It always amazes me that we are supposed to think of Europeans as our cultural betters. The old bitch, gone in the teeth and heiress to a few sets of old marbles, has some good things to be said for her. But for the most part, she's three hundred million people wandering around in the rubble of 2500 years of civilization, asking each other, "isn't there something more than this?"
An intensely class and race conscious aggregation of small countries, it's a continent that is torn between the incompatible aims of trying to be a world economic and social leader, or maybe perhaps just retiring into a lazy paternalist social welfare state where there's no need to worry, but no risk of individual failure (or great reward) so why bother. There are small challenges such as picking a university where one will be awarded a doctorate in some liberal arts discipline prior to a taxi driving or factory career, or how to wheedle a better apartment or where to spend the six weeks off this year... but there aren't many grand visions to be found anywhere, except in the re-developing East side. Don't get me wrong. There are many great things to be said about many individual Europeans, and some facets of some European countries. But as a whole, European culture, particularly Western European culture, strikes me as aimless, having lost impetus.
A place you can see this is in art. Classical notions of beauty - those championed by the Greeks and Romans, those genetically hard wired into us according to a number of recent studies - were killed off by the modernists, then exhumed in rotted form and killed again by a number of intentionally bad art movements such as Dadaism. To the extent there is good new art, it seems to be folk art trickling up into the museums, high quality industrial art (Jasper Johns... call your office please) or an occasional bit that works alright because it references classical notions of what art is by its conscious and open revolt against those standards. I sorta know a guy who seems to work in that genre...
What does this have to do with cycling?
Well, you know how we've been bemused by ugly kit this spring?
What you're seeing isn't coincidental. It's just the current grammar of fashion.
You remember how we chattered about Slipstream's kit? Johnathan Vaughters didn't throw out something terribly new. He went back to an older mode of fashion with classic argyle patterns, then updated them by arraying them diagonally and putting in a couple fresh colors. New, but old. You understood the grammar.
Then we laughed at this next one. Tired old design - like plain earthtone argyles, but combined with some disgusting, non-aesthetic colors. They are non-aesthetic in the sense that Alexander Pope would have rejected them on their own, they would not have made it onto his list of representing any worthwhile virtue or emotion. Well, maybe the red would have, but not in the bloody excess in which it is used below.
But wait. The inevitable fashion disaster gets worse. One of the points about a team kit, is the team wants to make an impression, to remain in your mind's eye after you turn off the TV and sit down to Sunday dinner, and perhaps when you go shopping next week. But how to catch the viewer's attention? You can do it one of two ways. You can speak to the viewer positively, using classical elements that the viewer knows how to interpret, as Vaughters usually tries to do with Slipstream kit. "Look at me," it says fairly clearly. I'm beautiful. Remember me."
The other way is to scream at the viewer, "Remember me! I am terrible! You cannot forget!" as Team Footon-Servetto-Fuji has done. As any owner of a vintage British convertible knows, Babyshit Brown (Russet) only grows more tiresome compared to the more graceful colors, such as British Racing Green, or Damask Red. You remember it either way. The only difference is that the gent who devised the green color did your eyes and your mind a favor; the guy who devised that nasty brown... well, he should be locked in a closet with lighting designed by John Lucas.
So my point is, as a sport heavily influenced by Western European fashion culture, the kit designs are often going to be atrocious. They will be so bad that the designers will not know they are bad. Designers will go for a head turning effect, only they are so adrift culturally that they do not appear to know why people's heads are turning. Those designers who go for classical appeal will make kit that may not be *the* most cutting edge stuff this year, but they will create jerseys that the team's fanboys won't mind wearing in 20 years.
The designers who just throw stuff out there that lacks an aesthetic referent may catch your eye, but they won't be remembered, except as an example of bad style. (Team Mapei and acid washed jeans kit, anybody?) There is nothing wrong with going back to the classical vocabulary of aesthetics. As the years and crustiness pile up on me - we're now in the third cycle of horrible clothing I've seen in my life - I'm increasingly convinced that those who fail to do so are either too narcissistic to gamely make workmanlike and attractive derivative work; or they are beasts that either do not know or do not care about the aesthetic shambles they are making.
Ironically, what made me think about this was not looking at the new cycling kit, but the gear worn by Stade Francais, one of the premier French pro rugby sides.
Yeah. Even though that guy could totally kick your ass, you feel pity because of what the kit designer did to him.
Update: A couple comments make me think a clarification is needed here. Don't get me wrong here. I'm not writing a paean to the U.S. here. I'm just pointing out something that Sartre and the Lost Generation modernists and the Frankfurt School and 68'ers all pointed out - what's left of Western European culture right now is a stately and scenic fossil, attractive but basically without nerves or blood or sinew. I happen to disagree with them about the cause of their cultural ennui - most of them chalked it up to the then-prevalent culture and I would chalk it up to industrialization's rejection of that culture and traditional christian humanism - but I'm with the radicals when they comment upon the general cultural listlessness that Western Europe has suffered since its confidence was shattered in 1917, the year the Russians lost faith in the Czar, the French Poillou lost faith in the Republic, the British public lost faith in Kitchener, and the starving Germans lost faith in the Czar. Most of Europe, or at least the opininon leaders, seemed to lose their faith in God, reason, traditional aesthetics, and anything with roots that predated about 1850 at about the same time, oblivious to the reshuffling of society wrought by industrialization. But anyhow... we came here to talk about kit, and is it just me, or is anything more appealing than seeing the traditional looking Jets and Colts duking it out in January?