Who Is The American Schlub?

You may remember Baron Davis infamously showing up to an NBPA conference decked out in toque and flannel tartan shirt. It turned out to be a publicity stunt to get people to talk about the documentary American Schlub, currently in pre-production. The stunt ended up working like a charm: people certainly started talking about it. The documentary will look at the decline of men’s fashion sense, and it’ll be interesting to see how it does it. While there are certainly schlubs and shrubs and frumps out there, it’s hard to point out where schlubbing became more prevalent than usual. Where has men’s fashion declined from?

Haven’t a lot of men always been badly dressed? That’s the whole point of men’s style blogs like the great Put This On, which tries to bring fashion sense to a large audience. When was the golden age when men dressed better?

The fashion world tends to glamourize the past and romanticize the working class world of past eras (hence why we’re wearing designer jeans today). But sartorial classism has always been around. Not everyone was a Cary Grant back in the day.

Today’s too-big denim-on-denim, sweatpants and billowing hoodie are just stand-ins for yesterday’s high-waisted ratty trousers and tacky suspenders. And even farther back, it was easy to distinguish a sophisticated man in the city from the boy from the provinces.

So when did we start dressing worse?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Davis said, “We used to be fashion forward. We’re more of a sweats and Ugg boots type of society,” he says. “We wanted to challenge men, from that perspective.”

So who is the American schlub?

Well, look at the guy who doesn’t care. You see him all the time when you go out to clubs. You take a look at the girl he’s with, and she looks like she’s spent a couple hours on her hair, make-up and getting herself into her dress. He looks like he just rolled off the couch and fallen onto his baseball cap.

They wear their jerseys to clubs and shows. A lot of men don’t care about how they dress. But have they gotten worse at it?

And what about people who have a good reason to be poorly dressed? A lot of fashion is politically or ideologically motivated. In the late seventies, not caring about how you look was a way to assert your working-class identity in a society that was increasingly becoming fixated on affluence.

That was what punk and hip hop outsider fashion was about. To call it badly dressed is missing the point.

In discussing American Schlub, Ball Don’t Lie’s Eric Freeman makes a (maybe accidentally) terrific point: “There’s been renewed interest in men’s fashion recently, both on basic cable makeover shows and with more rigorous Internet pursuits like Put This On.”

Yes, there has been, hasn’t there? There’s been renewed interest in the fashion styles of stars like Stoudemire, Wade, and Rondo, and renewed interested in men’s fashion in general. Blogs like Style Etiquette and Put This On are making headlines.

There are loaded words like hipster on our lips, words that have more to do with appearances than with attitude or ideology. Style mags like GQ have never been better. Ideologically-motivated DIY looks of honest, working-class grit like punk and early hip hop, are all but lost to us now. Men’s fashion, if anything, is more vibrant and widespread than ever, at least in cities.

We Don’t Decline; We Go Around And Around

Fashion trends are cyclical. They don’t decline, they recede, and then come back. I knew a university professor who would, in lieu of teaching, fill up his classes with lectures on the terrible state of men’s fashion, specifically that fathers and sons were wearing essentially the same clothes.

When he was younger, there was a distinct difference between what a grown man wore, and what a teenager wore. Now, we’re all wearing jeans, we’re all wearing t-shirts.

But even ignoring the political movements that catalyzed that change (and you shouldn’t), that’s a trend that’s cyclical too. Glance at old paintings from the past three hundred years, and you’ll see that same thing happening again and again (though, obviously, with trousers and coats than with jeans and t-shirts).

But American Schlub will do something different: While there’s a lot of literature out there, and a lot of web blogs and sites that talk about how men can dress better, there’s actually not a lot out there talking about how poorly dressed some men are. Compare that with the staggering number of articles and sites devoted to obsessing over the hot/not dichotomy for women.

So while I wouldn’t say men’s fashion sense is in a decline, we certainly aren’t talking about it enough. If American Schlub seeks to make badly dressed men a subject of discussion, rather than just the status quo, I think there’s a place for it.

It’ll be interesting to see where the doc focuses — Will it talk about working-class men, or will it talk about other NBA players, making 5 million a year (and up)?

Either way, good stuff, Baron Davis. Looks like you put your lockout time to good use.


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