Photo Credit: Twitter
The image of Bernie Sanders at the 2021 presidential inauguration already seems to have launched more ships than Helen of Troy. Senator Sanders, or more casually chic, “Bernie,” appeared wearing repurposed Fair Isle mittens made by a Vermont school teacher, Jen Ellis, and a very practical coat from the Vermont-based company, Burton Snowboards. He was photographed in this locally-sourced utilitarian outfit, carrying pieces of mail, and seated in a pose that resembled Gru from Despicable Me.
He looked curmudgeonly and cold but comfortable. This stood in stark contrast to the rainbow of elegance painted by Michelle Obama, Amanda Gorman, and Jill Biden. But it was Bernie who became an overnight fashion phenomenon. Bernie’s portrait has already graced countless memes and products; he is featured on digital Vogue and The Cut. There is even a “Be Bernie” filter on social media. And while reactions have ranged from fond admiration of Bernie’s grumpy-grandpa threads to gushing over his inconspicuousness, there is something lurking not so much in Bernie’s outfit, but in the reaction to it, that deserves attention.
This, we imagine, is how Bernie really is (or at least looks) no matter where he is, and this image of reality strikes us and amuses us like a common dandelion growing amidst a swathe of bougainvillea.
Indeed, the effect of beauty’s truth seems to increase in the absence of any fanfare, when it pops up unannounced, or where we previously did not notice it, as if a sudden insight that illuminates the whole. Still, in order for us to see beauty, it must appear. And its appearance, however close it comes to sheer invisibility, is at odds with its being “true” beauty, since appearances are dependent upon circumstance and perception.
Beauty’s appearance thus threatens to render it merely apparent beauty—merely fashion. But like truth, beauty wants to be more than just opinion. It seeks to rise above fashion’s ebb and flow, to be no trick of the eye or cosmetic facsimile. At its least conflicted, beauty would so channel the Zeitgeist that it could grant a beautiful person or thing the impression of effortless iconography—of having captured a transcendent moment, neither a rigidified corpse of past ideals nor subject to a fleeting fifteen minutes of fame.
Unassuming, mittened up, arms crossed, Bernie Sanders appears as if he does not appear. He is the transient Everyman, as emblematic as Baudelaire’s Monsieur C.G., the anonymous sketcher of the manners of the time, the painter of modern life, a lover of its subtle changes of outfit.
Bernie, too, has a pulse on change. But like Monsieur G. in his anonymity he appears somehow distinctive. He happened to be there at just the right time, like a Kate Moss or a Grace Jones, so perfectly embodying the era that his image appears beyond the era.
In Bernie’s natural beauty, one finds the apex of that art of contingency that every serious fashionista and politician covets, the point at which the trendy becomes classic. Will Bernie’s look of the moment live beyond the moment? Already, Bernie has teleported to more places and times than Amélie’s gnome. Already, he signs his signature in disappearing ink:
In the window of a coffee-house there sits a convalescent, pleasurably absorbed in gazing at the crowd, and mingling, through the medium of thought, in the turmoil of thought that surrounds him….
He is a master of that only too difficult art—sensitive spirits will understand me—of being sincere without being absurd….
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes….
In this way, Bernie Sanders, not unlike Baudelaire’s flaneur, appears arrestingly human and unsurprisingly popular. He has struck an elusive mean between the capriciously untrendy and the deliberately anti-trendy. There is an effortless twinkle in Bernie’s eye—or is it a wink?
χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά, “beautiful things are complicated.” Anti-fashion fashion has long been attractive to those of us who fancy ourselves engaged in higher pursuits. Too much looking in the mirror seems at its worst narcissism, at its best philosophical self-reflection. The latter, too, has a reputation for idleness that makes it seem largely unfashionable when pitted against the practical pursuits of business and politics.
Especially during the current climate of political, social, and economic despair, dressing up seems almost as mad as metaphysics, even or perhaps especially when all the world is watching. These are hard times, and fashion in hard times is seen as excessive. We don’t want to look like insensitive idlers, even if we are. We contrive to be real. But having discarded fashion in favor of anti-fashion, the specter of effortless beauty haunts our desire for exposed truths.
So, there is Bernie Sanders, who looks somehow more “authentic” than the other attendees, as if authenticity could admit of degrees or even publicity.
Either way, we’re impressed and want to stare at him: the absence of frippery, the eschewing of capitalist consumption, that no-time-for-fun-and-games-anti-fashion-statement that says “don’t look at me”—all of it transfixes our gaze with inexplicable magnetism. But before Bernie and stodgy academics, Plato knew the power of anti-fashion, or, let’s say, the extraordinariness of the ordinary.
