For me, it was déjà vu all over again. One more episode in the Fashion Wars.
The Florida town of Rivera Beach, reported Monday’s New York Times, faced a legal challenge over its ordinance banning the “young men’s ‘sagging pants’ look, with trousers slung low enough to reveal a generous swath of boxer shorts.”
The defense put on the stand its star witness: Chelsea Rousso “a former New York fashion designer who is now a fashion instructor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.” Ms. Rousso, described by The Times as “looking uptown chic on the witness stand in a three-quarter-length embroidered jacket and a knit black dress by Ellen Tracy,” displayed pictures of the soccer star David Beckham, Prince Harry, and others, all sporting drooping trousers.
The expert witness went on to testify that “the low-slung pants look is one that has gone from ‘tribal’ to mainstream.”
“It started out as an expressive concept, and it went mainstream,” Ms. Rousso said. “A lot of people picked up on it, with the social ramifications that went with it.”
I’ve lived through three fashion uproars myself, and I can back up Ms. Rousso. Fashion is indeed a very expressive language: it makes a statement. And it is often intended to provoke uproar. Call it a “loud conversation.”
It’s déjà vu all over. I remember my first fashion war of the late 50s: In my junior high school, blue jeans were banned. Why? “Nice boys” had inexplicably began wearing denim jeans—the disreputable garb of Negros, Mexicans, and “white trash.” Our teen-rebel blue jeans added their own grammar: They had to be worn tight, low, and beltless. Like Elvis Presley. The most desirable haircut (also Elvis’s) sent an even louder message. If you sported one, you were in danger, in some towns, to get your hair shorn off by the police:
No sooner had the fashions and music of the fifties youth rebellion entered the mainstream, than the next one sprang up to replace it. The sixties counterculture articulated its own “expressive concepts” in hair, clothing, music, and even transportation:
By the time this happened, I was studying religion in graduate school. I was into the counterculture; I owned a real pea coat; my hair was, well, longish; my friends were, by and large, hippies. Most of the religion department took me for a real hippie. But my friends didn’t mistake me for one of them: I was, after all, in graduate school.
It was one of my “hippie” buddies who took me to a Hare Krishna temple, and that led, to my everlasting surprise, to my next fashion change. I joined the Hare Krishnas: I wrapped myself in a dhotī; shaved my head, leaving the tuft of hair called a śikhā on the back, and showed up one day like that at the Department of Religion.
This last transformation naturally ignited an uproar with my parents and a somewhat more sedate one with the religion department.
In fact, most of the early disciples of Prabhupāda were drawn from the sixties counterculture, a feature highlighted in the first academic book about ISKCON, Hare Krishna and the Counterculture by J. Stillson Judah. At first, mainstream society took the devotees for a kind of hippie sub-sect.
But those who joined ISKCON in those days were, in reality, double drop-outs: from mainstream society into the counterculture, from the counterculture into the Hare Krishna movement. By going further out, the devotees came back around: they took vows of “no intoxication” and “no illicit sex,” and obeyed a routine that closely resembled medieval monastic life.
Krishna devotees were definitely not hippies, yet their first social niche belonged within the counterculture. Where they were very, very “far out.”
In the counterculture, “far out” denoted a highly valued state. The possession of far-out-ness empowered one to “freak out” ordinary citizens. All the hippies I knew referred to themselves, approvingly, as “freaks.” “Hippie” was an outsider’s word, a journalist’s word.
The mission of the freak, to “blow the minds” of the straight citizens, was supposed to detonate their mental barriers and open their minds to the ecstatic perception of the surrounding world as single vast intelligent living organism, of which we are all part-and-parcel.
The devotees of Krishna recognized that world—it was the viśva-rūpa, Krishna’s “universal form”—and went beyond it, far beyond it.
At my first meeting with Krishna devotees, it was clear to me that they had won the far-out-ness competition hands down. No one blew minds like the American Hare Krishnas. I assumed initially that they knew this, and I basely suspected them of showing off. But I quickly realized that they didn’t even think or care about being far out. They thought they were normal.
I gave some time to thinking about their tonsure. On the one hand, they shaved off their long hippie hair; when shaving their heads, the men used to take the razor across the scalp twice, first with the grain and then against it, thus achieving the smoothness of a ping-pall ball. And they shaved weekly. Even my Army officer father—who waged war on long hair and personally barbered the heads of all his sons—had not been so close, so exacting.
On the other hand, the devotees left the long śikhā at the back. And in those earlier days, they wore their śikhās very long and loose: it was what remained of their former flower-child locks.
This hairstyle expressed to what seemed to me to be the mind-blowing, transcendent synthesis of Krishna consciousness: the devotees were simultaneously further right than the most reactionary conservatives, and further left than the most radical liberals. And both sides achieved integration, a single coherent whole.
This is a tonsure of “expressive concept” with “social ramifications” that Chelsea Rousso should appreciate.
Here’s an ISKCON painting, circa 1969, made for the cover of Easy Journey to Other Planets. Showing a devotee going “far out,” it records how the men wore their śikhās in the early days:
It is interesting to note that the shaven-head-with-śikhā tonsure is actually a style of ancient vintage:
Here’s a contemporary ISKCON śikhā, knotted in the manner proscribed by ISKCON’s Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition:
When I moved into the ISKCON temple with my wife and children in 1971, I underwent the total Hare Krishna fashion make-over. It was the only way to join in those days. The style of a rigid and confrontational alienation from mainstream society was, I believe, something the devotees had unconsciously adapted from the hippie counterculture.
Still it had its distinct advantages. Withdrawing cold turkey from the consumer society facilitated the uprooting of the fabled American Dream from the heart.
My former affinities for the counterculture had not rendered me a freak and a drop out, but Hare Krishna had done the job, taking me beyond even the beyond.
Our expressive fashions—being “religious garb”—had legal protections not afforded ducktail haircuts or saggy pants. But deviance is still deviance, weird still weird. The police were alert. I heard about a group of devotees traveling in an old school bus through the deep South. A state trooper pulled them over. From the front of the vehicle, redolent with incense, the speechless trooper beheld for the first time the flowing dhotīs and sarīs, the foreheads marked with the twin-lines of white tilaka, the shining bald craniums sprouting luxurious pony-tails. Finally he announced: “Ah’m gonna do y’all a favor. Ah’m gonna put y’all in jail.” And indeed he did.
I suffered arrest with some other devotees while chanting on the sidewalk of a small town outside Philadelphia. After securing the volunteer service of a local ACLU lawyer, we returned for our trial. Preparing to give testimony, I was put under oath by the court clerk. Looking at me askance, he said: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you”—he paused a beat—“your God?”
We were different, and our fashion went out of the way to show it. The women in sarīs did not seem to cause much consternation, but men in dhotīs raised all kinds of alarms.
One devotee had reported for an Army draft physical in full Krishna regalia, earnestly courting rejection. Afterwards, he showed me the offical report on his appearance. An Army psychiatrist described his dhotī as “a large diaper.” That, taken together with the hairless head, suggested to the shrink a “highly infantilized appearance.” The Army did not want him.
I found it hard, in the beginning, to be a freak, and it took me some time to feel comfortable in my robes and shaven head. Especially because six days a week found me with the other devotees drawing attention to ourselves by chanting and distributing literature on the corner of Broad and Chestnut. There the large diapers raised eyebrows. In any case, in those days extreme bagginess was not at all in fashion. Some read the robes as a sign of sexual immorality. One suburban matron upbraided me for appearing in public “half-naked, draped in bed sheets.”
Even as I gradually began to like the style, growing into it, I feared my adjustment might be a kind of narcissistic self-delusion. Especially since the people passing by on the downtown sidewalks were starting to look more and more strange to me.
And then succor arrived from an unexpected source.
Enclosed in a letter my wife received from her sister Suzanne—who lived in the upscale Chicago suburb of Winnetka—was a clipping from a recent issue of New Yorker magazine (July 27, 1971). This was an installment of the regular feature “On and Off the Avenue: Feminine Fashions” by Kennedy Fraser, a writer highly esteemed for the excellence of her taste and of her prose as well. She began her piece: “During a slow walk along Fifth Avenue on Wednesday last, many thousands of costumes passed by me; I was struck by a mere handful of costumes that had any semblance of dignity, simplicity, or taste.” Among these few, she noted the outfit that “belonged to a follower of the Krishna Consciousness band, whose shaven heads are enviable on steamy days and whose apricot robes come into their own when they are not swathed in mufflers.”
