Blackbird Spyplane — on any given day U might find us sitting cross-legged on a cool mountain, looking GREAT and CONTEMPLATIVE while pressing our thumbs and forefingers to our chins, “scheming on the answers to these eternal mysteries.” Maybe that’s why readers love to climb the mountain (i.e. hit our DMs) and pose profound questions to us about the intersection of ethics & jawns.
The other day, we got two related Qs on the theme of “jawn appropriation”:
⛰️ @Icaruslives_ wanted to know the sletter’s stance “on wearing something that you don't know everything about? (E.g. a sports team with a cool logo...) At what point are you stealing Valor, at what point are you being some hardo that quizzes people on album tracks, and at what point are you just enjoying a summer day in a funky thrashed tee?” …
⛰️ … While @stringer_ben asked us to discuss “the morality of ‘stolen valor’ jawns (workwear, gorp etc)”…
Both readers R curious about the moral status of someone who is substantially “outside” a given culture and yet wears signifiers of that culture, even though they don’t “belong” to them. If you think about this for more than 2 seconds, you run into a bunch of OTHER highly slippery, highly contested, and highly emotional questions, about what “borders” and “ownership” mean when it comes to cultural identity — all of which makes this s**t extremely hard to talk about in a way that ever feels totally satisfying, much less totally smart…
But BBSP is “ALWAYS satisfying and ALWAYS smart,” so let’s give it a go baby!!
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It might be clarifying to start with the lower-stakes question about sports jawns and band tees, then see if we can extrapolate into thornier terrain…
When I was a Lil Spyplane in the ‘90s, Starter jackets were popping as f**k at school. My parents didn’t have the dough nor the inclination to buy one for me and get my a** “on trend,” so it wasn’t till I was in my early twenties, surfing eBay for “coveted jawns my parents denied me as a kid,” that I smashed the coppiolo on 2 beautiful secondhand Starters — a satin Mets jacket and a satin Rockets jacket.
Why these? 1) Because my pops is from Queens and he took me to a game at Shea Stadium once when I was a kid, 2) Because in 93-94 I loved watching Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Horry and Sam Cassell play basketball, and 3) Because the jackets were cheap & looked cool. (Still do.) That’s it!
Rationales #1 and #2 were enough to support #3 as far as I was concerned, even if they were relatively thin sauce (I knew nothing about either team by the time I copped). To my thinking, some degree of rationale was important, though, not as a matter of ethics so much as a matter of feeling intentional in how I dress, as opposed to feeling random and bogus....
When I wore the Mets jacket out in NYC, ppl often started talking to me about, like, “what Piazza did” at last night’s game, and I didn’t have the FOGGIEST NOTION what they were referring to & was at a loss to engage. In this sense yr boy was on some awkward poser s**t, but I could always be, like, “Pops is from Queens, I’m just representing” and that basically passed muster. Because also, when push came to shove, who really cared? The relationship between sports fandom and identity can be miles deep, burningly passionate and WILDLY frivolous all at the same time, because at the end of the day we’re literally talking about games…
That mix of passion and frivolity persists when we’re talking about music fandom, but I’m less interested in wearing merch for a band I know as little about as I know about the Mets. The poser vibes there are unsustainably high for me — in part, I guess, because I care more about music than I care about sports, and in part because band tees feel like way more specific “personal identifiers” than sports jawns. What I mean by that is it’s broadly accepted that a baseball cap can serve as a catch-all hometown totem / geographical marker (e.g., I copped a bootleg combo A’s + Raiders tee, pictured below, shortly after I first moved to Oakland, to “put on for my new city”; u can buy Yankee fitteds at tourist kiosks at JFK; etc etc).
Whereas, even though I was born & bred in NYC, and Sonic Youth were an NYC institution, if I rocked a nyc ghosts & flowers tee while not really f**king with Sonic Youth and not knowing anything about that (highly underrated) album, I would feel like I was trying to get into the DANK JAWNS CLUB by flashing “a fake I.D.,” pretending to be someone I’m not and perpetrating fraudulent bozo behavior!! (They probably sell Ramones t-shirts at JFK, too, by this point, cementing their status as earth’s most-washed-a** band tees, but the point stands!!)
You can swap in any number of variables for Mets & Sonic Youth jawns here… Grateful Dead tees… Arc’teryx shells… fisherman’s vests (ahem)… The common thread is that when you decide to wear a garment associated with a particular (sub)cultural identity, it feels important to root that decision in something “true” about yourself.
This is how pretty much all choices around dressing work, fundamentally: When you put on a jawn, you want it to reflect something true about you — no matter how abstract or nonlinear that truth is — because otherwise you’re just flashing a fake I.D. at the dank-jawns club and yr gonna feel weird and fugazi and probably look weird and fugazi, too.
So how do ethics (and politics, and hotter tempers) enter into the equation? Take the case of a textbook “workwear stolen valor” jawn: Carhartt duck jackets. By now these have been embraced so widely for so long — by so many kinds of people in so many different contexts — that their tether to workwear is almost as notional as a Type I denim jacket’s tether is to, like, California gold-miners or a moleskin bleu de travail’s tether is to French stone-cutters. All 3 garments basically read as “staple jawns” at this point, meaning they can feel “true” to people across all kinds of vocations — the main difference being that, unlike 19th century gold-miners, there are still workers around today who rock Carhartt for its original, utilitarian purpose, and (against a backdrop of unprecedented economic inequality) some of the non-physical-laborers who rock Carhartt purely on an “it looks dope” wavelength feel moral anxiety about the optics of doing so.
