Men’s clothing, and magic, and psychometry


Partner and I went recently to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, to see a show about men’s clothing.



Shows likes this – fabric, clothing – usually bore the hell out of me. But this one was amusing, and really memorable. They had one of Mark Twain’s shirts. They had one of Andy Warhol’s terrible shaggy white wigs. They had a dapper trim little tux that had belonged to Fred Astaire, and a very small dress suit belonging to Truman Capote circa 1970. They had a Harris Tweed suit that might or might not have belonged to one of the British royals in the early 20th century.



I was amused and really gratified to see these things. These were garments worn by famous people, and –



Well, and what? Why does that make them special?



Not long ago, a scientist on television showed how people impute mystical properties to things owned by famous people. He showed a group of people a fountain pen that he said had belonged to Albert Einstein, and asked if they wanted to see and hold it, and they all handled it reverently. Then he showed them a sweatshirt and told them it had belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer the serial killer, and asked them if they’d like to handle it or try it on. No one wanted to touch it.



He lied in both cases. The pen didn’t belong to Einstein, and the shirt didn’t belong to Dahmer.



But I understand implicitly what those people felt. We feel instinctively that objects take on the properties and personalities of their possessors. There are even psychics who claim that they have the skill of psychometry: the ability to read the histories of objects and their owners.



I own a Jean Cocteau lithograph – a portrait of Erik Satie – which was once owned by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I like to think that I can feel the personalities of all three when I look at it: Cocteau’s imagination and drive, Satie’s whimsy and purity, Shostakovich’s dark humor and power.



I probably can’t feel any such thing.



But I like to think I can.


Lynda Barry, in person


I wrote a while back about Lynda Barry, the illustrator / writer. Well, she came to the Rhode Island School of Design on January 14 – my friend Sylvia, who works there, was good enough to let me know – and I went to her presentation.

Kids, Lynda Barry is amazing.

She talked about “images.” What’s an image? It’s the thing that children create when they play. It’s an imaginary friend. It’s a binkie. It’s a stuffed animal that you can’t live without. It’s your first crush (come on, you can remember his / her name without even thinking, can’t you?). It’s your first telephone number, which you can still probably remember, and which gives you a little thrill of warmth when you remember it.


Lynda has been partnering with scientists at the University of Wisconsin about these questions. They have found that adults in a state of “creative concentration” and children in a state of “deep play” have similar fMRIs.

She is very funny, and much of her presentation was in anecdote form. Here’s one of the core anecdotes:

She and her husband live in rural Wisconsin. Most of their friends are serious and humorless. But, if one brings a small child into the group, they begin to play with the child. They draw, and sing, and dance for the child. (“I wish,” Lynda said, “I could remove the child. I just want to see the adults dancing and singing, sometimes.”) If you ask them why they’re so carefree with children, sometimes they say: “Children aren’t judgmental.” To which Lynda says: “Nope. Children are incredibly judgmental.”

This is Lynda Barry’s assessment of the situation (I paraphrase, because I can’t quite remember her actual words): “The adults are speaking to the children in the language of play. It’s the basic language. It’s the language that comes before language.”


And then she recited a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, and then she told us a joke about balls.

This is what higher education is really all about.

The Rhode Island School of Design


The Rhode Island School of Design, or RISD (pronounced “risdee”), is Brown University’s little brother to the west, on the downward slope of College Hill facing downtown. It has produced many creative artists: I will name only Seth MacFarland and the Talking Heads, but there are lots more.

When I went to hear Lynda Barry a while back, I entertained myself before the presentation by watching the audience (mostly RISD students) coming in. Ah, kids, they appear to be having a lot more fun than the average college student! They were dressed very entertainingly. One had a hoodie like a faux panda, made to look as if the panda was eating her head from behind. Another’s hoodie was (I think) Piglet from “Winnie-The-Pooh.” There were lots of other interesting hats, from various cultures around the world, and from no culture at all.

Hair color: why stop with one? A little blue on this side, maybe some crimson on the other.

And did you ever think the 1990s would be retro? The kid sitting next to me had a flannel shirt and a mock-Rasta hairstyle and a kind of Peruvian jacket; he was carrying his skateboard, and it dropped and rattled noisily, and he looked at me very apologetically.

O my the faculty! One was very dignified, balding, handsome, but wearing something that looked like Charlie Brown’s zigzag-embossed shirt. Another was wearing something like formal pajamas.

Everyone was having a wonderful time. More than that: they were having a lot more fun than I remember having in college.

Is it too late for me to get a degree in design?

%d bloggers like this: