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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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I read this book! Didn't she also have some kind of garment that was like a dress that turned into a skirt that turned into a scarf that turned into a cape that turned into the Batmobile?

PS. Loving all the style icons.

By andreajean on May 22, 2009 11:48 AM

yeah, andreajean, you're right! she did have a sort of tube-y multipurpose-y thingie...i think she wore it out to a bar or dinner or something...xo k.

The tube was actually called "Skirt Thing" in the book...

And I just bought one of those Buzz Rickson MA-1 jackets... it is totally cool.

You're right, Frank, I reread PR while on vacation a week ago and it was called "Skirt Thing." And now I'm obsessed with finding one.

Wow on the Buzz Rickson! xo k.

Here I am in it:


I love your blog... it's like The Superficial, only for smart people, without the racist comments.

By Frank Blau on June 8, 2009 1:54 PM

No mention of No Logo? Cayce is so derivative of No Logo. (Don't take derivative in a bad way - I love the character, love the book). For further evidence of Gibson being influenced by Klein, see Spook Country, which takes a few pages out of Shock Doctrine. Thing about No Logo, I think it could actually work as a sort of socially responsible fashion guide.

By Jason on July 11, 2009 6:25 PM

Jason, I have not yet read Spook Country nor Shock Doctrine, but I will have to check it out now. Yr right on No Logo -- I must have another look-through, this time with my fashion lens on. xo K.

I can't find it online but I know that that dress thing is in this book, Starck designed exactly the thing Gibson talked about around 1996...


I'm pretty much in love with Cayce Pollard, so I really appreciate this homage to a fictional character.

Cayce is pretty much eminently crushable all-around! xo k.

I could never figure out Cayce Pollard's thing for the Buzz Rickson jacket. (BTW Buzz Rickson is a character in the movie The War Lover played by Steve McQueen, himself an icon of cool.) Anyway, the Buzz Rickson MA-1 jacket, a Japanese recreation of a military flight jacket, costs many hundreds of dollars. The same style jacket can be had for less than $50 through Army-Navy surplus houses. Was it the Buzz Rickson label that appealed to Cayce Pollard or the knowing that she had something precious?

By lzimlich on November 7, 2009 11:43 PM

Cayce Pollard is so beautifully drawn on the mind's pallette that she leaves a permanently instilled image. Gibson's writing has come so far since the 80's that no one could do a blind reading and say that Johnny Mnemonic and All Tomorrow's Parties were written by the same man (IMHO).

I'd like to have one of those bomber jackets, except I lack Cayce's svelte lines : )

By Roy Verges on November 8, 2009 10:47 AM

Yay! I love Cayce. She is definitely a fashion icon for me.
Although I must say that some of the clothes and accessories you put in that picture do not seem very "Cayce" to me. (the jacket, purse, and very stylised watches.)
oh well. It is hard to find things which lack trendiness.

Izimlich, I was always puzzled by Cayce's Buzz Rickson thing as well. She's generally so resolutely anti-label, but yet this was such a specific sartorial 'craving' of hers. Obviously its importance is a comment on the consumer culture that Pattern Recognition is representing and critiquing. But on a character level -- and I don't have any justification for this hunch in the text, it's really genuinely a hunch -- but somehow it is related in my mind to Cayce's relationship with her father in a very oblique way.

Thanks for reading! xo kat

Roy, well, Cayce's exercise of choice was Pilates ;-)

thanks for reading! xo kat

Aranea, no, I don't think the watches are very Cayce, either...I think I mostly included them for the Japan thing she might have. I chose the jacket and purse because of her Buzz Rickson military jacket; they seem kinda army-navy to me, but slightly more heightened from a design perspective. I guess that's the fun part of extrapolating what a literary character would wear...it's all in the imagination and interpretation!

thanks for reading! xo kat

I think the Buzz Rickson's thing is pretty well explained. She likes that it was perfectly made "by Japanese obsessives driven by passions having nothing at all to do with anything remotely like fashion." The problem with brands and fashion is that they're a language for communicating class status--but the people who make Buzz Rickson's literally don't care about that at all. The jacket doesn't communicate its quality and expense; like you say Izimlich, it looks like any $50 jacket. The company that makes it isn't important; it's the intentions of the people making it that counts.

