W/R/T Quote-Unquote Gentlemen’s Swag (as it were)

Written by John Thomas Brittingham. DM by Jessica Sturgeon

A survey of the sartorial values held by a great number of Greenville College Males (GCMs) produces an army of plaids and skinny jeans from which hang carabiners of keys that jangle at even the slightest movement. One is beset on all sides by the unwashed and unshaven masses of musicians and DMers, by athletes in cut-up sweats and tees that barely cover their perspiration-ridden appendages, and by scholarly-types in oversized thrift store hand-me-downs and performance outerwear more fit for mountaineering than midwestern constitutionals. Of course, if these young squires lack the traditional qualifications for being called “gentlemen,” then one needn’t look beyond their intellectual progenitors.  In place of plaid and denim, one finds amongst the elder statesmen of our fine college a sea of unpleated khakis, oxfords, and herringbone blazers as though they were trying to teach through fashion the truth of Faulkner’s famous saying, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”[1]

I have been tasked with examining and evaluating the state of “gentlemen’s swag” w/r/t the onset of Valentines Day. I’ll be frank: I have no idea what quote/unquote gentlemen’s swag has to do with me.  I assume that what is desired, at bottom, is someone who is neither a GCM nor an esteemed graying eminence (EGEs) to pass judgement of the general dishevelled-ness of the aforementioned GCMs. I have no intention to provide something of a style guide for GCMs nor any pretentions to getting said EGEs away from their herringbone and chinos. I tend to wear the same sweatshirt every day (it’s comfortable and, more importantly, it’s clean) and only rarely do I find it a necessity to don the vestments of the sartorial smart set.  What interests me, however, is why we find it a necessity to dress in certain ways in the first place.  In other words, why does swag matter?

Swag, Defined

As a card carrying member of the over-educated and socially awkward society of America (read: an academic) I found it necessary to do some research about this strange word. Researching swag, I have found, immediately disqualifies one from having swag.  Like its predecessors hip and cool, swag is a word that appears to be embodied before it is defined.  You have to see it before you can define it, and even then it is difficult to determine whether or not one has it or is merely posturing.

My research has produced three main definitions of swag–one is historical and the other two are acronyms. Simply, it seems we have a choice before us: Is swag an acronym (and even then we have two choices: Stuff We All Get or Secretly, We Are Gay) or is it a shortened version of “swagger?” If we choose the non-acronym definition of swag, then we tie ourselves to Shakespeare (see: A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and to the history of a word that means moving in an arrogant or boastful manner.  Intuitively, this seems correct.  The word first appears in the 1500s and evolves over time eventually becoming what we now call swag.  It makes sense that the word “swagger” is shortened to swag, given that our language itself is becoming shortened by the incorporation of numbers and symbols into our textual communication.  LOL, FML, ROFL, w8 4 me, and so on and so forth.  All of these words are shortened versions of phrases that have become words themselves. (One even hears people saying things such as, “that movie had me LOLing”–a linguistically interesting development to be sure).  All this is to say that swag as the shortened version of swagger makes intuitive sense.  However, intuitions can be wrong.

If one chooses to define swag as an acronym, then one faces a choice yet again.  Do we take swag to mean stuff-we-all-get or secretly-we-are-gay? The former comes from Hollywood reporting and the latter is a reaction to the saturation of colloquial conversations with the word swag.  Stuff-we-all-get isn’t even true to its own definition, largely because the “we” of stuff-we-all-get is mostly comprised of the rich/powerful/famous/beautiful types who attend award shows.  Defined in this way, swag is a noun.  It’s material goods, usually rare and expensive, offered for free to celebrities and/or People Worth Knowing in hopes that said PWKs will provide some kind of endorsement of the products. Bottles of champagne and body lotions made from the tears of baby seals might be the swag received by PWKs (said with all the disdain that acronym can induce) but if we understand the “we” of swag to include all of us, then swag can only mean one thing: junk mail.

