What We Wore: Centuries of Peacocking in the City

Photo: Courtsy of the Library of Congress

One of the greatest joys of living in New York is the opportunity to peacock. Or, if your personality goes another way, the opportunity to enjoy the peacocks as they make their way up and down the streets and avenues. The city is, and has always been, a fashion capital. In the beginning, we took our cues from Europe, waiting for ideas to chug across the sea for us to copy. But that didn’t last long: Sure, we still look in that direction, and also in many others, but New York is a great mecca of style because we are endlessly asked to put it all on display. More than do the inhabitants of cities with no 24-hour subways, or cities where walking isn’t innate, we define ourselves and speak to one another with clothes practically without respite. That’s the fun of it, and also the challenge. Leave the house, and you will be seen. And so we use fashion to announce our tribal leanings or our determination to belong to no tribe whatsoever, except for the tribe of this sometimes-crazy place where, truly, anything goes, and, if you need to push the envelope, no one will stop you from going, basically, nude.

This is the city that invented street style. And a lot of what we’ve come up with has gone on to influence the rest of the country, not to mention the entire world. What would fashion have done without hip-hop, particularly as interpreted by a bunch of Adidas-loving rappers from Hollis, Queens? Or any of the other less-heralded things we’ve invented, such as the safety pin? We’re definitely known for certain stylistic tics that transcend style eras altogether, like how many of us choose to dress entirely in black. Some may laud its slimming effect, or its tendency to withstand a stain. But for us, it’s a statement of our (self) seriousness, our urbanity, and, perhaps, a longing for some sort of uniform, the chance to cleanse our palates when the options are so many.

Clothes are also memories. A dress can be every bit as evocative as scent, bound up in our nostalgia for the time we arrived in New York without a winter coat or when the velvet rope parted somewhere, leading the way to the Michael Todd Room at the Palladium, the opening of a Broadway show, the job of one’s life. Miniskirts are the madeleine for many women who came of age in the 1960s. And a North Face puffer jacket can bring 1996 right back to life. All it takes is the width of a tie or the brim of a hat and a whole world is conjured, our own and the city’s: its moods, its tastes, its attitudes and ideals. Photographs of people dressed up for work, play, seduction, or anonymity jog our own memories: of our lives here, but also of the lives we imagine for one another when we glimpse ourselves across subway trains or restaurants. New York, Edmund White once wrote, is the cruisiest of cities, but he wasn’t just talking about sex. It’s the place where everyone is checking everyone else out on the sidewalk and thinking, I’d like some of that: that being a shoe, a coat, a hat, an attitude.

New York, historically, is also the American city that makes fashion and shows it on actual runways. The Garment District has dimmed, but still, the Garment District lives. Whether or not you know that when Marc Jacobs showed his grunge collection in 1992 it both got him fired and changed the way we dress, fashion is a language in New York that many people speak more fluently than they expect. Every single morning, we suit up, open the door, and slip into the spotlights.

A version of this article appears in the May 16, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.