High-quality craftsmanship, high-quality design, with a certain quietness--to me, that's exactly what Cayce loves about everything, whether clothes, items, or the footage itself.

"Stonestreet's "casual" will translate as relatively dressy, by her standards, so she's opted for the CPU Damien calls Skirt Thing, a long, narrow, anonymously made tube of black jersey, with only the most minimal hemming at either end. Tight but comfortable, rides the hips well, infinitely adjustable in terms of length.Under this, black hose; over it, a black DKNY cardigan un−Dikini−ed with a pair of nail scissors.New−old−stock pumps from a vintage place in Paris."

So there you have it: Skirt Thing is a tube of jersey fabric. I made one after the first time I read the book, with one 30"x50" piece of black jersey hemmed on each short end and then sewn into a tube. It was really easy and cheap, and now I have a CPU!

sarah -- your Skirt Thing sounds simple and amazing! xo k.

cayce's anti-fashion is absolutely terrific and certainly an influence in the back of my mind when clothing shopping. turned me on to the casio g-shock and i think i'll be a lifer.

there's probably discussion of this on other sites, but his latest novel SPOOK COUNTRY is also laden with examples of some really cool functional fashion. Bobby Chombo is a bit of mod/hacker fashion amalgam. striking in the mind's eye. but the best fashion choice for any parkour-practicing protagonist has got to be the ADIDAS GSG9s. still eagerly awaiting the day when i can pick up a pair online. branded...but so, so cool.

he's making this series a trilogy, right?

thanks for the comment, brock! note to self: must read SPOOK COUNTY pronto! xo k.

I bet it did make your day to know that @GreatDismal was here! I just wanted to say that reading Pattern Recognition gave me a whole new appreciation of the Skirt Thing I had bought a few years earlier. It is infinitely adjustable and it came with two other units, a shorter skirt and a boobtube top thing, both of which can be worn as a shrug over the main unit, which can be worn as a sheath dress or skirt. Black, totally hemless and comfortable! Am I wrong or are the pants pictured above showing the Moschino label?

By Danielle on March 8, 2010 6:34 AM

Great post on one of my all time favorite characters, and one of the books I return to every year. Following Mr. Gibson's tweet led me here, so kudos!

By hpseaton on March 8, 2010 8:31 AM

Great post on one of my favorite characters. I found it by following Mr. Gibson's tweet, so kudos to you.

By hpseaton on March 8, 2010 8:34 AM

Sorry but this is so wrong on many levels. I'm sure that those jeans, sweater and tee are the only things Cayce would consider to wear. Not sure about the jacket but rest of that is absolutely ridiculous, especially those designer watches and boots. Article itself is pretty good.

So it isn't just me ....
Just flew from London Heathrow to Washington DC. Picked up Pattern Recognition at a bookstore in Terminal 5 ... 8 hours, 2,675 miles later, I'm totally in love with Cayce Pollard ... Cyperpunk Heaven. Stumbled across your blog whilst (perhaps foolishly in hindsight), looking for the mythical Buzz Rickson Flight Jacket, having been a fan/owner of the Alpha MA-1 for as long as I can remember. "Foolishly", I say, as I'm now $495:00 dollar lighter-of-pocket, but I can't wait for the arrival of the Fedex packet :) Hmmmm wonder if it will arrive in a Blue Ant bag. Love the blog

By Charlie on April 10, 2010 10:27 PM

thank you, Charlie! i feel like an airport is somehow the PERFECT place to pick up Pattern Recognition. enjoy the Buzz Rickson jacket! i'm kind of in awe that someone actually has it! xo kat

I'm glad it's not just me who is crazy enough to buy Buzz Rickson's products (like sneakers or jackets) after reading this amazing book.:) Actually, some versions of BR jackets from W.Gibson collection have Blue Ant motives inside...

Hey Kat,
just a quickie ... the jacket managed to beat me back to the UK .. oh the joys of volcanic ash clouds .... It's .... Awesome ... Go get one!! The perfect stash in bag, wear anywhere jacket.
Thanks to your blog ... I've got lifer :) X ... Gotta get me some of those ADIDAS GSG9's :)

By Charlie on April 25, 2010 12:43 AM

Anyway, the Buzz Rickson MA-1 jacket, a Japanese recreation of a military flight jacket, costs many hundreds of dollars.



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