Summer 2011

Colors / Drab

The hues of an “immajnari karrakter”

Aaron Kunin

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

In 1997, everyone wore drab. Do you remember what we looked like? I don’t. No one does. The only account of this fashion of the nineties comes to us secondhand, from an interview with a time traveler recorded a full century earlier:

“They all,” he presently remembered, “looked very like one another.”
My mind took a fearsome leap. “All dressed in Jaeger?”
“Yes, I think so. Greyish-yellowish stuff.”
“A sort of uniform?” He nodded. “With a number on it, perhaps?—a number on a large disc of metal sewn on to the left sleeve? DKF 78,910—that sort of thing?”

This scene greeted the eyes of Enoch Soames when he entered the reading room of the British Library on 3 June 1997. Soames, whose brief, undistinguished literary career attracted little notice among his contemporaries in the 1890s, gave the Devil his immortal soul in exchange for an afternoon in the library of the future researching his posthumous literary reputation. A poet convinced of his own genius, he did not reckon that the mediocrity of his output would fail to persuade future generations. So he was chagrined to learn that literary historians memorialized him as not only a “thurd-rait poit” but also an “immajnari karrakter” invented by his acquaintance, the writer Max Beerbohm.

What else did he see in the reading room? Soames, a decadent aesthete who professed “Catholic diabolism,” was further disappointed to find that after one hundred years the positivists and the utilitarians were, at least temporarily, the victors in the culture wars. While in power, they instituted a thorough reform of English spelling on a rational, phonetic basis; their cultural critics viewed literature and other arts “az a department of publik servis,” and valued works only in terms of their usefulness to society.

And they—we—wore close-fitting, tightly constructed but porous wool garments made according to the process developed by Gustav Jaeger. Worn next to the skin, Jaeger’s wool invigorated the body and did not let it suffocate in the unhygienic gas that it sometimes released. This cloth could take various dyes, but we only used one. Or maybe we used none at all, since one of the meanings of drab is the color of cloth, whatever material it may be, before it has been treated with any dye. Soames remembered the color as grayish-yellowish; I picture it as the olive green favored by the US military until they switched to camouflage. The playful changes and reversals of the world of fashion, which used to come and go with the seasons, we reduced to one color, one shape, one texture. As de Tocqueville predicted, between the incompatible values of liberty and equality, we chose to pursue equality to a point where it degraded to conformity.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.