Low chic and the sweat shirt

Just the other day Cheryl Tiegs introduced us to the latest case of chic: the sweat shirt. There Miss Tiegs stood, as big as our TV screen, not only recommending but demonstrating that for evening wear one should buy a matching pair of sweat pants a size too small and roll them up to the knee.As if this were not haute couturem enough, she proceeded, as an alternative, to pair her faithful old sweat shirt with a scarf and black silk pants. Thus dressed to the nines, she drove off into the Manhattan night in a limousine, tucking her sweat-shirted arm through the arm of her escort, who was wearing a tuxedo.

"In fashion as in life," we mumbled to ourself, "paradox is all."

Still, despite the Tiegs hard sell, we could not quite make the word "glamorous" snuggle up to the words "sweat shirt" -- that gray presence of a thousand locker rooms, always ending up on the floor in a dank heap next to the foot bath.

But, of course, more and more law chic (as we have come to think of it) is joining the earthy sweat shirt on the shelves of boutiques and elsewhere. Baker's white pants are becoming a hot item in department stores, selling for $ 18 a floppy pair. Meanwhile, the jump suit remains so popular that it is being turned out in seersucker for the summer.

What are we trying to say with low chic? Clothes, the historians tell us, are our social signal flags. If so, we seem to be sending reverse messages.

The rule goes roughly like this: The higher the class one belongs to, the lower the class one dresses to.

Only the affluent can afford the designer jeans, fishermen's knit sweaters, and all-wool lumberjack shirts -- the old uniforms of the working class.

The boots that used to kick giddap to a cowboy's pony now stamp on the accelarator of a Mercedes or Porsche.

The sneaker, once the economy shoe of the poor, has become almost as chic as the sweat shirt.

For the true proletarian look, one seeks out Ivy League campuses.

On the other hand, a three-piece suit is likely to make us suspicious, particularly in the evening. Who is this well-dressed fellow? His clothes protest too much. We assume he mixes cement by day, or perhaps wears one of those baker's pants on the job that everybody around him is now wearing as the latest leisure suit.

The mail order catalogues -- the original home of the overalls -- went elegant a couple of seasons ago with furs and diamonds and designer dresses. They fell under the illusion that they would appeal to a more sophisticated clientele, as the saying goes. Now they are retreating as fast as they can to stylish American Gothic -- the low chic that sells even better in the city than on the farm.

Not only to workers' clothes become a class disguise. As the expression of an attitude, they can be as misleading as a commando uniform on a pacifist. We have the sublime contradiction of painter's coveralls and peasant shirts and blouses being worn by Beautiful People who are about as removed from hard labor as Louis XIV.

Here is where designer homespun leads us all. Today's hedonists revolt against the work ethic while dressed in the garb of the hardest around-the-clock workers: farmers, ranchhands, fishermen, lumberjacks, bakers.Could there be anything more ironic?

Or is there more to low chic than self-parody? Are we signalling our nostalgia for the real thing, as, say, Liszt and Tolstoy did when they went low-chic in their costumes? Do we dress mod-primitive out of the hope that we may break an honest sweat -- in fantasy at least -- like our forefathers?

By now, who knows what we mean with our prairie denims, our frontier boots, and our mountain-man beards?

As a final touch, Cheryl Tiegs sprayed herself and her sweat shirt with perfume. It made a charming gesture -- and one that appeared appropriately confused.

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