Of course, those “optics” behave in complicated and contradictory ways. A dude who owns a pool-installation company in Virginia might well rock a Carhartt jacket and push a souped-up F-150 without ever getting his hands dirty and get waaay richer off the backs of his employees’ labor than the proverbial “privileged knowledge worker” in Bushwick who rocks a sick TORCHED Carhartt hoodie he copped for $220 on Unsound Rags…
That’s just one example of how the feelings of resentment, guilt, and dissonance that arise from real-world power imbalances and injustices can flow messily (& only semi-coherently) into a garment — to the point that the “fashion Carhartt jacket” comes to stand in, for some ppl, as a metonym for class conflict.
Most (all?) cultural exchanges unfold across asymmetrical power relationships marked by struggle / cooperation / creativity / exploitation / open-mindedness / domination / erasure / selfishness / generosity, all of which combine to freight any jawn that comes out of the exchange with an aura of intense moral & historical weight. To that end, an “appropriated jawn” MIGHT become an aperture to think our way through meaningful questions about, e.g., how we distribute labor and its rewards, but it can VERY EASILY become the opposite: a decoy / lightning rod, easy to fixate on, hand-wring about, and dunk on in a way that ultimately obscures and distracts from the harder job of actually militating against injustices!!
Put more plainly, if I actually care about the lives of working-class people, it’s laughable how little it matters whether or not I refuse to wear double-knee jeans out of some sense of shame and/or principle. Hundreds of workers are currently on strike at Nabisco factories across the U.S., and the strike keeps spreading to new places — I want to help them, who gives a f**k if I’m rocking this FIRE VISVIM CHORE COAT LIKE A MACK when I smash the donate on their strike fund?! (Linked below.)
“Banning Carhartt jackets in downtown New York would not be a victory for the working class,” is how SpyFriend Walter Pearce put it to me during a recent phone call, going reductio ad absurdum on the logic of “blue-collar stolen valor” call-outs. Walter’s a funny & thoughtful guy who’s done model-casting for places like Comme des Garçons, Hood by Air, Marni and Telfar… He ALSO loves gorp (my MF man), frequently drives into rural Pennsylvania to watch demolition derbies, and rocks realtree Cabela’s caps, realtree-camo Crocs and a tattoo on his chest of a bald eagle carrying the stars ‘n’ stripes — so I was curious to get his quirked, chopped & schizzed perspective on these issues.
“A lot of it is really about whether you look like an idiot or not,” Walter says. “If you’re wearing like, oil-stained Carhartts walking around Prince Street, you might look like an idiot — and I think ‘Do you look like an idiot’ is a more worthwhile question than whether or not you’re appropriating your look from a working-class person.”
For Walter, rocking Cabela’s and Carhartt jawns (mixed in with other s**t) is appealing “because I just don’t want to dress in fashion brands right now.” He thinks that “calling people out for cultural appropriation at this point is more about righteousness” and “acting like a cop” than anything more substantive: “There’s a difference between giving credit where it’s due, which is important, and just trying to dunk on people. Whose lives does that make better?”
To illustrate how hollow and engagement-baity the thinking can get around this s**t, he brought up a recent Diet Pr*da post where they charged Tory Burch with “#culturalappropriation” after she copied a traditional Portuguese fisherman’s sweater whose motifs included the coat of arms of the Portuguese monarchy: “Like, Portugal is a colonial empire!” Walter says. “What the f**k are they talking about?”
(Walter also calls Condé Nast “the fashion wing of the DNC” and told me that “all culture is downstream from reactionary incels on the internet” — if these opinions intrigue you, U can check out his weird smart ‘sletter Walt’s Important Thoughts and his weird smart podcast Wet Brain, which he co-hosts with Honor Levy; both linked below.)
The point here isn’t just to rock whatever the f**k you want with GLIB DISREGARD for issues of authorship and ownership. Clothes are, among other things, a powerful symbolic language — whose complexities can only be mapped out by vast elaborate intersecting Fibonacci vectors that Erin and I totally understand cause our brains are bussin’ — and absolutely shot through with political meaning. Which is why I might rock a Visvim chore coat, but yr boy will not be wearing, for example, those Vis sneakers with Native American headdresses on the sides anytime soon (nor will I be completing the fit with a vintage Redskins Starter 🙅♀️)...
I’m not sure if it would be “unethical” to do so, per se, but jawns like these index & invoke ugly and un-redressed histories in a blunt, uncritical way that puts them out of bounds for me. (Art and art objects can of course explore and intervene in ugly history in compelling ways, but the bar’s high, and these jawns do not strike me as clearing it.)
But symbolism is just one part of a bigger puzzle… Clothes (and other cultural artifacts) connect to non-symbolic, material realities that seem to get short shrift in many contemporary conversations I see about “appropriation” — and if your politics don’t advance past an endless reckoning with whether someone is saying / wearing / copping “the correct thing,” then it’s fair 2 say YR POLITICS ARE IMPOVERISHED, LOVER!!
-You can put on some WIP and donate to a strike fund to help out the Nabisco workers in Portland here
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