The GAPification of America
AS AMERICANS FLOCK to glassy stores all over the nation to buy white onepocket T-shirts and buttonfly jeans, as the owners of Bennigan's and T.G.I. Friday's sit at their fern-ensconced tables to count their millions, as another Virginia family drives away with another unassembled tan sofa from Ikea, our senses of place and identity vanish into the democratic emptiness of Gapified America.
The Gapification of America has been sneaking up on us for more than a decade, and now, with the omnipresence of wellmade, monchromal cotton sweaters, of grilled chicken sandwiches with honey mustard sauce, of blond wood and black halogen floor lamps, it has finally triumphed. It is a victory for democracy: these products are relatively cheap, handsome and well made. No one has ever looked ugly in a Gap shirt.
But it is a tragedy for American individuality. Gapified culture asserts its uniqueness, asserts that its consumption somehow makes the consumer special.
The only way Gapified culture can succeed is if it is mass culture, if it can make anybody special. We buy it first, thinking it makes us special, then we notice that everyone else is wearing jeans, T-shirts and blazers, and is eating the szechuan noodle salad. At the same time, those people who aren't Gapified are left to rot; not important, not "individuals of style."
THE GAP IS, of course, the great power behind Gapified culture, at least in clothing. In the last six years, Gap, Inc., has doubled its number of stores (now 1300), doubled the sales-per-store, and doubled and redoubled its advertising budget. Even during this recession, Gap sales are up 20 percent, now over $2 billion a year.
One way to took at the sales figures is a quick per capita sales analysis: on average, every single person in America spent almost $10 at the Gap last year, or, what is more likely, 10 percent of Americans spent about $80 each.
The essence of Gap clothing is uniformity. Gap has a palette of colors, and all its clothes come in that palette. (Pink underwear was abandoned recently because it didn't match the palette; that omnipresent ochre-pumpkin color and its attendant mossy green did.)
The clothes are well-made, simple, conservative, casual and inexpensive--no neon, no garish patterns that you can't adjust to in a few minutes, a few stripes, plaids in shorts, maybe a funky belt or snazzy pair of socks, but nothing that would ever seem threatening to a high school principal. Gapified clothes are crisp twill pants, slightly tapered jeans, solidcolor turtlenecks, soft button-down shirts in softer colors. You know what they are. You are wearing some.
But the Gap is just the tip of the iceberg. Virtually every successful clothing store or catalog offers the same thing as the Gap. J. Crew is mail-order Gap. Tweeds is mailorder Gap with more patterns. Lands' End is mail-order Gap for more conservative dressers. L.L. Bean is mail-order Gap with plaid and boots. Bennetton is Gap with brighter colors. The Limited is Gap with more design. Banana Republic, which is owned by the Gap, is Gap with more pockets and more khaki.
SUCH IS THE GAPIFIED fashion world. We are what we wear. We are Gapified. But Gapifation has extended to food--we are what we eat. The last decade has witnessed an explosion of restaurants filled with brass and glass, Murphy's Oil Soaped wood, Tiffany lamps and ferns, lots of ferns. Part bar, part restaurant, part amusement park, these mini-herbaria all bring us the same mediocre food at the same modest prices, the same all over the country.
Benningan's, Houlihan's and T.G.I. Friday's are the standard models, serving big burgers, pasta salads, grilled shrimp and chicken, buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks, pitchers of soda and beer, cheap wine, cheesecake and always, always a "Death by Chocolate."
On the ethnic wing of this are things like Chili's or Chevy's which serve denatured Mexican food with the same pleasant, harmless tastes as their Anglo-counterparts.
Gapification has an equally firm grasp on design and architecture. It's almost impossible to find a new apartment or house without blond wood, high ceilings, big windows and large white walls.
In that same apartment are the requisite halogen lamp, Ikea or Conran's furniture, and the keys to the new Volkswagen (farfigwhat?). Less slick than Scandinavian, more comfortable than Bauhaus, Gapified design does not produce spaces to come home to, but spaces to come visit.
This total Gapification is the self-assertion of the middle classes. Gap clothes are inexpensive by Vogue standards, but not K-Mart's. Gapified food is not Le Cirque, but it is a conscious step above fast food. It is the culture of the Bush Era.
The American middle classes spent their eight years under Reagan spending, trying to live up to the glitz. Image was everything, and Polo was the rage. The Polo store, with its antiqued mahogany, riding gear and posh addresses crafted an image of a glorious Edwardian gentry past that America never had.
It was expensive, and that was what mattered: the embroidered horseman ushered in a new era of logo-centrism. And if you couldn't afford it, you knew you sucked, and you bought something like it.
Today, middle class Americans (unlike the federal government) are paying the price for their expense. Gapified culture is a retrenchment, a return not to cheapness, but to a viable, attractive, inexpensive consumption that promises individuality and democracy.
IT IS AN American tradition. "What's great about this country," Andy Warhol wrote, "is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink a Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it."
Warhol wanted a democratic culture, but he had no illusions about individuality. "Someone said Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It's happening here all by itself without being under a strict government; so if it's working without trying, why can't it work without being Communist? Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we're getting more and more that way."
