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Tuesday , December 14, 2010
Style Icon: Mark E. Smith of the Fall
There's a certain type of old-school bougie-man style that would read absolutely conservative on everyone else but eccentric band frontmen like Mark E. Smith. How much more simple can you get than a white button-down, some slacks and a leather jacket, with maybe a v-neck sweater every now and then? I see boring middle managers getting on planes in this outfit every time I fly, so in some ways, looking at the straight facts of Mark E. Smith's style vocabulary would make him seem really, puzzlingly dull as an style icon.
Most boring businessmen, of course, are not brilliantly Dadaist lyrics with a sardonic worldview immersed in equal parts working-class Manchester and art-boy fixations. Most businessmen would never give interviews on national British television completely piss drunk and stick their tongue out at the camera every other sentence. Most businessmen, of course, would not 'accessorize' their slacks and button-down with a cigarette perpetually dangling between their fingers and a pint near at hand. This is not to say that Mark E. Smith accessorizes. I highly doubt he does, and that makes him a bit of a style genius in my opinion, because obviously how he wears his clothes is much less important how he occupies the space between seams.
That sounds like the same thing, but it isn't. As an American Fall fan, something about the Fall will always elude me no matter how hard I try to understand it, and that is their Britishness. I was once trying to articulate to someone why Mark E. Smith fascinated me more than many other angry punk dudes, and I realized that it was because Mark E. Smith's default mode wasn't anger, it was vexation. In my mind, British people get vexed the best. They make vexation into an artform. Mark E. Smith does the whole nexus of vexation to great effect: irritation, bother, annoyance, paranoia, blowing raspberries, pissed-off. He makes big black anger into beautifully shaded greys, much like the greys of his 1970s Manchester he's always talking about.
The trick about Mark E. Smith, if I may be so bold as to extrapolate, is that someone like him probably should have been an actuary, or a high school teacher, or an advertising copywriter. (He would've been a brilliant copywriter.) Born a white dude in Lancashire and associated with Manchester nearly all his life, he was most likely in line towards a certain sociological fate, an elevated son of the working-class whose obvious intelligence might have raised his prospects. (I oddly feel like only British people get "prospects.") He could've been the sad sack character in a Belle and Sebastian song (early era) or a creature of diminished expectations (a la the Smiths). He could've been a boring middle manager getting on a plane in slacks and a button-down, suitcase in hand instead of a cigarette and whiskey. Instead, he is Mark E. Smith, entity of vexation, the place where lyrics go to be reborn into strange word-sculpture.
In a way, his uniform is the ghost of his eluded fate, a fuck-you trophy of a role he managed to escape, and he wears it with something between irony and most likely a post-hangover laziness and sloth. I like to think there's a place in Mark E. Smith's subconscious that smirks whenever he picks up his quasi-bourgeois clothes off the floor and puts them on, and maybe his subconscious is muttering the Britishism for "sucker" in that perfectly mutinous, confused way he does. Fashion is usually conceived of as linear self-expression: "I wear this because I am this." Someone who occupies clothing as Mark E. Smith does subverts that direct correlation: "I wear this but I am not this; I master the clothes, the clothes do not master me; you can make me wear clothes, but clothes will not shape me." The distance between the clothes and the man becomes miles of fascination, leading to the phantom places between twilight paranoia and wondrous contemplation of the wreckage of modern civilization. Sometimes I think that's the place where modern fashion lives, but it also sounds like my most favorite Fall song ever.
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