Robbie Low explores an identity crisis

In the aftermath of the 1960s ‘Flower Power’ there was a brief obsession with wholesome diet. A tribe of disaffected middle-class children bought into the slogan, ‘You are what you eat’. Steaks were out, brown rice and bulgar wheat were in – with predictably unpleasant social consequences. Those who had been regularly undermining the delicate chemistry of their brains with industrial quantities of narcotics were suddenly into wholefood and macrobiotics. No social conservative had the wit to riposte, ‘You think what you smoke.’ As the slang for cannabis was, and remains, a pithy Anglo-Saxon term for human waste, it would have been an accurate assessment of the verbal product of their ravaged intellects. Still, I now discover that everyone except Bill Clinton did it and the circus has moved on.

Thirty-five years on (I shudder to write that down) ‘You are what you wear.’ Yesterday’s confused and misplaced ‘spirituality’, with its wholesale non-conformity has been replaced by a fanatical materialism in which identity and product are virtually inseparable.

Inside out

It is not what you are like on the inside that matters (perhaps it never was); it is the label on the outside that counts. I seem to remember a time when labels were on the inside and companies paid you to advertise their products. Now it is virtually impossible to buy clothing which does not have its cut and line disfigured by the logos and brand names. For which privilege, perversely, we agree to pay two or three times the reasonable price.

It is possible for a woman to assess the spending power of her rival by simply adding up the labels. I am increasingly convinced that if someone produced clothing branded, ‘I’ve got more money than sense’, they would be overwhelmed by demand. Even the poorest families seem to spend £90 for the privilege of par-boiling their children’s feet in a pair of Japanese plimsolls with a tick on the side.

But labelling does not stop there. It tells other people what they want to be believed about their wealth. It inadvertently tells the more discerning about their taste, their priorities and their common sense. It is not enough for me to know about their domestic economies, they want to tell me everything else too. They need me to know who they really are.

A harmless T-shirt advertising a famous event the wearer has been to? He is telling me he likes motorbikes or a certain pop group. Next along the street is a man who wants to share his philosophy with me. The profound one- liner may be all right to pass on the street but can you imagine going round with this guy all day?

I have such a T-shirt given me by a witty confirmand. I wear it when Evangelical friends come to dinner. The legend reads, ‘JESUS LOVES YOU … but I’m his favourite.’ It works for three minutes and then I go and put a shirt on. Imagine tramping around London with some anal retentive who wants to share the darker thoughts of Nietzche or the witty asides of Mao Tse Tung with every passing stranger.

Broad hints

Even worse than these is the newish tendency of women to wear provocative slogans. What do you say to a woman in her fifties, whose mainframe has long since gone south, wearing a T-shirt with the legend, ‘Fit Chick Unbelievable Knockers’? Would it be unkind to remind her of the Trade Descriptions Act? Or the woman dragging two children round a supermarket wearing a miniature spray-on top revealing decolletage to rival the Grand Canyon, vertigo shoes and a belt which had clearly lost its accompanying skirt. The single word motto adorning her personal outposts of Arizona was ‘RECKLESS’. The information was superfluous.

The other day in the newsagent I finally deciphered the lettering on some ample young woman’s bust. It said, ‘Why are you staring at my tits?’ What could I say? ‘Because they are there!’ or simply, ‘the usual reasons’ or, equally true for me at my time of life, ‘because if you prefer just a furtive glance, you will need to make the print bigger’.

These are all attention-seeking devices. Look at me. I matter. I have something to say. I’m not just a face in the crowd. And these, thank goodness are all changeable statements. You can change your statement as often as you change your clothes which is, in most cases, just as well.

The charmless young person who was instructed to change his clothes if he wanted to enter the church here as a wedding guest will no doubt fulminate against the vicar’s lack of charity. By the time he’s got children of his own he may reflect that I did him a kindness. ‘Cool as F…’ his shirt proclaimed. It might just as well have said ‘Utter Prat’.

Bolt ons

Some things are harder to change of course. In recent years more and more people have wanted to mark their identity indelibly in a statement of artistic preference and personal courage. Tattooing and piercing are in.

Generations of working-class men who passed through the services came back with the results of a drunken night on their arm. If you were lucky it was just ‘Mum and Dad’ or an anchor. Unlucky was a heart with ‘Janice’ in the middle of it. Unlucky because you went on to marry Doreen. Most chaps would have given anything to remove these momentary yet lifelong follies.

Now it is all the rage to have veritable frescos dyed into the skin and every conceivable place sporting an unhygienic bolt through it. Self-mutilation, of course, is just one symptom of the return to paganism, idolatry and self-obsession.

So many people desperately seeking attention, unsure of their self-worth, place and importance. So many people desperately searching for a sense of belonging and identity. Still, I suppose, the further we get away from the Gospel, the more labels and T-shirts and tattoos we’re going to need.