With the flourish of the written word, he turned frumpy Socrates into the cool kid everyone wanted to be. Socrates was not pretty (see Theaetetus 143e) and only once depicted by Plato in shoes (see Symposium 174a). No doubt if Socrates were to appear in the 21st century, he would wear repurposed wooly mittens, the very symbol of homespun realness that at once warms our hearts and refutes our [fashion] statements. But Socrates’ ability to draw people to him without superficial looks seems to be part of what led Athens to suspect him of corruption. Was his humble position of “knowledge of ignorance” just a mask for vanity (see Apology 36d, where Socrates suggests to the jury that he should be given free lunch)?
Bernie, of course, does not and cannot seem at all vain to us in his practical garb. His response says as much: “Fashion? Let’s get to work”; “We [in Vermont] know something about the cold. And we’re not so concerned about good fashion, we want to keep warm, and that’s what I did today.”
It’s-cold-let’s-get-to-work fashion wants to be and to look “comfortable,” so that we can get the job done. When people look comfortable, it comforts us and makes us feel warm, as does the fact that Bernie, the inaugural Madonna, will now grace a sweatshirt to fundraise for Meals on Wheels and other charities in Vermont. The mittens, too, have gone to auction for a good cause, and all over Bernie-style broadcasts fuzzy feelings and good intentions.
It’s a lovely twist, and yet the initial craze over Bernie’s grumpy carriage remains the curiosity. Bernie looks so genuine it makes us burst out laughing. He is just so perfectly himself—too perfectly, in fact, to be real, as he in fact really is, which is what makes him so funny.
Authenticity seems to give way to a comic caricature, where at once Bernie in being so Bernie ceases to be Bernie and becomes a starter pack meme. The more he seems to be seamlessly portraying himself, the more self-mockery he appears to admit. And so we delight in how true he is—or looks. It is not his substance but the appearance of substance on the surface that charms us.
Bernie Sanders does not have a stylist like the impeccably-dressed Michelle Obama. Clad in a magnificent outfit designed by Sergio Hudson, the former First Lady turned heads until Bernie appeared. By comparison, she suddenly seemed too put together. But isn’t this fashion’s greatest trick? Isn’t Bernie in this instance a mitten-wearing dandy?
Dandies were not always what they are considered today: ostentatious fashion plates with a penchant for expensive clothes and lavish lifestyles. Originally, the word “dandy” referred to a person of subtle elegance; the tailoring and details of a dandy’s outfit signified moral and aesthetic discipline. The dandy—and I here characterize the dandy as masculine only in historical presentation, since his chameleon esprit defies typing—naturally ingratiated himself with the political elite by means of his unwavering style and posturing, which led to his becoming enmeshed in a somewhat, though not altogether, unwitting position of political opposition.
Dandies appear especially in times of political transition. “Dandyism is a sunset,” wrote Baudelaire: “like the declining daystar, it is glorious, without heat and full of melancholy.” So the dandy quietly subverts, not by means of any particular garment, but by means of his chill flare. The dandy has no uniform; he is an individual, an independent, an original. He could, for example, appear during a pandemic at a presidential inauguration wearing a plain jacket and snug mittens.
The peculiarity of Bernie’s everyday looks is not, then, in the specifics of his outfit but rather in that poetical fashion of his disposition. He appears artfully uncontrived, as we imagine we’d witness a Bernie in the wild on the way to the post office or the DMV. This is the irony without which beauty cannot do—for, while one can condemn this or that fashion as a vain display, to condemn fashion as such will inevitably appear itself a fashion.
This is especially true now that the fall of fakery posing as truth has made authentic authenticity desperately stylish. Bernie Sanders seems real; Bernie Sanders seems true. The fandom surrounding Bernie’s image appears to be generated out of an attraction to a genuine “article,” which is perhaps, underneath it all, a longing to be laid bare as who we are when no one is looking.
But the naked truth, like true beauty, is an oxymoron. In our eagerness to see past surfaces, we neglect to notice that depth revealed is but another surface. Fair Isle mittens are all the rage.
Why are we so attracted to the look of truth? Fashion rules us, even when it seems to least.
More from the Fashion, Emotion, and Self seminar can be found here.
Gwenda-lin Grewal is the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language at the New School for Social Research. She is currently finishing a book on ancient philosophy and contemporary fashion, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic.