I once met a fashion writer who was dressed in red pants, pointed shoes and a kind of military jacket that looked straight from the cover of the Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” But most noticeable about him was his waxed handlebar mustache.
He was about 25.
During our conversation, the young man repeatedly used the word “eccentric,” but not to describe someone who sleeps hanging upside down like a vampire bat because they find it more effective than Ambien, but to refer to certain acquaintances and their fashion sense, which was carefully calculated to look outlandish.
“Eccentric” is one of those words that in common usage has lost nearly all its denotative meaning. It has also shed its more quaint and rarified connotations. “He’s a bit of an eccentric,” used to suggest the person referred to was erudite and rich in addition to slightly odd. An innocent victim of our era of subjectivity and relativism, “eccentric” now means whatever the speaker wants it to mean, ceaselessly shifting based on context. And increasingly “eccentric” has come to mean just another lifestyle choice.
Decades of global democracy, mass media saturation and egalitarian ideologies have all contributed to the dilution of the concept of eccentricity, a moniker so charming when used to refer to an English aristocrat, yet so pathetic when applied to a suburban Californian trying to live out the fantasy that he’s a pirate.
The true definition of an eccentric, of course, is not just one who behaves oddly, but one for whom it would never occur to behave otherwise. In its purest form, eccentricity is wholly unconscious. But as soon as “eccentric” behavior becomes a kind of deliberate performance used for self-promotion and publicity, or for gaining attention, whether positive or negative, we are not dealing with genuine eccentricity, but something ersatz. Instead of being delightfully oblivious to his own oddities, the “eccentric” is a calculating showman seeking a reaction from his audience. If the true eccentric is a private individual who hides his idiosyncrasies, the ersatz eccentric is a public poser who flaunts them.
I’ve spent my life in California — San Francisco and Los Angeles — arguably the American state with a greatest reputation as a place full of independent and free-spirited people who “do their own thing.” Here it is an everyday occurrence to find middle-aged men and women whose entire lives are based on the tastes and behaviors of a 1950s teenager, or a Silicon Valley computer programmer with long hair and a Van Dyke beard who comes home from work to immerse himself in the fantasy that he’s a decadent aesthete in fin-de-siecle Paris.
It’s funny, though, how “doing your own thing” looks so much like what other people in your style tribe are doing. Man, after all, is a social animal.
Des Essentes, the hero of J.-K. Huysmans’ decadent novel from 1884, “A Rebours,” drew on great financial and imaginative resources to live his life “against the grain.” Today we can all escape from the banality of everyday life and transcend the boundaries of time in small ways: By cultivating our own eccentric tastes through the discriminating consumption of media, for example. We can have the DVDs of “Lord of the Rings” playing 24 hours a day in our air-conditioned homes while wearing battle armor bought on eBay, and find fellow fantasists who share our tastes and fetishes on the Internet.
It is refreshing to live in an era of greater tolerance for all lifestyle choices, and an era in which a simple Google search can lead you to kindred spirits. Of course, once you go on the Internet to find others who share your particular “eccentricity,” it kind of negates the idea of eccentricity. And so it may be not just the word “eccentric” that has reached the end of its line, but the very concept of eccentricity itself.
We may all be a little bit eccentric today. But as with everything else, if everyone is, then no one is.
From the July, 2009 issue of L’Uomo Vogue.