Friday, April 20, 2012

The Essential Accessory, Pt. 3

Chapter 63
Dressing well and smoking seem to go hand-in-hand. The resurgence of smoking in the early 19th century neatly coincides with the introduction of Brummelian modern dress. When Americans started favoring the "smoke" over the "chew" in the late Victorian era, the execution of American tailoring took great leaps forward. The Golden Age of Classic Style in men's clothing, from 1935-1965, seems to perfectly parallel the Golden Age of smoking. And adult modes of dress have departed the scene, along with smoking's denouemont in the late 20th century.

Is this synchronicity or coincidence? Let's summarize five hundred years of tobacco history, distill it down to just six points, and give our judgement.

First, tobacco is enjoyable largely because of the presence of nicotine. Nicotine, a tertiary amine compound and a natural insecticide, is found naturally in the plant. It is also the primary psychoactive agent in tobacco, with a half-life of 1 to 2 hours in humans. Just sixty milligrams of pure nicotine is fatal; but if absorbed in low doses, nicotine acts as both a stimulant and relaxant. Its psychoactive effects are many: it enhances sharpness, calmness, alertness, concentration, memory recall, and arousal. It decreases anxiety and sensitivity to pain. In other words, the physicians who complained to King James I in 1602 that tobacco should be available by prescription to prevent abuse, may have had a very good point.

There may also have been something to General Pershing's assertion that the troops needed cigarettes as much as bullets, in light of what we now know of nicotine's quantifiable effects. It enhances everything a soldier needs to give him an edge in combat. In fact, it appears to be one of the few psychoactive drugs that don't have any remarkably negative effects. Other than the drive to take more of it. 

Second, nicotine is addictive. Having taken it, the impulse is to take it again, and more of it. This is partially because tobacco also contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors, which increase nicotine's addictive properites. It's also because human brains are lazy. When an artificial substance (like nicotine) enhances the actions of your brain's natural norepinephrine and dopamine, your brain interprets this as overproduction, and conserves energy by producing less of those hormones. Take away that nicotine boost, and your brain perceives the loss. But instead of boosting hormone production, it will initially simply crave more nicotine, sometimes for months, before normalizing.

Third, the tobacco plant is a carcinogenic brew of elements. When sinus passages, gums, cheeks, throats, and lungs are asked to absorb tobacco continually over spans of years, stresses are introduced into body parts that they were never intended to weather, and cells mutate into cancerous growths.

Fourth, humans are incredibly susceptible to suggestion. Audio-visual encouragement to an action, repeated often enough, is blindly followed. The common denominator: the advent of large-scale international broadcast media. Movies were talkies, with larger-than-life heroes, sweeping plots, majestic soundtracks, and beautiful women. Radio and Television were beamed directly into your living room: a uniquely inimate and personal medium that was previously unthinkable. And these media were truly global in scope.  

Fifth, humans are weak-willed. Demand of any good or service will always increase to match an ever-increasing supply. The numbers show that cigarette use grew to absurd proportions by 1970: the entire planet was essentially chain-smokng, with a commensurate inflation of cancer. 

Sixth, humans are stupid. Even given contravening evidence of eventual dire health benefits, behavior is not likely to change if it causes any immediate discomfort.

We need to interject a strong caveat here, and a call for balance. Yes, tobacco use through most of the twentieth century led to many horrible, lingering deaths. But consider: instances of lung cancer before 1870 were practically unheard-of, despite tobacco's worldwide use since 1600. Rather than draw the typical conclusion that "tobacco use kills;" perhaps we should amend that here to "tobacco abuse kills."

Mmm...atomic hot wings...
One cigarette irreparably damages your lungs. We can all agree to that. For that matter, one loud concert irreparably damages your ears. One atomic hot wing irreparably damages your esophagus. One day on the beach irreparably damages your skin.

The key, as in everything, is moderation. Exceed that moderation, and bad things might happen. Concerts every night might leave you deaf. A diet of hot wings might give you ulcers. Life under a tanning bed might give you melanoma. A gallon of scotch every day might give you cirrhosis of the liver. Big Macs for every meal might make you fat and clog your arteries. And chain smoking cigarettes might give you lung cancer.

But is there a direct correlation between clothes and tobacco? There doesn't seem to be. Unfortunately, the world isn't that simple. Dressing well and smoking existed in parallel, without an "A equals B" equation to tie the two inextricably together -- but there may just be an overarching paradigm that led them both along similar paths.

The visual media, beginning in the late 18th century, was so uniquely world-changing because we are a culture of imitation. We have always been so, but with mass-accessible print media, and then with moving pictures, fashion became instantly communicate-able, as were the myriad accompanying details related to the "lifestyle of living well." Hollywood brought the world to the neighborhood theaters, and Television got right inside our living rooms. We could see for ourselves what looked good, what looked elegant, and what we thus wanted to imitate; without having to attend salons, travel the world, or be sufficiently heeled to hang out with society's fashionistos -- in fact, without even having to leave our living rooms.

Nerd hero.

The world was caught off-guard in the 20th century advertising media storm, frankly. The media-naive public didn't quite get that advertisers did not have their best interests at heart; something we jaded postmodern folk take for granted today. With elegant people on the silver screen, heroes on the newsreels, and your new best friends on the radio, came not just examples of correct dress, but all manner of other things, including behavior, language, mannerisms, drinking, and smoking. 