Here was an expert’s confirmation of my own judgment. I wasn’t deluded. The devotees were looking good. And if the urban passers-by seemed to be looking worse—to me as well as to Ms. Fraser—perhaps it was because popular fashion was entering an era of more-than-usual gracelessness:
Since then, I’ve not changed my fashion much. But the world has changed. I got an inkling that something was afoot in the late 80s, when aboard a jumbo jet from London. The seat across the aisle from me was occupied by a boy of about thirteen or fourteen. He kept staring at me. Finally he blurted out: “Mister, you sure have a cool haircut!”
I thought: “Cool at last!”
Then a little later, the straight-edge Krishna band Shelter was staying in our Philadelphia temple and attracting a steady stream of youthful followers. One day I overheard a band member berating a fan.
It seemed the follower had worn a dhotī to a show without permission. Band members wanted to restrict dhotīs to those they considered serious and knowledgeable about Krishna consciousness. This kid had been told not to wear a dhotī, but he’d done it any way. The conversation went something like this:
Shelter member: Why did you wear a dhotī? You’re not ready. We told you no dhotī!
Boy: Well, I wanted to, you know, just to add more Krishna consciousness, to make things more Krishna conscious.
Shelter member: No! That’s not the reason! You just wanted to be cool!
Boy: People were coming to me and asking about Krishna consciousness, so I thought I could speak about it, you know, more authoritatively if—
Shelter: No, no, you just wanted to be cool. Admit it! Comon, admit it! You just wanted to be cool!
Boy (resignedly): Yeah, yeah. You’re right. I admit it, I admit it. I just wanted to be cool.
And then, on a flight to Los Angeles, a flight attendant stopped by my seat. “Look at you,” he said. “What is that you’re wearing?” I explained what a dhotī was. “It’s so attractive,” he said. (I knew he wasn’t coming on to me: the days anything like that happened were long past.) I told him a dhotī was extremely comfortable as well. Where could he get one? I directed him to Govinda’s Boutique next to our LA temple. Someone there, I explained, could teach him how to put it on.
The attendant returned to his duties. If the gays take it up, I thought, maybe it’ll become really fashionable.
Something was in the air, anyway. Around the same time, The New York Times carried a long piece about fashion designers turning to religion and spirituality for inspiration. One instance cited:
The designer John Bartlett created a rope-belted monk’s coat last season, which will be carried by Charivari, Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s New York and was recently bought by the actor Robin Williams. And this season Mr. Bartlett went Hare Krishna, with loose orange robes. “Personally speaking, there’s nothing sexier than a monk or a Hare Krishna,” he said. “They’re so inaccessible.”
Our fashion has a serious purpose: to remind us of Krishna. Every morning after my bath, I look in the mirror and decorate my body. I mark my forehead and eleven other places with the clay tilaka symbol of Viṣṇu’s temple. In this way, I consecrate my body to the service of God. My clothes, my tonsure, remind me and others of Krishna. That is our fashion’s “expressive concept.”
No fashion could be more expressive than tattooing. It’s another item, like blue jeans, that moved from the margins into the mainstream. Krishna devotees have engaged it to make their own statements:
This devotee’s devanāgārī tattoo reads, on the top line, “Hare Kṛṣṇa Hare Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa Hare Hare,” and on the bottom, “Hare Rāma Hare Rāma Rāma Rāma Hare Hare.”
For many years I’ve worn the traditional chadars with mantra of Krishna’s name of on them. Last year something new happened: Whenever I went out with a chadar around my neck, one lady or another would invariably say, “That’s a nice scarf,” or “I like your scarf.” Sure enough, wearing the divine names is mainstream:
The year I joined the temple—thirty-eight years ago—National Geographic happened to feature an article on India. The cover photograph, showing a traditional devotee of Lord Rāmacandra, must have then struck most Westerners as very weird. Very “far out.” But nowadays, perhaps, no longer so strange:
This devotee’s tattoos, as well as her scarf, proclaim “Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma Rāma….”
Now there’s an in-your-face fashion statement, for sure.