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17 December 2013

Men with writing on their trousers: our unconscious need to communicate with the divine

Perhaps in the sweatshops of Dhaka or Kuala Lumpur “ZX951 EOTHEN STATE 55-1 PREMIUM WASHABLE INTER-5 90%” means something quite profound?

By Will Self

I craned in through the window of the cab I was paying so I could get a better look at what, to me, has alway been a bizarre phenomenon. The cabbie was laboriously writing out the receipt I’d requested (I have this exchange all the time: “Shall I leave it blank, guv?” “No, fill it in, please, HMRC know my handwriting,”) and this meant I could get close enough to the weird little vinyl lozenge sewn on to the shoulder of his sweatshirt to read what was printed there. “ZX951 EOTHEN STATE 55-1 PREMIUM WASHABLE INTER-5 90%” it said – or gobbledegook to that effect. Anyway, you get the picture: this was just one among the many thousands of Britons who go about their business all day, every day, wearing clothes with a load of new cobblers written on them.

Where does it originate, this particular instance of sartorial folly? Certainly that other great madness of the crowd, marketing, is implicated – as is the whole psychic anti-cyclone we can capture with the catch-all “commodity fetishism” – but nowadays clothes that merely incorporate their manufacturers’ names as elements of style (D&G, Chanel, Hollister) have started to appear positively comme il faut, when set beside the typographic excesses that flex and stretch all about us.

Then again, back in the 1990s one of my favoured euphemisms for narcotic excess was “spending too much time in underground car parks meeting men with writing on their trousers”. True, it’s clumsy and long-winded for a euphemism but you get the point. The emergent rap culture – straight outta Compton via Balamory – seemed to favour this sort of frankly childish logical positivism: trousers with “pants” written on them, guns labelled “gunz”. And in due course this submerged current – like so many before – surfaced into the mainstream. (If you want an absolutely top-hole example of this, I remember seeing a female newsreader, in the mid-1980s, reading the Nine O’ Clock News with a silver razor blade dangling from a chain around her neck. Of course, the idea that she’d been chopping out lines of cocaine with it before going (very) live on air is preposterous, although not that much more preposterous than her naivety.

Another factor in the spread of this typographic staining has to be globalisation; for all I know, in the sweatshops of Dhaka or Kuala Lumpur “ZX951 EOTHEN STATE 55-1 PREMIUM WASHABLE INTER-5 90%” may mean something quite profound, may in fact be coded message such as “You poor western moron, your cheap sweatshirt was purchased by the sweat of your brow and made by us sweating blood, and neither of us will ever get a piece of the profit.”

Alternatively, it could be that the manufacturers – or possibly the retailers – of these garbled garments hold exhaustive focus groups at which strings of random words, letters and numbers are tried out on representative consumers. Actually, I’d feel a lot better about wearing a jacket with “TRANS-DEF 1117 RA-RA” blazoned on it if I did believe that at least this level of rationality inhered in it, but I fear this cannot be the case – only our governance is managed by such clear articulations of desire.

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Taken in sum, marketing, kidult counterculture and the great commercial percolation of English as a lingua franca probably are a necessary explanation as to why the middle-aged woman sitting opposite you as you read this is wearing a pink baseball cap with “Tingly Neurone GG2” embroidered on its brim – but I’m not sure it’s a wholly sufficient one. No, when it comes to wearing meaningless clothes – and recall, it was Sartre who asserted that “Hell is other people’s trousers” – I think there must be an X-factor (or possibly an X2/@-WHITNEY one), and this is a submerged but still present desire in our culture for the vulgate.

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Yes, you heard me right: the vulgate; after all, for over a millennium the people of these isles were accustomed to men in dresses standing up in front of them and intoning a lot of mumbo-jumbo – and far from this being regarded as idiotic or offensive, it was intrinsic to our collective communication with the divine. The Reformation put paid to that, and henceforth the liturgy was to be changed in plain English – but our yearning for mystification and the intercession of strange apparel remains unabated, and so in lieu of the vulgate mass we have substituted a mass of vulgar clothing. Here endeth the lesson.