Two semicentennials this season provide us a teachable moment about style.
November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, America’s rock star President who, with his glamorous wife Jacqueline, brought a welcome sense of style and aesthetics to public life. December 26 marks the 50th anniversary of the US release of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles, who caused a revolution in youth style and fashion with their longish hair and English suits.
Both JFK and The Beatles had much going for them, of course, outside of style and fashion. Kennedy brought us back from the brink of nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and later passed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. (He also laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act, committed the US to manned space exploration, and helped launch the Peace Corps.) The Beatles resurrected rock & roll at its finest and emerged as the most innovative and disruptive force in the history of pop music and pop culture.
But let’s not diminish style. Virginia Postrel, in her wonderful classic of social criticism, The Substance of Style, makes the point that aesthetics has intrinsic value because “human beings know the world, and each other, through our senses.”
Postrel tells the story of Afghan men and women who—immediately after the fall of their Taliban tyrants—made personal grooming and fashion a top priority. Men began shaving their beards. Women began painting their nails. Burkas even started appearing in new colors! A Michigan hairdresser who went to Kabul on a relief mission as an assistant to medical professionals ended up cutting hair full-time. In a country not easily reached by Western advertising, the need to “look good,” the desire for personal beauty, and the attraction to sensory pleasures was preeminent. How else to explain that some women risked their lives painting their faces during the Taliban occupation?
Aesthetics—the "look and feel" of people, places, and things—is not value cut off from the rest of life, Postrel reminds us throughout her book. “Decoration and adornment are neither higher nor lower than ‘real’ life. They are part of it.”
Business understands this. Products with the same features are distinguished by their look and feel, their design. This is the basis for what everyone now calls the "customer experience." As Postrel points out, "Aesthetics is not a luxury, but a universal human desire.”
Rock & roll understands this. "The look"—for many if not most artists—is paramount. A former executive of Capitol Records once told me that they signed The Beatles mainly because of their hair—and the female hysteria it generated! (Of course their music was part of their aesthetic appeal too.)
The full title of Postrel’s book is The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness (Harper Perennial, 2004). Find it here.
For a post on an earlier Beatles’ anniversary, check here.