(Those younger than 30 may
not know who this is.)
And why not smoke? Your favorite movie stars did, your friends did, your boss did. The media told you that smoking was fun and harmless, and would make you thin, popular, sexy, and successful. Not sending cigs to troops overseas was tantamount to talking treason. And there was the physical effect of the nicotine itself. There was really no compelling reason to stand against the flood of advertising and media. 

Smoking was uniquely suited to the media of the time. For one thing, it looked gorgeous. Black-and-white film's gritty noir works well with curls of smoke catching the sunlight and enrobing the actors with aethereal tendrils of graceful movement. Powerful men of industry's powerful cigars emit thick billows that echo the smokestacks of their factories. Thinking men puff contemplatively on their pipes. 

If there is one thing more compelling than visual media to shape behavior, it is direct peer pressure. Two world wars jump started a generation of smokers. GIs, smoking under fire, saw first-hand the benefits of nicotine -- and if they survived the war, by the time they got home they were hooked. They were heroes. And every man wants to emulate his heroes.

But for all the parallel development, smoking and dressing well have been well-suited together. Consider:

A vintage hand-roller for cigarettes.
The ritual of smoking gives one something to do. Actors used it as a "cheat," but men found that a distracted focus adds a level of insouciance to their demeanor. Notice it in the old films: some accessory of a character's hobby is a preoccupation, to selectively distract or enhance focus to his conversation. Dressing well adds immediate gravitas to his presence; and he can casually direct the pacing and focus of that presence with the "actor's cheat." Rolling a cigarette, cutting and toasting a cigar, or tamping, poking, and stoking a pipe -- all of these impart varying shades of subtlety that communicate far more than words alone.

(*This is actually a prewar illustration from Esquire,
but shews the point well: elegance is timeless.)
Post-war economies emphasized a life of ease. Powerful cars, large houses, multi-martini lunches, and playboy lifestyles all accented a culture of excess and plenty. Unnecessary pleasures and indulgences were signets of status, and few things were more extraneous than smoking. A sumptuous men's club, a cigar, a glass of port, a fine suit -- not everyone could afford these on a regular basis, but most men could afford a nice suit and a cigarette at a restaurant. Close, sometimes, is close enough.

Not addicted to smoking. Seven percent
solutions of cocaine are another matter entirely.
And finally: the striking visuals that accompany smoking in the old media, translated well to everyday life. The gossamer magic of pearly smoke, partly obscuring, partly curling about a person, still holds a peculiar sway over us. Note that this does not apply to the crowds of people who today huddle together in the cold and rain, outside office buildings, desperately chain-huffing cigarettes before running back to their cubicles. There is nothing insouciant or elegant about addiction, no matter how well dressed it may be.

Nor is there anything especially compelling about smoking, when divorced from the requisite adult attire. The finest pipe or hand-rolled cigar, in the hands of a man in a tee-shirt and flippy flops, is just an odd non-sequitur.

So what can we do with this information? In attempting to dress like a grownup, do we -- in fact, can we -- co-opt the smoky elegance of yore? 

One wonders why the light is there at all.
The problem with tobacco and clothes is, no matter how well they worked together on the silver screen, they present some real problems together in real life. Especially life in a rabidly non-smoking twenty-first century. 

Tobacco is a staining agent: it discolors everything with which it comes in contact. Fingers, lips, and teeth, certainly; but also fabric, walls, ceilings, and one's surroundings. Your fine clothes will look somewhat less fine with a brown-grey cast on them. This is more of a problem with habitual smokers, than those who smoke only moderately and occasionally (which, as we have demonstrated, is the wiser method,) but is worth mentioning.

The issue of ash is a formidable one as well. Combustion of tobacco creates great heaps of the grey fluffy stuff, and something must be done with it. Ash is easily caught on the breeze, can fall at inopportune times, and sometimes is not wholly extinguished. More than one man's day has been spoiled by a smouldering bit of ash that blew back on his jacket, or in the cuff of his trousers.

What to do after smoking gives the well-dressed man pause, too. Once you've started, you're committed...and no matter how dashing you look during a smoke, afterwards you're left with cigarette butts, cigar ends, or dead pipes. Which all look inelegant and rather sad, somewhat like holding an empty glass at a party.

You can't really smoke with impunity today like you could in bygone days. Just try to light up within olfactory distance of anyone at all, and there will be upturned noses and voiced complaints, and sometimes the unwelcome intrusion of the constabulatory. Certainly not the casual elegance to which you aspire.

And, saving the worst for last: the smell. The most aromatic pipe tobacco, five minutes after the last ember dies, just smells like stale smoke. Stale smoke sticks to everything, and doesn't come out. Remember your grandfather's closet? Everything had that old-man smell. Not elegant, whether on your clothes, in your car, or in your house. No well-dressed adult wants to smell like a creaky old man.

It's pretty apparent that smoking in the twenty-first century is not going to work. There's just too much societal animas to make it viable. So let's find an option that fits today's well-dressed man. Is there an "ultimate accessory" for 2012, something that fits all of the criterion of classical smoking? It should be a preoccupative hobby, perhaps evoking the "classic" lifestyle of the mid-twentieth century, without looking dated or deliberately "retro." It needs to look striking and elegant when paired with grownup attire. It needs to look "at home" with the traditional trappings of living well. And it needs to be visually striking in some way: adding to the elegance of a suit, without detracting attention from it. And it must not intrude on others' preferences, which means nothing burning, smelly, ashy, stain-y, or an any way outré to offend the increasingly delicate sensibilities of those with whom we must share the planet.

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