The Labels We Wear

BENETTON. QUIKSILVER. HOLLISTER. NIKE, AMERICAN EAGLE. Signs of the times. I thought the 60s did away with the notion of kids' spending habits being manipulated by the "man" (corporate America), but I was wrong.

When I was growing up in the California surf culture of the 1970s, the label phenomenon was still in its infancy. Labels were small and discrete, like the tiny penguin logo on a polo shirt or the Levis "V" pocket stitching. But when no one complained; indeed, when everyone began proudly wearing these instant status-confirmations, the logos got larger and larger until now, the American Eagle logo fills the entire shirt. Recently, it has become so large they had to shorten "American" to "Am" just to fit it in. And justly so, for how are they going to sell a shirt outside of the USA if it proudly (and loudly) proclaims it's from America?

I watch this walking billboard phenomenon everywhere I go and it makes me sad. Combine it with the multiple piercings (and I mean everywhere!) and tattoos (ditto), and I can only be dismayed at the apparent lack of self-esteem so many people must have. Don't they know that individuality is a function of what's inside them? What they think; what they believe; what they do, is what actually differentiates a person from the crowd, not what they wear, how they cut their hair, pierce their ears, or what corporate logo they plaster across their chest.

Of course, I can understand why children like labels: it makes them feel safe. After all, one of the hallmarks of childhood (especially the teen years) is the need to fit in. I remember the "uniform" I wore as a teen: deep-pocketed corduroy shorts, horizontal-striped long-sleeved t-shirts, zorries (thongs), and long hair cut in the surfer style. I look at pictures of myself from those days and shake my head. Yet the labels I wore were the clothes, not the words on the clothes. But was there a difference, so long as we all wore the same uniform? Not really.

But I was a child then; now I am an adult and I've put away labels as much as possible. I buy most of my generic clothing at Costco. Even my tennis shoes are non-descript; I haven't worn a pair of Nikes in . . . I would have to say . . . forever. To me, no pair of tennis shoes is worth more than $25 unless they can actually make me dunk like Michael Jordan.

But everywhere I look, I see adults emulating their children, though the labels get more expensive as we grow older. My first car was a VW beetle, an icon in its own right. I proudly drove my surf rack-festooned bug to the beach and back for years. For some time in the 1990s, I had a BMW 5 series sedan, which I babied. But at heart, I'm a truck guy and one day when I went into the garage, I noticed my precious Beemer was layered with a coat of dust. I hadn't driven it in a couple of weeks. I promptly sold it. I was done with labels, I guess.

Now I drive a nondescript truck. I removed the dealer logo from the tailgate and chucked the license plate frames. If I could get the Toyota sombrero logo off it, I would, but it's molded into the front grill.

If we must wear labels, wouldn't it be fascinating if we were required to wear labels that described the person we actually are? Imagine walking around the mall wearing a "Grouchy Bigot" T-shirt. (Okay, I've actually seen that one.) But what about "Zero Self-Esteem" tank top revealing all those tattoos? Or "No Time To Work Out, But Plenty of Time To Pierce My Ears" women's tops in XXL sizes?

I would hate to see the shirt I would have to wear.

There's one I hope would apply to me; one I would proudly wear: "The only limitation is your imagination."

1 comment:

sheetsb said...

Right on, Ken. Lables reveal how lazy we've become about developing caracters of integrity. The kind of character that outshines any outward appearences to reveal authentic living. It's so much easier to pick a personality off the rack. For teens, that rack is skull filled black tees. My kids commented recently: "It's so hard to find something that makes me feel good". Kmart, target, walmart, are you listening?
-Bonnie