When I was in high school, Izod Lacoste tennis shirts were all the rage, among both boys and girls. At any party, game, or school gathering, you'd be swimming in a sea of glandularly challenged teens in yellow, red, blue, pink, and green shirts, most sporting the signature "alligator" on the left breast. The alligator, of course, is actually a crocodile. That was the nickname of René Lacoste, the French tennis great of the 1920s who not only designed the original shirt but is credited with, as one commentator put it, "starting the flood of apparel logos" that has never receded. Not surprisingly, such nuances were lost on me and my high school classmates. For us, the alligator shirt was about neither history nor tennis; it was about the here and now. It functioned as a marker of class (it was significantly more expensive than various knockoffs, such as J.C. Penney's sad-sack, wannabe "fox" shirt) and cool (it was a virtually effortless way of showing a sense of style).
Partly because I was something of a tediously studied nonconformist and partly because my own wardrobe boasted more foxes than alligators, I started cutting out the animal insignias on my shirts and stitching the cloth back together with black thread—a process that left a conspicuous, jagged scar rather than an all-important logo. Responses ran from back-slappingly positive (anti-status gestures find a ready, if small, audience among adolescents) to physically abusive (there's no way to count the number of twistings my left nipple took at the hands of outraged style kings).
I was less interested in the nature of the responses than in my ability to carve out a particular identity for myself using ready-made, off-the-shelf materials. The point, however inchoate, inarticulate, and immature, was to register dissent with the status quo and to assert some measure of individuality in a stultifying, conformist atmosphere.
Mine is an admittedly trivial example, drawn from the minimum-security, open-air prison of suburban New Jersey. Several of this month's articles deal with the ways in which people in truly tough circumstances appropriate commercial culture to their own liberatory ends. Reason Senior Editor Charles Paul Freund's cover story, "In Praise of Vulgarity" (page 24), is a grand tour of Stalin's Russia, which spawned the stilyagi, zoot-suit-wearing, jazz-loving malcontents; fundamentalist Algeria, which energized the lewd and subversive rai music scene; and contemporary Cambodia, which boasts an outlawed karaoke circuit the government is trying to crush with tanks.
Freund's piece opens with the recent fall of Kabul, which Afghans celebrated by binging on the schlock culture long denied them by the Taliban. He describes how, even under the threat of prison and worse, Afghan men insisted on getting their hair cut in illegal styles (including, improbably, a coif based on Leonardo DiCaprio's in Titanic). In "Free Hand" (page 82), Virginia Postrel notes that many burqa-clad women did something similar with nail polish. In "Porous Border" (page 65), reason Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder explores the ways in which Mexican migrants from the small village of Cherán have mixed elements of native and U.S. culture, creating a hybrid form that is constantly evolving, depending on what its creators want or need.
Such unauthorized activity unnerves many people, especially those who seek control and regimentation, whether political or cultural. It also reminds those of us in democratic, largely tolerant societies that the personal expression we can usually buy on the cheap often costs others a very dear price.