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In late January in California, in the East Bay, the fences along the streets that I walk are sporadically punctuated with blooming jasmine. The scent is sweet but not heady: a spring scent, reminding me of forsythia, or of the mock-oranges — Philadelphus lewisii, discovered by (and named for) the voyageur Meriwether Lewis in some ditch of eastern Oregon. It’s pleasant, muted yet pervasive, calm. The fences they adorn, however, are anything but subtle. Some are made of board, rough and unpainted, just barely standing, aided by wire or many, many appended nails. Others are bare chain-link, the galvanized wire mesh epitomizing a no-nonsense, function-before-status period of this bungalow-belt neighborhood in Oakland.

This is not atypical. Flowers in January, brilliant sunlight, a sense that you can walk down the street wearing a t-shirt almost any day of the year and not be cold beyond reason. Nor, for that matter, will you be stared at for having made a social or fashion faux pas. Just as the ramshackle wood fence and the no-nonsense mesh fence still stand unremarked upon, taste in clothes is equally unseen. Cars come and go on the street. Drivers hold up hands against the setting sun or flip down sunshades, and all is the same, though one may drive a new BMW, and one a 1980s Toyota Corolla. Though one may wear Gucci and Prada or Tom Ford and another Hanes and Goodwill. And critically, there will be no correlation. Mr. Hanes may be in a Porsche Carrera, and Mr. Ford might be behind the wheel of a Honda Accord. More… “Jasmine and the Good Life”

Alexander Craghead is a historian of design and place. His writing and photography has appeared in regional and national publications, including BOOM: A Journal of California, Railroad Heritage, Trains, and is the author of The Railway Palaces of Portland, Oregon: The Architectural Legacy of Henry Villard(The History Press, 2016). He currently teaches in the American Studies program at University of California Berkley, where he is also a doctoral candidate.

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Everyone wears underwear. Your grandma wears them, your dad wears them, your mailman wears them. Heck, even some dogs wear underwear. We are a society fixated on comfort, but also on functionality. Your personal trainer dons moisture-wicking underlayer, while your mom might be sporting spanx to hold in the result of years of childbearing.

Suited for Space. The Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia. Through November 14, 2014.

But astronauts tend to think of underwear on a different level. You might say their views on underwear are – dare I say – out of this world.

Alyssa Shaw is an English major and graduate education student at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

One of the reasons many of us watch the AMC series Mad Men is “for the clothes.” This isn’t as superficial a reason as one might think. Clothes say a lot not just about a person but about a period. It’s true that fashion trends are often resurrected, and we are now seeing the narrower tie, the thinner lapel, and the angora sweater — the latter, with the concurrent popularity of breast enlargement, making for a lot of Joan look-alikes walking around. But though we may bring back the clothes, and even the breasts, that doesn’t mean we aren’t saying something entirely different with them.  I know this because I was the age of Sally, Don Draper’s daughter, in 1963. I looked up at that world, literally speaking, carrying around the tray of pigs-in-a-blanket at my parents’ parties.

 

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My love affair with the little black dress began when I read Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar. I was far too young to be reading that book, and I’m sure that my desire then to wear black as the ultimate in sophistication was a symptom of a deep corruption that I have been able to suppress until now, but which will erupt the moment I let down my guard. I know that I was too young because I had to wait years before my parents allowed me to wear the coveted black dress.

 

Wearing black was a rite de passage then, as was wearing nylon stockings instead of socks. Yes, stockings. Pantyhose had not yet been invented. And those nylons had seams up the back, seams which would grow crooked though the stockings were clasped in the grips of… More…

 

I work in an office full of very smart, well-meaning people. But they don’t read poetry!  What can I do to get them more interested in this most important of endeavors? — Dr. Sunshine, Boston, Massachusetts

I’m about to describe a scheme that is so calculated and maniacal that you might appreciate it, Dr. S. This might take a lot of preparation, but it will be worth it. First, print out several poems that you’d like your coworkers to read, selecting a different poem for each person according their interests. Let’s say that a woman in your office likes basketball — pick a basketball poem for her:

Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown! Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God. Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy… More…

In the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center just outside Chicago, I bump into a crowd of Jedi wearing Obi-Wan-style robes and munching popcorn. I change direction and slip around the Star Wars fans, who are just a few of the thousands of people attending Wizard World Chicago, the second-largest comic book convention in the country.

There’s a large crowd of kids in X-Men costumes in front of me, and I take out my camera.  When I was at the height of my comic-book fandom (now more than a decade ago), the X-Men titles were by far my favorites. There were two things I especially liked about the team of mutants: The X-Men were outcasts, and they had strong, capable females on their team. Sure, those women were drawn with wildly disproportionate bodies, but they were also given equal page time as the men. Gleefully I snap pictures of the costumed… More…

Shopping, like other activities in culture, has a history, which means it is subject to nostalgia. We may know that nostalgia is based on a longing for our lost youth (in the case of shopping, for a time when clothes fit us better) — but that doesn’t keep us from indulging in it.

My own shopping nostalgia revolves around the department stores of my childhood. In the North Jersey suburbs where I grew up in the late 1950s and ’60s, we had Sears and Bamberger’s for everyday use, but for special occasions we went to New York City to the fashionable department stores. My mother, my sister, and I would put on our nicest outfits and take the train to Journal Square in Jersey City, then the Path to Manhattan, where we would visit Saks, Bloomingdales, B. Altman’s, and the other great consumer palaces. Each of these stores occupied an ornate edifice that took up a full city block, and each beckoned with… More…