Discover more from Blackbird Spyplane
Your clothes are haunted by beautiful ghosts
Steve Jobs's toasted Birkenstocks, Joan Didion's rarefied junk, and searching for the spiritual in cool clothes
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— Jonah & Erin
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Blackbird Spyplane is known to vibrate on all kinds of astral frequencies, so we weren’t surprised when we received a metaphysical reader question the other day:
“Are there any spiritual aspects to jawn enjoyment and curation for you?” —@heldtohold
This is the type of cerebellum-bussin quasi-paradox we love to contemplate. If someone’s brain is not particularly big, craggy & beautiful, they might hear this and say, “It’s impossible by definition to identify a spiritual dimension — that is, a non-material dimension — in the love of material things.”
Our brains are big, craggy & beautiful, however, so we know it is possible, and today we will explain how — profoundly. But first ?? We do gotta concede that jawns enthusiasm, in its contemporary consumerist incarnation, is often a deeply unspiritual pursuit, characterized by lizard-brain acquisitive urges we often frame (correctly) as attempts to “fill the void within” — even though we know the void will absolutely remain unfilled after we smash the coppington, and probably grow even deeper and darker.
This is exactly how forces sometimes referred to as “the neoliberal order” want it to be, baby!! They would love for us to totally obliterate the distinction in our own minds between our identities as people and our identities as consumers — donating to causes rather than engaging in direct action; “expressing our inner selves” through our purchases; buying “the right cars” and “the right detergents” to combat the climate crisis; punishing “the wrong people” by withholding dollars from companies that advertise on their cable-news shows; etc. Even spiritual practices themselves (e.g., meditation) are repackaged as productivity-boosting consumer goods (e.g. “mindfulness” apps.)
This has a stunting effect on the imagination, and a deforming effect on the spirit. The other day Erin and I passed a shoe store where a bunch of twenty- and thirtysomethings — some of whom set up folding chairs and sleeping bags the night before, in time-honored hypebeast camp-out style — were queued for a sneaker drop. I looked up the sneaker in question, and it was a Jordan 4 Retro in navy: truly bleak “culture is stuck” s**t.
That camp-out was hardly a novel sight, but it was a bummer all the same, because the spectacle of the “limited-inventory retail event” (whether it’s a sneaker drop or TORCHED Black Friday big-box sale), takes something ostensibly beautiful — a public gathering of different people with common interests — and drains it of virtually all soul-enriching, horizon-expanding potential.
And since people are particularly desperate for public gatherings these days, living as we do in an era of unprecedented social atomization and loneliness, there was something perversely cruel about the sight of these (mostly) dudes clumped outside the store on a sunny morning. It must feel so nice, as a SNKRS-app-addicted broski, to get off of your screen and out of your house … to breathe fresh air in the physical presence of strangers who care passionately about the same thing you do… And, ultimately, it must feel so profoundly unsatisfying that, in fact, you are all just unpaid extras performing a piece of abject retail theater with only one harshed-out stage direction: COMPETE WITH PEOPLE TO BUY SOMETHING. Depressing!
So when and how can there be an ennobling, enriching, spiritual aspect to caring about clothes? Three cases occur to us off the dome:
1. If you worship various crunchy gods of abundance, as Erin and I try to do, then there’s spiritual potential immanent in a garment’s every cotton strand, spun as it was from plant fiber grown from Gaia’s bountiful soil, fed with Helios’s nourishing rays, and watered with the life-sustaining rains of Tlāloc.
In this sense, at least when it comes to “plant-based fits,” garments derive from the gods. This is a jawn-polytheistic spin on what designer Evan Kinori eloquently described to us as recognizing & honoring “the weight” of a garment. The dark irony is that, as the fashion industry has metastasized, it’s become a ruinous polluter of the natural world.
2. Human ingenuity and craft can themselves register as feats of magic, so that an ingeniously conceived and constructed garment can transcend the material facts of its own making and thrum & glow with ineffable talismanic properties. When you rock a magical piece — or when you see Cate Blanchett rocking magical bangers nonstop in Tár, godd*mn she came thru fitted!! — it’s not “just a coat,” it’s an impossibility made miraculously manifest.
