Regurgitating Wayfarers

— Steve Wright

I’ve recently noticed that Ray-Ban Wayfarers have resurfaced in “hip” couture and this brings me back to a favorite subject of mine, the recycling of styles or images in popular culture and the meanings this reflexivity produces, intentional and otherwise.  I’m usually more interested in these operations as they effect popular music and images, but the return of these ugly-ass sunglasses into my daily landscape is remarkable in that this emergence is a second stylistic revival or return (the first occurring in the mid-Eighties), and that this “second degree” of reflexivity is a phenomenon that I haven’t noticed elsewhere.  As a disclaimer let me say I have essentially no background or understanding of Fashion Le Field, its history or its criticism other than tutoring ESL students for one semester at a commercial art school, and that’s fine (with me and my ugly clothes, at least).  To mangle some Superchunk, I no longer care what I wear or what you think of it.  Quoting a popular indie act of the early Nineties is also a good way to admit another chip I shoulder – namely, that I’m not one of these Wayfarer-rocking whippersnappers who may be unaware that they are re-rehashing a 1950s style, damn them.  I’m kinda old now, grumpy, and think more and more fashion trends look plain stupid.

So let’s get into it.  Let’s start by considering these sunglasses simultaneously as solid object, image, and fad, and try to reach a big picture conclusion about what I propose to be a second degree of cultural reflection, all the while doing our best to avoid the jargon of semiotics and other “theory” wherever possible (ahem).  Here I use “reflection” in its useful sense as authentic reflexivity as opposed to debased reflexivity (1), wherein meaningful cultural critiques may be purposefully broadcast and understood rather than cynically co-opted by the entertainment industry to further consumption.

What are the possible meanings a 23-year-old hipster – barely a toddler during the first reflection of the Wayfarer in the mid-Eighties – suggests by sporting this positively ancient model of eyeware in the late 2000s?  Is it a straight transmission of Hepburn’s sexy dishevelment and James Dean’s hunky rebellion from half a century ago?  Is it that plus the digested post-punk nihilism that pouted at the malls and in John Hughes films twenty-five years ago?  Is it all this and nothing at all – an exploded acknowledgement of cultural simultaneity brought about by the near total penetration of electronic media into every moment of Western human existence?

Fifteen years ago I would have tried to prove all this and more.  Now I’m content to note that these Ray-Ban reflections originate in the same years in which modernity turned to postmodernity – the 1950s – and to propose that no other Western image, item or trend has recycled across this epochal threshold.  Perhaps the inability of these kinds of cultural reflexivities to cross such thresholds helps to define them.  God knows the differences between the modern and postmodern could use further clarification.  Are there any Victorian styles that have been relived in our recent modernities?  I’ve seen one or two really cutting edge hipsters rock the handlebar moustache, but that look never caught fire unfortunately.  Haven’t seen any riot grrls in bloomers.  Jazz, the sound of the modern age, has not had any truly reflective/authentic revival in postmodern pop (music).

But wait – one degree of reflection did “cross over” the epochal boundary and into postmodernism, in the field of visual art.  The Expressionism of the Thirties and Forties was arguably revived in the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s.  And returning to jazz, conscious hip hop in the early Nineties sampled its fair share of that modern form.  Should the proposition be revised to exclude “real art” (an impossible distinction)?  Better yet, maybe styles and other cultural items can only muster one reiteration in the new era before fading away for good.  Time will tell in regard to modernism and its post-.  Real scholars would have weigh in on the earlier eras.  Personally, I’m hella ready for the new era, like now.  I’ve still got some flannels in the attic and by the time the final Wayfarer wave hits I won’t be around to bitch.


[1] Dr. Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Utrecht University, “Reflexivity as Theoretical Concept in Media Studies” p.7, 2008.  http://www.mediaengager.com/tutorial1.pdf

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