As anyone who’s ever seen a photo of me can attest, I don’t really give two shits about fashion. I care about how I look like a blind man cares about road maps. The most expensive shirt I own is from a Tom Petty concert, and the only suit I’ve bought came five years ago, its half-hung buttons attesting to more tear than wear. I rock the same three pairs of pants ad nauseum,* and the calls to end my stripe-on-stripe outfits ring as fruitless as the calls for me to sing at local festivals.**
*I brought three pairs of (near-)identical brown corduroys to Kazakhstan, in the multiple hopes that there’d be no pretty girls I’d want to impress. And then I found one who, somehow, liked them. That was cool.
**This has happened more than once.
See, fashion, in and of itself, is worthless. Like manners or a philosophy degree, fashion is little more than airy semantics, a bygone of classism, posturing, and those who’ve been suckered in by marketing and egos. Fashion is important only for those who don’t have a whole helluva lot else going for them. If you’d rather spend $400 on a new shirt rather than a pallet of new books, or if you’d rather spend time at outlet malls than an orphanage, it may be time to look in a mirror, and not simply the one in the changing room. For any designer to ever be lauded as “brave” or “daring” or “that Tom Ford – so hot right now,” is an affront to veterans, NGO operators, and people who, as it were, actually make some semblance of difference within peoples’ lives.
In the end, fashion is a farce. And it’s also one of the most fascinating things about the people I’ve met out here.
Before I continue, I’d just say that, with that little rant up above, it’s pretty clear I’d judge neither means nor character based on fashion. Sure, fashion is a means of conveyance – of position, of preference – but that doesn’t mean there’s anything more than skim-the-surface revelations about the person. Bums in suits, CEOs in turtlenecks, escorts in Versace: all contain far more than that which they simply wear. All are more than what some JCPenney ad says about them.
Anyway , as you can imagine, Kazakhstani sartorialist senses, those cultural tics that blend fashion with minus-40 function, are a bit different than their American counterparts.* It’s the first thing you notice upon arrival. It’s unavoidable, as obvious as the livestock running amok or the billboards of Nazarbayev peppering the street-sides. It’s one of the few cultural barometers that you will encounter every day.
*But then, can there really be any form of united American fashion sense? Flannels, cargo shorts, and baseball hats are all indicative of someone from the States – but small is the population that actually wears the first two, and people the world over have taken to baseball caps, if only through ingenious marketing from the Steinbrenner clan.
As such, in the seven months since I’ve arrived I’ve started to notice certain patterns of dress that the Kazakhstanis enjoy sharing. Some have surprised – say, children running in 50 Cent shirts, or 30-somethings walking past in retro Houston Astros jerseys – but some we’d been forewarned of before landing. Prior to our arrival, in the last few weeks of our lurching application to Peace Corps, we finally learned what style of dress we’d need to bring to Kazakhstan. It didn’t involve muumuus or dreads, flip-flops and tank tops. No, in Kazakhstan, as in most former Soviet member states, there is a marked emphasis on, of all things, looking good.
Thus, in week before I had to leave for Kazakhstan, I got to go on the second shopping spree of my life.* Mom helped pick out the cords, and I got to go find some dress shirts that would look fine if I ever spilled borsch on them.** I spent more money in that one week than I’ve spent in seven months here, and I still find myself falling short of the standard. Such is the emphasis on professional attire – indeed, such is the emphasis on wearing unduly shiny three-piece suits – that I’ve gotten more than one reminder to spiff up my outfit. Underdressed for Peace Corps. Never in my wildest dreams.
*The first came when a former girlfriend insisted that my dress meet her standard. We went shopping – seersuckers and golf shorts and boat shoes – and I ponied around, all fine and dandy and completely alien in the outfits. It didn’t take long to end the relationship afterward.
**Took only two weeks at site for this to happen.
I’m not sure if this dress code ties in to the practice of tufta,* or if it’s a more recent tradition to push Kazakhstan toward Westernization. Regardless, to have to improve your wardrobe as considerably as I did – and to still have it fall short of the standard set** – isn’t exactly what I had in mind when setting out on this path through Peace Corps.
*Tufta, an Armenian word, was the Soviet name for a practice pioneered by Stalin, perfected by Brezhnev, and still evidenced in numerous Soviet sphere countries. There’s no direct translation – perhaps “bullshitting” may do it – but tufta reflects itself in a preference for inflated numbers, a desire to see deadlines met regardless of reality, and in the knowledge that if everything looks good on paper than there’s no reason to check the facts behind it. It’s the sort of see-no-evil, climb-that-ladder attitude that most corporations roil in, the same that shook me from any desire to work within the sports industry. It’s the kind of practice in which fashion, an inherently hollow measurement, thrives.
**I overlooked wearing a tie to school the other day, opting for a v-neck sweater and matching undershirt. My regional manager, who was attending my classes, said my outfit was too “sexy” for school. Too much chest hair for the 10th graders, apparently.
So ties-and-collars at school, but what of the days off? What about the babushkas who doddle along, or the coal-diggers keeping us warm, or the kids who make our lives a living hell so wonderful? They don’t wear J. Crew and Sears, do they?
Well, no, they don’t. In fact, it would appear that the desire for look-how-good-I-look stops with both teachers and government officials, the latter of whom sally back and forth between school events and mid-day vodka meetings. The rest of the populace of Presnovka wears those things you would expect out of a Soviet, Slavic, industrial town.*
*I can only comment on Presnovka, as that’s the Kazakhstan of interest, but the cities of Petropavlovsk and Almaty are a world separate. The men all look like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the women are, ah, well, gorgeous. Russian, Kazakh, some strange Soviet mixture – doesn’t matter. All, without fail, wear heels, and look like they’ve stepped out of either a Guess ad or some Russian bride booklet. You reach the city, and you think to yourself that, surely, no women could possibly look this good, that your tastes must have regressed in those months in your village. Nope. They’re that good. I mean, not as good-looking as our American volunteers, of course … but still.
But as I have to get back to lesson-planning – and ironing my shirts for work tomorrow – I’ll update the sartorializations in the coming weeks. Here’s hoping stripes can finally go with stripes, and that all my corduroys are clean.