mom and her supposed hangups. And Diane Keaton gives a performance run on autopilot, which makes matters worse. Should we sympathize with her or not? Probably not. This time around, filmmaker Garry Marshall leaves with an uneven, unfocused, and often unwatchable movie that should have done more with less. The Other Sister's message of tolerance misses by a mile. There is certainly little tolerance shown for motherhood.
  • The court religion of the managerial state
    "I'm from the government. I'm here to help you." That's the preamble to America's new Constitution, says political scientist Paul Gottfried. In his new book After Liberalism (Princeton University Press), he argues that what passes for liberal democracy is neither liberal nor democratic. Instead what we have is a managerial state that sees us as lumps of ignorant clay to be forced into Big Brother's mold. Mr. Gottfried often describes the regime in religious terms. He castigates the theocratic rule of a "pluralist priesthood" of social meddlers. These people could care less about law, order, justice, liberty, religious freedom, property rights, or anything else elites are supposed to respect. "They aim at 'openness,' 'inclusiveness,' and other ideals that require the monitoring of groups by public administrators and behavioral scientists," he writes. From John Dewey to Hillary Clinton, the song remains the same. The author argues that modern pluralism is not really pluralism, but a "court religion" for the powerful: Some ideas are better for "democracy" than others, which must be shouted down or suppressed. Mr. Gottfried points to the Canadian government's harsh censorship policies as an example of burning down the village of free speech in order to save it. Sexual license is the chump change that's left over after the polite totalitarians are done with you. To make matters worse, Mr. Gottfried sees little hope for a taxpayer uprising to reverse the tide. After all, he says, a conscientious citizen running for office can be defeated by charges that he will hurt Medicare, Social Security, or some middle-class entitlement. Joe Six-Pack keeps supporting the powers that see him as a sheep. After Liberalism is no angry screed, but a dense, probing work full of insight from the author's seeming encyclopedic knowledge of Western thought. Mr. Gottfried notes that old-fashioned liberalism, pseudoscience, sociology, pop psychology, and postmodernism have all been used to preach the gospel of social planning. The court religion can drop one confession and pick up another, but its grip on power only gets tighter.

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