A New Category of Cool

I  found myself intrigued by a quote featured in one of my picks for the Fashion Bibliography, Why the Coach Handbag is a Symbol of It’s Era-Defying Cool. The quote attributed to cultural historian Joel Dinerstein, succinctly states, “The French have chic…but Americans invented cool.” 

One of the things that I love about my given profession is that it draws upon multiple “sciences” to explain human behavior. Sadly, my profession has been internally oppressed for decades because of a person named Abraham Flexner who said we weren’t a real profession because we did not have our own unique knowledge base. Unlike many of my peers, I find this aspect of my profession the very thing that makes me complex and different. It offers multiple perspectives through which one can examine a question. And so with anthropology, history and sociology as a frame I began my exploration of what Joel Dinerstein may have meant.

To put this all in context, since returning from China where I actually realized with a shock that I am now a kind of public figure and role model for a younger generation, I have been curious about why this is so. I now ask this question of every young person who I meet who is a fan. My Instagram follower majority are ages 18-35. The most common and repeated comment from this audience across all countries and cultures is always, “You are so cool, I want to be like you when I am older.”  My newfound status as icon is most times surreal and unbelievable to me. My questions became, “What is meant by cool? and "What is the relationship to getting older?"

In Joel Dinerstein’s Tedx talk, he says that icons of cool are cultural guides that offer strategies for an unwritten future and carve out new cultural space for a given generation. Cool is an unasked question, “How do I get where you are?” Cool is not celebrity and consumerism, Cool is not a saint, nor is cool perfect. Cool as defined by African-American jazz musicians is, “Emotions under control in a stylish and detached manner.”  Cool has a signature style that is inseparable from that person’s experience. The icon of cool creates the conditions for a new generation's self-creation. I think I have come to the conclusion that young people are interested in me because they are more interested in self creation than the generations before them (this is based on my experience as an educator). My students do not want to work for government or social institutions they want to start their own organizations, find unique ways to solve social problems. Unlike earlier generations, I am starting to suspect many young people do not want to be afraid of aging anymore, there is a desire not to reject it. There seems to be a wish to not be "anti"  or reactive as in “anti-aging”, but pro-active as in creation. In this time of uncivil discourse, there is a desire and attraction to those who are detached, relaxed and stylish and accepting of,  yet resisting when needed,  their time and place. Dinerstein's presentation of Lester Young in his talk is a remarkable example. Like me, there seems to be others who have a growing desire for calm, passion and defiance that is performed rather than spoken and fashion is a big part of what could make that happen. 

What would a calm, relaxed and stylish personal style look like for you in your time and place?