3. Relatedly, clothes can be haunted by ghosts — in a way that is not spooky but tight — and rocking them can be séance-like. Memories of your past selves get woven into the threads of a favorite t-shirt you wore throughout college or a rainshell you wore in the backcountry. The spectral afterglow of other people’s lives lingers in secondhand pieces, too, which is why it feels so transportive when you buy, e.g., a secondhand jacket and find an old plane ticket or handwritten shopping list or letter tucked in the pocket. The pockets can be empty, too, and the s**t can still be full of ghosts.
Say it’s an oversize button-up your mom used to wear, or a hoodie your homie gifted you, or a trucker jacket you scored at a flea market — when you reach your arms into the sleeves, there’s something powerful that can’t be fully explained in anything other than ritualistic-spiritual terms about retracing the exact same path another person’s arms traced. I’m reminded about the story Michael Stipe told us about how, for a long time, he believed that Kurt Cobain had left a cardigan in his guest house, regarding it as a “reliquary” after Cobain’s death — only to learn it wasn’t Kurt’s at all.
We live in godless, spiritually barren times, and one result is that when it comes to clothes, we feel starved for pieces with aura. Choking on kilotons of characterless hyper-abundance, we want our clothes to feel distinct, to read as the totems of fulfilled lives, to serve as evidence that we have not fully lost sight of what is beautiful and meaningful about clothes, submitting ourselves entirely to designer conglomerates, swagless direct-to-consumer dropshippers and fast-fashion Death Stars who design & produce horrifying volumes of algorithmically determined dollar-menu-a** jawns.
You can see these desires reflected in our predilections here at the newsletter: Call us Walter Benjawnmin the way we yearn for the hand-made, the hand-drawn — like Spyfriend Small Talk Studio’s coveted 1-of-1 custom-made pieces, festooned with people’s autobiographically pertinent motifs — and (here’s where it can veer into fetish territory) the hand-numbered.
It’s the same impulse, at bottom, that drives sneakerheads to camp outside stores: The artificial scarcity and sense of “moment” built into limited-edition drops is a monstrously effective fake-aura generator. A more recent fake-aura technology is NFTs — a web3 update on editioned photographs and lithographs — where salespeople attempt to parcel up and merchandise the digital infinite…
And it’s the same impulse that has so far driven the bidding for a pair of Steve Jobs’ “personally owned and worn Birkenstock sandals” up from $15,000 to $22,500 — an auction estimated to close at upwards of $80,000:
I came across this auction the other day, via SpyFriend Jacob Gallagher. To help sweeten the deal, the auctioneers have tossed in a 1-of-1 NFT picture of Jobs’s bare feet, in close-up, in the sandals — an unlovely image, and I’m not sure if the NFT is there to provide some weird kind of virtual provenance for the sandals, or if the sandals are meant to provide physical provenance for the NFT.
Humans have constructed ceremonies to commune with the dead going back centuries, using possessions to summon spirits. In the era of mass-culture celebrity, that’s part of what animates “iconic” estate sales: Jobs’s Birks represent a particularly rarefied kind of ghost-haunted grail, not just because of the iconic ghost in question, but because it’s an intimate, clearly well-loved possession, too. There feels like a lot of him in this roasted & toasted footwear — even if we would be skeeved the f**k out by the sight of the same sandals lying in a “FREE” box on someone’s stoop.
The same day I saw the Jobs sandals, I looked through the auction catalog for the estate of another late GOAT of asceticism, Joan Didion. Spyfriend Rachel Tashjian wrote a nice piece at Harper’s about the biographical function of the stuff we amass, as illustrated by Didion’s apartment’s worth of beautiful s**t. But there’s also something obviously morbid about these kinds of posthumous auctions, especially when the prices get as ridiculous as they have for the Jobs Birkenstocks. In our hunger for aura we sometimes resemble carrion birds in a feeding frenzy — or clout-chasing grave robbers with our pickaxes out, ghoulishly swaggerjacking the dead.
It can feel meaningful to own a totem, especially when it belonged to someone capital-g “Great” whose work, while they were alive, affected us deeply. But don’t lose sight of the fact that your closet is full of aura already: talismans ready for consecration in daily swag rites, lesser-known ghosts waiting for you to channel them.
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