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The Things The Style Section Carries

The Style section of the newspaper is a confusing place.

Let's begin with The Washington Post's Robin Givhan, who on the pages of that paper's Style section recently expended 900 words explaining in meticulous detail just how disgraceful Martha-Ann Alito's outfits were during her husband's confirmation hearings:

His wife's ensembles varied among casual tan slacks with a sweater, bright red anything, and a brown tweed suit and blouse that seemed to be coordinated with a rigor more commonly found in Garanimals. [These are Garanimals, by the way.] She liked to accessorize with pearls, gold chains, earrings, bracelets and rings. Sometimes she'd wear this treasure trove of jewelry all at once. She was particularly fond of a brooch that resembled nothing more closely than a half-peeled banana. (It could have been a fleur-de-lis, but only as it might be drawn by a 5-year-old.)
Most of what I gleaned from this article wasn't particularly newsworthy, even from a fashion or a cultural perspective. Nor did it appear to offer the kind of good, clean fun that I typically enjoy about the Style section. For the most part, I was just relieved that I didn't attend high school with Robin Givhan.

Yesterday's Post Style section offered another story that was not odd because of its seeming vindictiveness, but it threw me anyway. Linton Weeks starts off by noticing that the people depicted in photographs from the 1900s at the National Museum of American History are carrying very little stuff.

The people -- all ages, all colors, all genders -- are not carrying any backpacks or water bottles. They are not schlepping cell phones, cradling coffee cups or lugging laptops. They have no bags -- shopping, tote or diaper. Besides a small purse here or a walking cane or umbrella there, they are unburdened: footloose and fingers free.

Now walk outside and take a look around. People on the same city streets are loaded down. They are laden with books, newspapers, Gatorade jugs, personal stereos, knapsacks, briefcases and canvas totes with high-heel shoes inside. They have iPods strapped to upper arms, fanny packs buckled around waists and house keys Velcroed to shoelaces.

This seems like a valid observation. In 1900, people didn't carry a lot of stuff. Now, people carry more stuff. Things were easier back then. OK. But Weeks expands this into a sort of microcosm for society at large. "Cultural historian Thomas Hine, author of 'I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers,'" is procured for his thoughts on the matter:
"Just last weekend," says Hine, who lives in Philadelphia, "I helped a friend pick out a rather elaborate laptop case that also included special compartments for cell phone, personal organizer, MP3 player and other devices nobody had heard of a dozen years ago."
Indeed, it appears that there have been advancements in technology over the past dozen years and the retail industry has responded by developing accessories to aid in the transportation of these items. And Thomas Hine has a friend with an elaborate laptop case.

Then Hine gets into it: "The increased quantity of carry-on items for our flight through life, he says, reflects 'the tendency of our society to dispense with sources of shared stability -- the long-term job, neighborhoods, unions, family dinners -- and transform us into autonomous free agents.'"

"Carry-on items for our flight through life" is actually quite a catchy little phrase, and I like "autonomous free agents" also. But I don't really understand what that has to do with a lack of family dinners. Or unions.

"It's the perfect posture for the Age of Insecurity," Weeks adds. "We fret about our jobs, families, country, manhood or womanhood, ability to be a good parent. We believe someone is out to get us. And to get our things. So, like the homeless, we carry our stuff with us. Just in case something, or anything, happens."

Celeste Nibergall of JanSport, a backpack manufacturer, confirms the growing abundance of carried items: "We are carrying more stuff. Especially in school." So backback manufacturers are emphasizing the importance of backpacks. For all the stuff we carry to school. Because we carry a lot of stuff.

Alright, alright. Maybe I'm piling on here, being too cynical -- or too literal. Maybe you read this article and found it to be a fascinating anthropological perspective on modern life. You thought, "Interesting. I do carry a lot of stuff. And maybe that does say something about how insecure and detached from my community I've become." In that case you'd have a lot in common with Dick Meyer, who loved this piece. (More specifically, he wrote "LOVED" in an e-mail about it.) So maybe my perspective is just evidence of a generational gap. While I don't wear a fannypack or Velcro my housekeys to my shoelaces (I'm not entirely sure who does, but anyway), I've been "laden with books, newspapers, Gatorade jugs, personal stereos, knapsacks, briefcases and canvas totes with high-heel shoes inside" pretty much as long as I can remember. So, to me, this is kind of like shouting from the rooftops that the sky is still blue. But I'll concede that maybe I'm just too wet behind the ears, or not perceptive enough, to have noticed the implications of this cultural phenomenon.

But maybe my confusion lies more in the nature of the Style section itself. Maybe my assumption that it's mostly a repository for mean girl style rants on fashion faux pas has closed off the possibility that it offers a much richer experience. Perhaps not when 600 words are used to explain the origins of a staff writer's contrived surname, but sometimes.

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