Show your ID before reading

Posted: Jun 20, 2001 12:00 AM
I tend to lose my cell phone and so noticed a display ad for khaki pants with a compartment just below the right knee that is perfect for keeping electronic equipment, and that led me to Abercrombie & Fitch. I waited at the counter for my cargo (!) pants and looked down on the A&F summer catalog featuring the usual handsome young man on the cover. But my attention was drawn to the subscription card alongside: "To subscribe: Fill out this card and head to the nearest A&F store with a valid photo ID."

With a valid ID? I found that odd, and asked the young man behind the counter, probably 19 years old, why IDs were required for subscribers to an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, and he said, "Well, uh, it's kind of porny inside."

I walked away with it, and meditate the reaches of the sexualization of our culture.

Abercrombie & Fitch was for time immemorial a sports-equipment and men's clothing store. I cherish the story recorded in The New Yorker generations ago of the gardener on Long Island who yearned to buy an A&F barometer, finally saving up the money to do so. He took it back to his little house on the south shore, tapped it a few times impatiently, and stormed back to Manhattan on the next train, complaining that it was defective, its needle stuck at the mark "Hurricane." Abercrombie returned his money, and the plaintiff returned to Islip, to find that his house had been blown away.

Abercrombie's needle pointed surely at the hurricane of 1938, and presumably its managers feel sure that the way to sell their current brand of clothing is to flaunt the modern dress. This presents a difficulty, inasmuch as clothiers live and die from the sale of clothes. But the current A&F catalog goes far in suggesting that young men and women are better off wearing no clothes, which leaves the catalog reader wondering what it is that A&F will make money from. Perhaps its catalog, which of course is best advertised by the fiction that one really needs, in order to purchase it, an ID establishing that the purchaser is 18 years old.

Now this review skirts fuddy-duddyism; on the other hand, to be entirely blase about what A&F is up to would be dumb acquiescence in its hypocrisy. A&F is engaged in yet further expansion of advertising along the line pioneered by Calvin Klein, which is torso-oriented and, in the case of Abercrombie, aimed more at the pulchritude of the male than the female form. Very odd in a men's clothing store.

The catalog is introduced by a 150-word essay under the title "The Pleasure Principle." A definition ensues: "In psychoanalysis, the tendency or drive to achieve pleasure and avoid pain as the chief motivating force in behavior." And then an amplification: "Summer being our favorite time of the year and all, we've worked extra hard to bring you our best issue yet by letting the pleasure principle be our guide through the hottest months."

The following page gives us a jaunty blonde clutching her hair, wet from the ocean she just emerged from. If she is wearing anything, it would be below her pelvic joint. Above it, which is all the viewer can see, there are no clothes.

Next is a two-page spread in which six young men are shown, above the navel, and one woman. One spots a shoulder strap on the girl, which may be a bathing suit, though it is not descried by the camera. But lo, she does wear a watch band, sheltering the wrist's nudity. The men wear nothing. A few pages on, a young man wears tennis shoes (unlaced) and a towel over his head. At his waist a camera. The shorts are given perspective by the young man's erection.

A few pages on, the young man is entirely naked, leaning slightly over one knee. Across the page are six narcissistic photos of his windblown face in differing exposures. On to another young man entirely naked, one knee (the windward knee) held up. He is reposing on the deck of a sailboat, his back resting on an unfurled main. The very next page gives us a girl wearing a T-shirt on which one can actually make out the name of our hosts. "Abercrombie" is discernible, and then something on the order of "Open Beauty Pageant." That shirt tapers off at the lady's waist. Below the waist there is nothing at all, except, of course, her naked body.

A few pages later the young man is naked again on the boat, but wearing a drenched jacket that reaches only as far as his waist. A few pages later we have five beautiful blondes in full summer wear, draped about a Byronic young man evidently lost in the poetry of his reflections, a loose towel over his crotch.

And so on.

Speaking of nakedness, there was never a pitch more naked than Abercrombie's: the non-display of its products, in deference to sheer biological exhibitionism. The last part of the book actually depicts clothes of one kind or another, but the reader getting that far is hotly indignant: What are all those shirts and shorts and pants doing, interrupting my view of the naked kids! I mean, I showed you my ID, didn't I?