The Age of the Robe

The whole sartorial system meant that all summer long you were subtly humiliated, overinsulated, or both. And, thanks to global warming, the summers would only heat up! Just as global capitalism meant that the cult of youth and beauty would grow ever more extreme as the population aged and put on weight! We in the West were going to get hotter and hotter at the same time that we became less and less hot.

To dress like a respectable middle-aged person in a Western country is not to dress for the heat: too much fabric and not enough ventilation.

Gaston Ugalde

One summer I lived for a month in a small furnished apartment in a working-class area of Barcelona. At the time I spoke little Spanish, much less Catalan, and the girlfriend with whom I’d come to Spain was not in Spain anymore nor my girlfriend. No sooner had we settled into the Barcelona place than we broke up, and I was left alone in an apartment hung with framed Botero posters—“I only like his Abu Ghraib ones,” I’d said to my ex—and boasting an internet connection that never once worked. There was also a nice terrace where I could read during the day and sometimes, at night, watch fireworks exploding in behalf of mysterious regional holidays. The only person I knew in the glamorous foreign city was a DJ too much in demand to see much of me, and I spent my four weeks revising my book, corresponding with fellow n+1 editors from cyber cafes, going running up toward Parc Güell listening to outrageously melancholy music on my headphones, and reading in the evening. Hashish and Raymond Chandler make for a great combination; paranoia adds to the mood and incomprehension subtracts nothing from the plot. In all it was one of the happiest unhappy times I’ve spent. For one thing, I had lots of time for reflection, including on such matters as how twenty-first century dress should be reformed.

I was talking so little to anybody that people were essentially reduced to their appearance, just as I was to them. And I didn’t like what I saw, not in the streets or the mirror. The younger guys in the neighborhood dressed like soccer players: athletic gear, corporate emblems, hair gel. The older men tucked shirts, often long-sleeved, into full-length pants and even sometimes, like businessmen, wore dark suits. The older women favored starchy-looking dresses or skirt-and-blouse combos, often in dark colors. As for women under forty or fifty, they wore short-shorts and tube tops, much midriff on display. For me, it was often jeans and always a T-shirt: in those days, straight men felt less comfortable in tank tops.

Two basic problems characterized the general sartorial situation as I saw it. First, it was very hot out, and to dress like a respectable middle-aged person in a Western country is not to dress for the heat: too much fabric and not enough ventilation. Even the skimpy clothes of the young were too tight and often insufficiently breathable. Problem number two was that most of us in the neighborhood, as in the Western world generally, were fat. Or fat-ish. Fat enough, anyway (though in my case I was trying to remedy this by running every day), not to recommend either the trendy or the traditional costumes that our society had imposed upon us. Of course some of the young looked so good in their clothes that you wanted to see them without any. But youthful outfits mock those without perfect bodies: the female midriff lacks the ideal tautness, or the male gut swells with all the papas bravas eaten and beer drunk while watching fitter men dash up and down the soccer pitch. We all look, I thought, like athletes cut from the third string, or superannuated Spice Girls! (This was a while ago.) Nor, I felt, did it aid the dignity of older people to tuck in their shirts and blouses, a custom which emphasizes the waistline.

The whole sartorial system meant that all summer long you were subtly humiliated, overinsulated, or both. And, thanks to global warming, the summers would only heat up! Just as global capitalism meant that the cult of youth and beauty would grow ever more extreme as the population aged and put on weight! We in the West were going to get hotter and hotter at the same time that we became less and less hot. It was tragic. It was insane.

The solution was obvious. We ought to dress like desert Arabs, in light-colored djellabas, burnooses, abayas, or thobes. We would be safer against sunburn and better ventilated. Plus the loose garments would render our shapes—those of us who don’t go to the gym religiously—at once more elegant and more obscure. The young and fit might still dress as before the Age of the Robe, if so inclined. But let the rest of us wear long, flowing, breathable, beautiful, elegant, light-colored robes!

Yet I knew we wouldn’t do it. The bombings of the Atocha station in Madrid were still recent, there was this aerosolized bullshit floating around according to which Al Qaeda wanted to recover the Iberian peninsula for the caliphate, and for these and other reasons I knew that we in the so-called West weren’t about to adopt the traditional costumes of North Africa or the Middle East. The loose light robes that, in the face of global warming and mounting obesity, constituted our only rational choice would go unworn. We must stick with our confining chinos and stupid-ass shorts, our garish soccer jerseys, sad tube tops and pointless dress shirts, or the terrorists would have won.

Not that only Arabs wear loose flowing garments. Without consulting the anthropological literature, this seems to be what they do in all hot countries where the people have any sense. In fact it happened that my flight back from Spain that summer got into JFK around the same time as one from Senegal, and the Senegalese people standing around the baggage claim in their own light flowing garments, their loose pastel boubou, looked enviably awesome, the slender ones like princes and princesses and the stout ones like kings and queens.

I don’t know what I was wearing, maybe a T-shirt advertising a bookstore and some board shorts advertising my bowlegged calves—that’s anyway what I’m wearing now, to my chagrin, here in the heat. Too bad it’s not the supremely breathable knee-length off-white gown, slit at the hem, that a friend once brought back from Morocco. With a subtle collar and some ornamental braiding over the sternum, the linen affair was otherwise almost audaciously austere. It was airy and elegant, and I thought I looked great in it: like Jesus’s ladykilling cousin or the sandy-haired sage of some hyperborean desert. Like a motherfucking prophet, in other words, not least of the Age of the Robe.

I’ve never worn the thing out of the house. 

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