That was Warhol's ideal, and he got what he wanted. But, the Gap promises uniformity not uniqueness, and this is its terrible danger. Promising what it cannot deliver, Gapification erodes our senses of place and self, with huge social costs.
ABOUT TWO YEARS AGO, Gap began its "Individuals of Style" adverstising campaign. In glossy magazines all over the country, Gap took out full page ads for which famous photographers like Anne Liebovitz and Herb Ritts took pictures of famous or interesting Americans wearing Gap clothes. Mostly these people wore the most basic Gap clothes, often just a white T-shirt and jeans.
The message of the ads is that these famous people don't need fancy clothing to express their individuality. They are cool regardless of what clothing they wear. So a white T-shirt does not necessarily mean a bland personality--it means that you are not what you wear.
Yet the entire point of the campaign is to make us buy Gap clothes. It only works if millions of us buy white T-shirts. And the sad fact is, Ronnie Lott and Joni Mitchell can be unique in Gap clothing because they do amazing, successful, celebrated things. But when we wear Gap clothing, we melt into the rest of the crowd that is also wearing it, because we don't stand out.
Joni Mitchell is famous, so we see her as a wonderful singer, not as a middle-aged woman in a jean jacket. When we wear our jean jackets, however, we are judged as jean-jacket wearing types, and our individuality is subsumed under our clothes.
Watching Gap commercials, you would never think this was possible. George Michaels's "Freedom '90" plays in the background. A group of Chinese children are running down a flight of stairs. They are all wearing Mao hats, drab coats, monochrome school uniforms. Except one. He runs down, attired in Gap clothes--jeans, plaid shirt, smiling--bringing American democracy to the Communist state.
Such is the image. The American reality is the mirror image: Our Mao hat is the Gap pocket tee.
GAPIFIED CULTURE is also destroying American sense of place. As Gapification spreads across the country, as malls everywhere pick up their Limited Express and fern-bar restaurants, locational individuality vanishes. Chili's tells us that its restaurants are "Like no place else."
This is, of course, a lie. The Chili's on Mount Auburn St. is the same as the Chili's on Huntington Ave. In Boston is the same as the Chili's on 3rd Ave. in New York is the same as the Chevy's in San Francisco is the same as every Bennigan's is the same as every Houlihan's is the same every T.G.I. Friday's. Every Gap is like every other Gap, whether you are in London, England, Austin, Texas, or Durham, North Carolina. And every Gap is like every Limited or Bennetton.
This syntopia has become so radical that we do not even need a place: mail-order proliferation is the natural outcome of this. For all practical purposes, there is no "Lands' End." But you can be sure that its clothes will be the same no matter where you make your toll-free call from.
Regional individuality has vanished, replaced by a homogenized, spaceless, timeless world where, in the words of the Mazda Miata commercial, "Blue jeans and white T-shirts were in."
But this world, for all its democratic aspirations, does not admit all comers. And it does not allow for pluralism. Threatened by the drama, excitement and danger of real urban culture, our suburbs have countered it with Gapified culture, a non-threatening, undramatic boring collection of handsome clothing and bland, decent food.
Step one is to co-opt the bastions of middle-class urbanism. There are three Gaps within a 10-block radius of Astor Place in Greenwich Village, and there are more and more as you move uptown. No longer can the city claim to be hipper than the suburbs: everyone wears Gap, and every Gap is good.
Step two is to keep Gap expensive enough that everybody can afford it--except those who can't. (The bum on the corner can buy a Coke, but he doesn't have five bucks for a pair of socks.)
The working and under-class urban scene, when fashion penetrates it at all, is gang-inspired fashion: college and professional sports team logos; blue for Crips, red for Bloods. Black and Silver for everyone. Raiders. White Sox. L.A. Kings.
Even the radical, gang-inspired fashion undercurrent of the underclass urban scene (Blue for Crips, red for Bloods, black and silver for everyone--Go Raiders!) percolates up into the middle class. Slumming has always been popular, but even it has been Gapified--reduced to the X hat and the Michael Jordan T-shirt. Gapification is a great neutralizer, stripping violence and excitement from the urban scene.
This is what gives the middle classes, especially the white suburban the middle classes, their false sense of security. They find solace in the evening news, where they see people who don't look like them, don't dress like them and (the rationalization goes) don't live like them. Fleeing from the perverse threats of 8-ball jacket killings and basketball sneaker shootings, these middle classes fall into the safe, open arms of the Gap.
Just as the myth of Bushian politics is that everyone can grow up to be nice and middle-class and President, the myth of Gapified culture is that anyone can wear it and eat it (and be nice and middle class).
At the same time, Gapification assuages that old Republican need to be better than others by guaranteeing that, at some level, someone will not be able to wear it and eat it (and be nice and middle class). It is a standard formula: ideologies which proclaim "All humans can be Gapified" are inverted, becoming "Only the Gapified are human."
Of course the classism of the Gap is not as nasty or brutish as the market can be. But it is classist and deindividualizing and boring and democratic and American. We get the culture we deserve.