I was driving the other day and saw a woman waiting to cross the street wearing work pants – slacks, or trousers, or whatever you want to call them – with flip-flops.
Her pants were long, so they dragged on the ground as she walked. This is not an uncommon sight; I see a woman similarly dressed several times a day here in downtown San Francisco. I asked my friend Lisa, who was in the car, to explain. “Well, long pants are very stylish for women right now. Of course, they need to be worn with high heels to look right. But high heels usually hurt like hell, so we wear flip-flops to and from work.”
That seemed logical, and Lisa is my definitive source on such matters. “But,” I queried Lisa, “I see that all the time, and it totally frays the pants. What do women do about that?” Lisa looked at me as if I were a moron (not the first time she gave me that pitying look, by the way) and declared “they get new pants.”
I had always been annoyed by the flip-flop with long pant look, but never really knew why. Maybe it was the discordance of combining beach wear with work wear. Maybe I’m just compulsive enough that the dragging hems vexed me. But during my conversation with Lisa, distaste crystallized into theory. I began to see this look as emblematic of something more than just fashion; I saw it embodying a troubling aspect of our society.
Allow me to explain. The woman I saw crossing the street – let’s call her Sarah – wants to be fashionable, so she wears long pants. But long pants demand high heels, which hurt. Yet Sarah wants to be comfortable too, so she switches out the high heels for flip-flops whenever possible. She wants fashion AND comfort. There is a cost to Sarah having her cake and eating it too: frayed pants. But that cost doesn’t faze Sarah, since she can always buy new pants.
Sarah is like America: she wants to look good and feel good, and damn the consequences of having it all. She refuses to suffer even a modicum of discomfort for her style, and solves her dilemma by overspending, throwing away pants that cost more than the entire wardrobe of much of the world.
In many ways beyond fashion, America wants to have it all. We want to drive giant SUVs yet not pay much for gas. We want our taxes cut yet our services increased. We want cheap and easy mortgages yet our bank deposits to be safe. I personally want to date supermodels who are also nuclear physicists. But in each case the reality is that we can’t have it all.
As a final little fillip to this flip-flop entry, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an article on a California legislator who is trying to ban helium-filled mylar balloons because they float away and can short out power lines or kill sea animals who swallow them. The party planning industry is fighting the ban. Says one party planner of her clients: “everybody wants something high-end and glitzy.” Exactly. They want their 10-year old’s birthday party to look like a celebrity wedding, even if it kills a sea otter or two.