How-to: Collecting

March 31, 2011

The blue-blooded set has long amused itself with some of the silliest pastimes there are. Johnson & Johnson heir Jamie Johnson’s father told him, with regard to what he ought to do with his life post-college, “Well… you could always collect antique maps.”

That father is, according to inter-web research, “James Loring Johnson, who leads a quiet life of reading and painting landscapes.”

Eccentric hobbies and collections of staggering triviality taken up by well-bred patricians proclaim their adherents’ station by their frivolity: I am sufficiently wealthy as to not have to care about life’s hassles; that I spend my time collecting English sextants implies I am not required to spend my time doing anything else, like earning money or paying bills.

The more esoteric the hobby or assemblage, the better. Collecting baseball cards can be fun but it’s not very impressive, because it’s common and cheap to do. Better a trove of briarwood pipes or French birding manuals. In a pinch, antique horse bridles will suffice.

The more trivial the things collected or the hobby engaged in, and the more expensive and difficult to collect or undertake, the better.

Editor’s note: collections and activities having to do, in some degree or other, with birds, dogs, horses, sailing, maps, tweed, the original American colonies, old books, geneology, or things which are British are best. Aim for one of those, or combine them all: your editorial staff, for example, collects British genelogy books which trace the bloodlines of labradors from the Plymouth Bay colony to modern day. The books come with maps and are bound in tweed.

Declination Americana

March 31, 2011

Dan Neil’s op-ed My Carhartt Detroit Jacketwas published in The Wall Street Journal March 5, 2011.

His baseball cap was about as used-up as could be and still claim the dignity of being called headwear. It was torn up and brown with dried sweat, a workingman’s crown of thorns. Above the brim it said “Carhartt.”

“I started buying Carhartt clothes when I moved to Montana and took up trail work,” said Dustin Gaines, 35, of Livingston, sitting in a coffee shop in Raleigh, N.C., with his wife, Shannon O’Malley. “I think their clothes are really well built.” Mr. Gaines, now a carpenter, was wearing scuffed-up canvas Carhartt “logger” pants, the kind with a double layer of fabric riveted to the leg fronts. “He got married in these,” Ms. O’Malley noted.

Your editorial staff's prized Carhartt.

In my perfect and naïve universe, where brands have meaning and meanings matter, only people like these should be allowed to buy Carhartt, from the Dearborn, Mich.-based manufacturer of sturdy work clothes. As one blue-collar brand after another—Levi’s, Wrangler, Dr. Martens—has descended into galling hipsterism, co-opted by soft-handed college students who wear their irony like John Deere baseball caps, Carhartt has managed to stand apart, the secret handshake of the American yeomantry.

My own Carhartt jacket, a tan hooded “Detroit” model, was forever my sartorial entrée to the working class. Whenever I needed to pass among them on some journalistic assignment or other—sprint car racing in Knoxville, Iowa, sand dragsters in Oklahoma—I’d shoulder on the Carhartt and begin speaking in the hard, flat drawl of my youth. For me, Carhartt was camouflage, but not the deer-hunting kind.

That jacket, pale with age, is gone now, I know not where. And as I considered replacing it recently I had to recalibrate the meaning, the code of the brand, which has changed drastically in my lifetime, and not to my taste.

Carhartt is in the midst of a streetwear breakout. The Carhartt catalog is filled with slim-fit women’s jeans, logo-wear hoodies and the company’s own collection of cool-kid casual wear, the 1889 Collection (named after the year the company was founded). In Europe Carhartt has gone full “Gap,” in collaboration with the German clothier Work in Progress. The European Carhartt clothing line is, if anything, anti-work, a slagheap of thrift-shop dishevelment—letterman cardigans and puffy thermal vests—designed for inked-up millennials. The company has collaborated with shoemakers Vans and Burton, and maintains affinity-marketing programs targeting skaters and BMX riders. I say the following in my best grumpy-old-man voice: Bah.

