Carhartt envy and the comfort culture

    “You’re kidding, right?”

    My girlfriend’s uneasy words echoed between the wood-paneled walls of Wicker Park’s Carhartt store. But they didn’t ring quite as clearly through the neon orange beanie nestled on my head.

    “Wait. You’re actually serious .... Take it off, oh my god!”

    Without warning, in the heart of one of America’s finest cities, worldviews collided, and I learned a little bit about what comfort means to me.

    A little background: My girlfriend is from Traverse City, Mich., and I’m from Union City, Calif., just outside of San Francisco. This periodically presents cultural differences that transcend our preferred salinities for massive bodies of water. That 2,447 mile span of American heartland accounts for things besides my affinity for saltiness, apparently.

    To her, Carhartt is the brand of the snowmobile-ridin’, deer-huntin’, gun-totin’ crowd. To me, it’s the brand I’ve only ever seen worn by one person: Anderson Cooper, when he goes on “rugged” assignments. And if my female journalism teachers have taught me anything, it’s not to question The Coop. (Secondary Anderson advice: If you look into his eyes for more than five seconds you’ll encounter the truest bliss known to mankind.)

    As a kid, I was instilled with a lifelong love for the outdoors. I snow camped in the Sierras, kayaked in the Snake River and hiked in Denali National Park. I became an Eagle Scout. I wore North Face before it was cool to wear it on a college campus, just to prove you had cash to burn.

    In fact, I would’ve melted of embarrassment if I had been forced to wear my rugged gear to high school. On weekend camping trips I let my hair get grimy, tied in a red bandana. My jeans were caked with mud and I wore paint-stained t-shirts. But when Monday morning rolled around, I was flat-ironing my hair, plastering skinny jeans to my adolescent legs and lacing up my Chucks.

    I find that these days, some of my friends are facing the same fashion crossroad as me: comfort or cool, relaxed or all the rage. When I was home for the holidays, a friend of mine – who has always been sufficiently chic – told me she was going for tennis shoes and Target garb more often, just because they feel so much better. It’s more socially acceptable for a chick to go Tina Fey than it is for a dude to go, well, The Dude, but newsflash: There’s a reason why these garments have weathered fashion trends for the last few decades.

    When I came to Evanston for what would be my first real winter, my aunt bought me some wool-lined jeans from Lands' End. They sat in my drawer for more than a year before I eventually gave them to Goodwill, on the grounds that I was just too cool for them. With this recent cold snap, I’m wishing I had them back.

    According to my girlfriend – who, I promise, is nowhere near as judgmental and controlling as this article depicts her – I made quite the faux pas by throwing that (blissfully comfortable) Carhartt beanie on my head. That’s because Carhartt is not only a brand disconnected from the cool crowd, it’s a brand that has been negatively stigmatized – unless you’re a lumberjack or Anderson Cooper, in which case it’s totally acceptable.

    For a class I recently took I read a book about branding. In America, Pabst Blue Ribbon markets itself to working-class folk, and more or less behind their backs also markets itself to hipsters, who swig the beer ironically. But in China – prepare for your mind to be blown – Pabst markets itself as a high-end product. Bottles of PBR run upwards of 40 U.S. dollars in the People’s Republic, and advertisements place it in the same tier as French wines and Scotch whiskeys. As the author notes, “the same beverage means very different things to different people.”

    What all this Pabst talk misses is that, maybe, the beer is just good. I had a couple cans of it tonight, and despite my admitted beer snobbery, they really did wash my dinner down nicely. I also didn’t feel the guilt of dropping a bunch of dough on a luxurious craft beer. (I’m using the American lens for PBR here.) I just drank the foamy brew and enjoyed it.

    Maybe Carhartt – and all the brands we tell ourselves are too nerdy, old or weird to wear – is the same way. Thanks to its ties to certain ways of life that aren’t our own, we discount the inherent values of the clothing itself. It’s affordable. It’ll keep you warm. With Carhartt, you’ll get functionality and durability without breaking the bank. It’s funny, because these are all things the people who wear Carhartt garments take for granted. They aren’t trying to be uncool, they’re just wearing their ridiculously comfy Carhartts.

    Eventually I took off the neon orange beanie, primarily because I didn’t feel like forking over the $8 it would’ve taken me to carry it out of the store. I left with a renewed awareness of my cultural fallibility – but I’m working on it, guys. Maybe I’ll wear my torn jeans and oversized red fleece out next time I leave the apartment.


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