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Tuesday , December 14, 2010
Style Icon: Cayce Pollard from William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition"
The sad thing about having Cayce Pollard as a fashion icon is that you can't see her. Not that she's invisible -- she's utterly imaginary as the main protagonist of the William Gibson novel Pattern Recognition. There's not even a movie adaptation that exists in which someone plays Cayce, nor a graphic novel. She only exists in the liminal area between Gibson's prose and the mind's eye envisioning the story. In this case, the story is about an advertising consultant, a "coolhunter" with a "spookily intuitive" sense of marketing who is called in by boutique advertising firms, giant multinationals and the like to give her uncannily accurate sense of how a brand plays. The twist is that Cayce (pronounced "Case") doesn't have this ability because she's attuned to aesthetics or loves logos or what have you -- she's acutely sensitive to brands and marketing because she's actually allergic to these things. Labels give her hives and irritate her skin so much that she has to sand off the logo on her Japanese watch and jeans buttons; even the Michelin Man gives her severe panic attacks.
You'd think such an allergy to brands would put a cramp in a girl's style, but here's the other rub: Cayce has style in spades. She may be allergic to fashion, but she still loves clothes. You can tell, because the novel talks about her clothes a lot. (And she has a girly side: she enjoys spa treatments and does Pilates, for God's sake!) Her limitations with clothing actually work to give her a strong look, which the book encapsulates best:
"CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units. That's what Damien calls the clothing she wears. CPUs are either black, white, or gray, and ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention.
What people take for relentless minimalism is a side effect of too much exposure to the reactor-cores of fashion. This has resulted in a remorseless paring-down of what she can and will wear. She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000. She's a design-free zone, a one-woman school of anti whose very austerity periodically threatens to spawn its own cult."
What this actually translates to is: boys' t-shirts, plain jeans, sweaters bought from prep school suppliers, plain black skirts, plain black boots and sneakers, a look that meets at the intersection between gamine schoolboy and toughie utilitarian. Her only real concession to branding she can tolerate is a certain Buzz Rickson flight jacket, which is her most beloved possession and receives prominent mention in the book. (So much so that after Pattern Recognition was published, interest in the Buzz Rickson jacket skyrocketed and the company ended up producing a version inspired directly by the novel.) Yet Cayce is totally attuned to proportion, line, silhouette -- all the subtleties of design that a style sophisticate is keenly aware of. It fits in with Cayce's exquisite sensitivity to the meaning and context of style -- what clothes say, what they reveal and hide, the real semiotics of it all.
Reading Pattern Recognition is a great experience on many levels. While it divided some of the Gibson faithful who missed the futuristic setting and the cyberpunk attitude of his other novels (oh, fanboys!), it's also one of the few novels I've read that really got into the heart on how technology and the Internet really shape people's emotional lives and experience, not to mention grappled intelligently with a post-9/11 landscape. (It's also awesome when a dude in a kind of dudecentric genre like sci-fi writes really incredible female characters that are defined by their abilities, intellect and emotional lives rather than by their plot convenience and exploited sexuality. William Gibson, you effin' rock. You are so important to me!)
But Pattern Recognition on this totally other level is kind of like a stealth fashion bible, an education into how you could piece together a kind of anti-style, how to look at it, where to get it. And in the irony of ironies, the novel that is in some part about the virulence of marketing has definitely spawned its own cult. Definitely for awhile after reading Pattern Recognition, I'd see an exquisitely minimal outfit on someone and think "That is so Cayce Pollard!" Or I'd think to myself, "I need a Cayce Pollard day" after a fashion bender. Cayce Pollard became part of the mix of influences that I brought with me when I shopped or confronted my closet for an outfit to wear each day, and sometimes I really wish she was real, 'cause it'd be super-cool to interview her and find out what perfume she would wear and what her spirit animal is. (My guess: an owl.)
There's something so pure about Cayce as a character, something both irresistibly impenetrable yet serenely composed; she's like looking at water after being surrounded by design pollution all day. She stands for the ultimate rejection of the Fashion Industrial Complex. The absolute commitment of her style and her awareness of it within the larger context of fashion and capitalism make her a grade-A fashion thinker -- a real icon, however imaginary. But what makes her a nogoodforme icon is that she has that thing we ultimately champion about style: a totally personal, passionate and individualistic relationship to her clothing, informed entirely by and of herself. No intervention. Strong and silent. Right on.
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