The Carhartt-wearers of my youth—the hunters and horsemen of eastern North Carolina—would have escorted these lanky Euro-goofs to the edge of town and roughly deposited them from the beds of pickups.

Most troubling of all, Carhartt is going prêt-à-porter: In May, the company will roll out the Adam Kimmel collection—he’s a well-groomed New York menswear designer—to be retailed through that well-known farm-and-feed outlet, Barney’s. Offerings will include a cashmere knit beanie and a quilted blazer in moleskin.

I don’t begrudge any company growing its business and I have reason to be sympathetic to Carhartt, a family-owned business that maintains its headquarters and studios in Michigan, which is nowhere near Seventh Avenue. Carhartt also manufactures about 10% of its merchandise in the USA, which is roughly 10% more than Nike.

Nor is this Carhartt’s first brush with clothing-as-costume. In the 1990s, hip-hop artists started sporting Carhartt clothes and Timberland boots in a way that, deconstructed, spoke of the hard times of urban life.

Still, it seems to me, something has been lost, the silent signification of the Carhartt as something real and invested, productive and capable, grounded and consequential—exactly like the people who wore it.

North Face suffered a similar fate. The company that became famous for hard-core mountaineering gear has become utterly trivialized by its popularity. Now any kid with 100 bucks can step out in 700-fill technical clothing. The mall has replaced the Matterhorn.

I bought a deep violet Carhartt Detroit jacket last week—my local tack store was out of the tan. And I have to say, I was reassured. Still the same cotton duck fabric, still the distinctive triple-stitched seams at the shoulders and gussets. No sign as yet the company was extracting profit by using a cheaper stitching process. The big-gauge, brass-like zipper was right where I left it, with a pull tab big enough to be worked with heavy gloves. The elastic gathers at the waist and wrists shut out the cold. The quilted poly-fill batting inside the jacket was thin but surprisingly warm.

Flattering it’s not. With the oversized hood up, the jacket makes me look a little like the Unibomber. But it is tough and diesel and warm and venerable. It feels like it could ward off bullets. I got it on sale for about $50. I can’t remember the last time so much satisfaction came at anywhere near that price.

I’m sorry that Carhartt is no longer the Navajo code talk of working men and women. But as long as the company keeps building the Detroit jacket, I’ll keep coming back.

Dartmouth Rugby Opens Season Strong

March 29, 2011

The Dartmouth Rugby Football Club opened its Spring season this past weekend with a 15-5 victory over an agile, strong University of Delaware side in Newark, Del., on that school’s Frazier Field.

The match was also the DRFC’s first as part of the newly-formed College Premier Division, a goup of rugby-playing colleges and universities to which Dartmouth was recently added. The Division is comprised of the 31 best collegiate rugby teams in the country, which are sub-divided by regional conference. The formation is new to American collegiate athletics, which had not previously recognized top-flight programs with their own division.

The DRFC next plays the Pennsylvania State University, and then travels to Barbados for its annual Spring Tour.

Notes & Asides

March 25, 2011
  1. The first President Bush read Bill Buckley, the second read Rush Limbaugh. This says as much about each author (in Limbaugh’s case, a charitable term) as it does about each President.
  2. Per Twitter: why do people who write so poorly insist on writing so often?

William F. Buckley, Jr. (left) & President George H.W. Bush

Be Prepared

March 23, 2011

The popular view of Earth and our existence thereon is remarkably egocentric: most people ask, what are the odds of a planet existing that would support life like ours?

That construction puts the horse before the cart, and us before the cosmos. Humanity didn’t exist and float around until miraculously finding a planet to settle on. The planet came first, then a whole lot of other things, and then – finally – came us. And given the predominant thinking among physicists – that the universe is infinite and constantly expanding – the odds are high that a planet with Earth’s qualities, capable of supporting human-ish life, would exist. An infinite universe means infinite numbers of stars and planets, the combination of which make solar systems, and – given that infinity is really a terribly big number – a strong likelihood that planets like ours re-occur. Scrubbed down: it’s almost statistically certain that other earthlike planets exist, and equally certain there is life on them.