Clearly, junk mail as a workable definition of swag is not what we are after.  But what about secretly-we-are-gay?  This definition of swag arises, as I’ve said, from the word’s saturation in everyday speech.  Much like the vitriol shouts of “YOLO” provoked this past year, swag’s apparent overuse has resulted in redefining it as a derogatory statement. Thus, we find the gatekeepers of hetero-normative linguistic absolutism mocking those who use the word by transforming it into hate speech.  Secretly-we-are-gay appears to mean that the use of the word swag is a sign that its users do not adhere to acceptable gender norms and, by definition, must be homosexuals. Such an orientation is seen as a bad thing, worthy of derision, and must be kept a secret.  Unfortunately, when one uses the word swag, the secret gets out.

However, there is something deeply wrong here.  What we have with the secretly-we-are-gay definition of swag is both hateful and linguistically protozoan. If Wittgenstein is to be believed, the meaning of words are their usage. The gatekeepers of hetero-normative linguistic absolutism would have us believe that the definitions of words are separate from their performance in speech and writing. Words have definitions that are not swayed by usage in culture over time, they say.  Empirically and intuitively, we know this to be false. Those who espouse such ideas of language are missing the way words actually work. Moreover, the baseness of homosexuality is taken as self-evident in this definition. It is unsurprising that such a valuation arises from linguistic absolutism. Static definitions of words allow for the over-simplification of ways of being and reduces a conversation or a complex network of cultural behaviors and symbols into something self-evidently negative. Such a definition is morally hateful and observationally ignorant. Again, this doesn’t make sense given the dynamic way we actually use words.  The saturation of swag in our everyday speech is testimony to this dynamism. Three dominant definitions can be operating simultaneously and yet none of them can be wrong.  One must pay attention to words rather than making pronouncements about their definition and/or apparent overuse.

So where does this leave us w/r/t the meaning of swag. Swag can be hateful but it can also be material goods and even a way of carrying oneself. Intuitively, the idea that swag is a kind of attitude (swagitude?) seems more current than stuff-we-all-get or secretly-we-are-gay.  Such an attitude, given the values of our times, appears to manifest itself not only in the way a person carries themselves, but also in their torso covers. The question remains: why does what I wear matter and how is that or isn’t that related to swag?

Truncated Versions of The Good Life

When we wear a particular item of clothing or behave in a particular manner, we usually have two things in mind: 1) we want recognition for our good taste/style/demeanor and 2) we recognize the importance of context (a.k.a. dressing for the occasion). Recognition goes hand in hand with validation.  We want our choices to be significant and to bear the validation of our peers. This means dressing in certain ways but it also means participating in certain behaviors and practices. This isn’t bad or conformist or fake, this is simply what people do when they are participants in a community.  Total individuality does not a civilization make.  Rather, it is through shared cultural practices and events that societies become stable and lasting. Recognition is really as simple as that–we want our cultural decisions, especially our sartorial ones, to be a sign of validation as members of a community.

However, validation as a member of a community means accepting that community’s version of the good life.  Unfortunately, some versions of the good life, of what comprises a collective vision of what the best society and best way to live can be, are often truncated.  That is, our visions of the good life become shallow and short-sighted. Still, we might ponder how such deterioration comes about. Why is it that we forward-thinking Americans sometimes feel as though our vision of the good life is blurry at best?

We Americans are bad at history.  We have short memories and tend to believe that the cultural artifacts and beliefs of the present have always been with us. It is as though ideas did not develop and transform over time, as though they never had a history and were just dropped from the sky and mattered the moment they arrived. Granted, we might claim that our ideas of the good life are not unlike those of Aristotle or St. Augustine, but these ideas are anachronistic at best. What is worrisome about contemporary views of the good life is that they focus too intently on the immediate. This is especially true of young men (including GCMs) for whom the acquisition of a romantic partner or personal fulfilment through sexual conquest becomes their chief end.  Peruse the films marketed specifically to Hip Young Sensitive Males (HYSMs, as it were) and you will find that this is the case. It seems that the only truly valid goal for HYSMs is “getting the girl/guy”, “being in a relationship”, “going to see about a girl” and so on and so forth. Becoming a virtuous person, cultivating habits of justice, moderation, courage, wisdom, etc. are pipe dreams.  The best a HYSM can hope for is some version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG).  Thus, from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, to The Graduate, to HBO’s Girls, we find HYSMs and MPDGs throwing off the shackles of history and embracing the ever-important “now” as tightly as they embrace each other.

