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Carter Chic: Clothing in the Boho Nation (Part 1 of 3)

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By Emily Goulding on May 6, 2011

Spring has brought the Boho Nation into full bloom.

Despite the lowest public trust in the government since Watergate, young people everywhere have blossomed into ’70s-style flowery tanks and slim-legged pants.

Unless millennials have been closet hippies their whole lives, I have some questions. What are the political implications –- and limitations –- of boho chic clothing?

This is the first article in a three-part series about the politics of fashion. In it, we’ll analyze lifestyle politics, what people want to look like, and why.

Let’s start by asking whether or not millennials dress in (Jimmy) Carter Chic.

The New Republic published an article stating that, “[Obama’s] comparison to Carter died in Pakistan along with bin Laden.” That’s a powerful answer to the question that Foreign Policy first raised in its January 2010 issue, which compared Obama to Carter with a disclaimer of, “Well, maybe.”

But the Boho Nation dresses like Obama equals Carter, because it sure feels like Obama is Carter. If fashion is the subconscious of a culture, then this is what we’re feeling:

The spring selections at major retailers are markedly boho. For the first time, Giselle Bundschen is an H & M model, and lo and behold, a hippie:

We don outfits a la Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:

And a la Jade Jagger.

This nostalgia might have real roots. Obama and Carter share striking similarities: both are center-left presidents who inherited weak economies and had to deal with crises surrounding oil, energy, and the Middle East. Both are men from humble origins whose bookishness is mistaken for snobbery.

The two presidents also suffer from burdens of expectation. Being who they are and leading in the times they led, people expected Carter and Obama to carry forward the cultural transformations kickstarted in the ’60s (such as advocating for marginalized communities and advancing the politics of fairness). Instead, Jimmy Carter tried to do right but failed to break before an abyss of disaster capitalism that created the Material Girl of the early ’80s. And today, we have a culture in which a president of color is pressured to produce a long-form birth certificate by a gaudy TV host with a combover.

Maybe boho chic is Generation O’s way of showing emotional solidarity with its president…some sort of theatrical attempt to take us back to the starting point and try all over again.

The one exception in the flower brigade is the occasional preference of leather over lace, which is more early eighties than it is late seventies. Today’s material girl is Lady Gaga (and to a certain extent, Rihanna), whose looks hearken back to Madonna’s black-leather vogue. This look sets free an S&M angst that lies mostly under the surface of the American imagination, but sells platinum albums when it pierces through (in very high stilettos).

So are times better than they were in the 1970s? Yes. Is progress as fast as we’d want it? No.

And there you have it: Do bohos dress in Carter chic? Well, maybe.

Emily Goulding is an arts activist and cultural critic living in Washington, DC. Read her HV archive here.

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