To illustrate: given the number of people on Earth, it would be hard to find a Korean Muslim named Steve who stands seven feet tall and is left-handed. Steve might be out there, but he’s rare. Now, assume instead that there is an infinite number of people. The odds are that Steve is out there, somewhere. In fact, the odds are several Steves are out there, though they may be few and far between. Even so, an infinity of Steves can exist. You can find anything in a large enough sample pool.  And if your pool is infinite, like the universe, you can find anything an infinite number of times over.

Thus with planets and people. The universe is the largest sample pool there is, and it gets bigger every nanosecond. In all that space, it’s certain there are planets like ours, and certain there is life on them.

Which is a good enough excuse to arm ourselves to the teeth.

Denim Be Damned

March 17, 2011

From syndicated columnist George F. Will’s recent piece in The Washington Post; the entire colum is available here:

On any American street, or in any airport or mall, you see the same sad tableau: A 10-year-old boy is walking with his father, whose development was evidently arrested when he was that age, judging by his clothes. Father and son are dressed identically — running shoes, T-shirts. And jeans, always jeans. If mother is there, she, too, is draped in denim.

In their undifferentiated dress, children and their childish parents become undifferentiated audiences for juvenilized movies (the six — so far — “Batman” adventures and “Indiana Jones and the Credit-Default Swaps,” coming soon to a cineplex near you). Denim is the clerical vestment for the priesthood of all believers in democracy’s catechism of leveling — thou shalt not dress better than society’s most slovenly. To do so would be to commit the sin of lookism — of believing that appearance matters. That heresy leads to denying the universal appropriateness of everything, and then to the elitist assertion that there is good and bad taste.

Today it is silly for Americans whose closest approximation of physical labor consists of loading their bags of clubs into golf carts to go around in public dressed for driving steers up the Chisholm Trail to the railhead in Abilene.

Edmund Burke — what he would have thought of the denimization of America can be inferred from his lament that the French Revolution assaulted “the decent drapery of life”; it is a straight line from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of denim — said: “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Ours would be much more so if supposed grown-ups would heed St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and St. Barack’s inaugural sermon to the Americans, by putting away childish things, starting with denim.

(A confession: The author owns one pair of jeans. Wore them once. Had to. Such was the dress code for former senator Jack Danforth’s 70th birthday party, where Jerry Jeff Walker sang his classic “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.” Music for a jeans-wearing crowd.)

Get Involved

March 15, 2011

America has stayed uncharacteristically uninvolved in Libya’s late travails; uncharacteristically, given our history of interventionism in the Arab world. We’re involved in Iraq and Afghanistan in vague capacities, for vague reasons. Yet we’re reticent to involve ourselves in Libya.

Of all the places we are and shouldn’t be, Libya is one place we’re not and should be. The no-fly zone recently proposed by Sen. John McCain would cost very little in terms of men or money (especially compared to current Arab imbroglios elsewhere) and would be very effective (especially against a sixth-rate military like Libya’s). Economists would call it a cost-return analysis skewed highly in our favor.

Yet leaders debate: Are American interests at stake there? Why should we intervene?

The answer to the first is, yes. Libya sits atop one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world. Ensconcing an agreeable democracy there is worthwhile. To the second: innocent people need our help and we have the power to help them. Surely, that’s reason enough.

President Ronald Reagan ordered Libya bombed on April 15, 1986. The aim was to kill Libyan despot Colonel Moammar al-Gaddhafi, who narrowly escaped. Gaddhafi went on to strangle his country for tens of billions of dollars in personal gain and assemble one of the most flamboyant wardrobes of any world leader since Cleopatra.  

2011 seems as good a year as any to finish the job President Reagan started.