How do all these acronyms and pronouncements about the good life relate to swag? One of the ways that GCMs “get their swag on” is to make certain sartorial choices on the basis of context.  One doesn’t show up to church on Easter Sunday wearing tattered jeans and a dirty t-shirt (unless you go to St. Paul’s). We make choices about what we wear based on our desire for recognition from others and out of our own recognition that particular days demand particular torso covers. All of this has to do with Valentine’s Day and “gentlemen’s swag”, I assure you. V-Day matters because it’s supposed to be a day when we celebrate romantic relationships. If you want to understand the history of romance, go read Isaiah Berlin. I am more interested in exploring why we think V-Day matters and why dressing as though it matters matters for GCMs. V-Day matters for GCMs because we have accepted a truncated version of the good life that says that romantic relationships are the chief end of men. In order to procure one of these romantic relationships, HYSMs (of which a number of GCMs are members) must adorn themselves with only the hippest of threads and carry themselves as though they have “swag.” To achieve one of these romantic relationships, a GCM must comport himself in such a way that he demonstrates mastery over his material appearance, giving the impression that he is deserving of a particular understanding of love, romance, etc.

My question is this: Why does this matter? Is a romantic relationship all there is? Is the day one meets one’s significant other the highest stage of development for a GCM, a HYSM, or a MPDG? Isn’t there more to the good life than dressing well and striding about campus in a boastful manner? Is swag really that important?


A Long Parenthetical For The Explicit Purpose of Placating Editorial Types Entitled “Gentlemen, if thou must have swag”:

1. Groom Thyself. Shave, trim, clip, etc. (Also, no mustaches unless you’ve been in at least 3 bare-knuckle brawls or refer to yourself as a pugilist)

2. Mooseknucklin’ is for amateurs.  This is self-explanatory.

3. Shower: Nobody likes someone who smells like a sweaty armpit.

4. Banish all Axe products save those from Best Made Co.  Even if you think Old Spice makes you smell like your grandpa, guess what, he beat Hitler, built the interstates, and probably knew how to field dress a moose and do his own taxes (AT THE SAME TIME).  So be like your grandpa, and try not to smell like a bag of soggy potatoes.

5. Develop a cultured affectation.  Read a book that isn’t homework (but seriously,read those too), memorize a poem (hint: Pablo Neruda will take you places you never thought words could); listen to Kind of Blue, In the Wee Wee Hours of the Morning, A Love Supreme and have an informed opinion on them.  Don’t just talk your date’s ear off about Fun. or 2 Chainz, talk about stuff that has aged well.)


In Place of an Ending

I don’t really have any final thoughts about “gentlemen’s swag” other than thinking that it doesn’t really matter as much as we Americans tend to think it does. I also don’t think that V-Day matters as much as we’re supposed to believe it matters. I don’t say this as a V-Day hater or as a prophet of cultural gloom and doom.  I think my theologian friend is right when he says that fashion is a kind of art even if I don’t really know what that means. But I think that art invites us to examine the givens of our culture and to question whatever version of the good life we are being fed. If fashion is a kind of art, and “gentlemen’s swag” is a kind of fashion, and art is about communication and questions, then swag should be about questioning givens rather than adhering to them. Swag, as a word, as a way of being in the world, is little more than a means of embodying questions about social norms.

[1] William Faulkner. Requiem for a Nun. (1951).


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