Updated: December 11, 2021 9:38:09 am
Say what you will about Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, they weren’t in it for the money or the looks. The two protagonists of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, in fact, sparked a literary and social movement that was anti-materialist, into enhancing perception and almost certainly a reaction to the conservative capitalist excesses of 1950s America. Now, from being both plot and metaphor on the road, the Beat Generation has been reduced to a marketing gimmick on the runway: Dior’s menswear collection, unveiled earlier this week in a London show, draws from Kerouac’s aesthetic and characters.
Of course, it is unfair to blame the contemporary fashion industry alone. Che Guevara has long been a way to sell t-shirts and motorcycles and the Beat aesthetic has been used to sell clothes, coffee and even market tourism in the US almost since its inception. And, after all, when publishers sell books, aren’t they already part of the market? Fashion is often considered an art form, and as appropriations go, many will argue, things can be a lot worse. The many, as they often are, would be wrong.
The difference between substance and vacuousness, authenticity and performance, is context. And every time an aspect of culture that, in essence, challenges an order of conservatism and inequality becomes a way to make a buck and look cool — without really upsetting anyone — we lose something valuable. No, Dior and its designers aren’t merely “inspired” by Kerouac, nor are they interpreting his art in a new context. What they are doing is robbing it of its depth, and selling literature and worldview like a picture postcard featuring hipster-costumed models. Kim Jones, the designer at Dior in charge of the project said he loves “the moment counter-culture becomes culture”. But in that moment, he forgot to add, the former loses itself.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2021 under the title ‘On the runway’.