Kerouac: style on the road

Kerouac: style on the road

Jack Kerouac: style on the road

A text by Yoann Didier for Parisian Gentleman.

In 1951 Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road”, a novel published in 1957 that was going to change and mark the cultural world. This breath-taking novel became the founding work of a literary movement called the “beat generation”. Alongside people like Ginsberg, Burroughs or even Dylan, this movement defined a new generation of artists and sparked the counterculture that would mark the 60’s and 70’s. From anti-war movements in America to the uprising of May 1968 in France, many important cultural events find their roots in Kerouac and the beat generation’s artwork, even the Woodstock festival or the election of John Fitzgerald Kennedy are in a way the consequences of this revolutionary novel. If you have never read it, it is time to drop everything, including this text and buy your own version. But enough now for the historical and literal introduction. Since you probably came here looking for a style related article, you have probably already guessed that there is a lot to learn on that subject from Kerouac’s novel. In fact “On the Road” develops an aesthetic and a philosophy that everyone can try to assimilate and adopt in the process of finding and developing his own style.

Kerouac’s novel obviously talks about a journey, it tells the story of the author and his friends traveling through the USA and through the 1950’s. It might be easy to think that the “road” is just the physical path that takes people from one place to the other and in a way this is not wrong but it must be understood in a much broader way. Kerouac’s journey is not a straight highway, the beat generation was rather lost, unable to control their movements, driven by the road and trying to find their own path trough it. “On the Road” teaches us that life is not a concrete straight line but rather a matter of being lost and finding beauty in the complex and uneasy chaos that is thrown at us, it is about welcoming hardship and embracing it. This approach is obviously easily translated to the style journey we all embarked on. If you want to evolve and get to somewhere else with your style it is foolish to think that you will get there in a straight line. Looking at it through Jack Kerouac’s novel should help to accept that it will not happen, that mistakes will be made. You will fall in a lot of traps, you will be stranded for weeks or even months, you will be uncomfortable, people will try to slow you down but it will feed your style. This is important because style is deeply personal, you can look at a drake’s look book, buy everything and wear it, something will be off. Style is not about clothes, style is about yourself, about reflecting your own path, your own road. If Kerouac had just taken a plane to San-Francisco, no one would have read “On the Road”. It is through complications, imperfection and perdition that beauty and aesthetic finally appear.

“On the Road” is also an invitation to go your own way (as Fleetwood Mac would say). The characters are all embarked on a road that goes deeply against the traditional path. Adversity and hardship are only found when going against the tide. They decided that what was expected from a young American at the time was too simple, usual and uninteresting. Being a good citizen, going to the university, marrying a woman, having children, working ten hours a day, buying a house and watching television, could only result in the loss of their own identity drowned into a million of other similar ones. By going according to the norm, they could not be themselves. In the same way, if one wants to find his own identity and express it through his style, it is of the utmost importance to stop following what is fashionable. We almost oppose fashion to style by saying that one changes every season when the other is supposed to remain “forever”. While there is a degree of truth in this comparison, I personally do not think that style is a never changing concept. Style cannot be separated from people, what everyone considers “stylish” on Ralph Lauren would look terribly awful on everyone else. As time applies to every one of us, style is therefore like everything else subject to change. Therefore, the real difference between fashion and style is the fact that fashion is imposed on people, creating a horde of perfectly similar looking men. To find style it is important to avoid the easy way, try to escape the mass-marketing that sells you a perfect panoply to disappear in the ordinary and basic. Big stores like H&M or Zara will sell the exact same poorly made, socially and environmentally harmful clothes to millions of men. If you want to find your own style, you have to realise that no brand can do it for you. In Kerouac’s world they were paved roads, ordinary and easy to follow just like in the world of clothes. Like Kerouac, have the courage to reach for something different, leave those conventional ways and begin to explore your own self by choosing the hard but beautiful path of your own individuality.

Following your own way in term of style does not mean that you should do it all by yourself without any help or any influence from others. As much as being absorbed by the following of fashion is dangerous, trying to find your own style without any kind of exterior input is not a good idea. In Kerouac’s novel, it is the character of Neal Cassady which draws the author on the road. Kerouac meets friends, people all along the road, he tells their stories and through them he finds his way. As much as “On the Road” is a celebration of individuality, the novel shows a group of individuals who help one another, inspire one another, and experiment the beauty of the road through their deep bonds. There is a great community around menswear, there are small and big blogs, important or unknown Instagram accounts, magazines, and forums. Many people are out there trying to share their passion and their own sense of style, wherever they are on their style journey it is important to consider their efforts. Style is something that comes from the inside but has to be nourished by the outside. If this interest in others does not exist, there is a big risk. Without seeing other people who share your passion for menswear and having for only comparison the people you see on the streets and your family or network, it is difficult to evaluate the way you dress, resulting in stagnation. Style is acquired by being opened to others and sharing with them. By getting to know others, learning who you are becomes easier.  

Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road” in one uninterrupted line of spontaneous words. The manuscript was in fact a 120-foot-long scroll of paper. This attitude is probably the answer for many people who struggle with putting an outfit together. If you feel anxious because of the many rules you are supposed to respect, stressed by unknown people’s point of view, terrified by the possibly unlucky combination of tie and socks, relax. Style is not a question of following the rules. Just try things, go with the flow, wear the things you want to wear and accept that there will be better and worse outcomes. If you look like you need one hour and a half every morning to find the tie which picks up the colour of your pocket-square, your socks, the stripes on your suit, the shade of the frame of your glasses, chances are it won’t look as stylish. Remember the concept of sprezzatura! The best way to make your look effortless is maybe to be less exigent every morning and to try a bit of spontaneity. At best you’ll look stylish and be confident because your outfit is a success, at worst you will be able to think about what did not work and you will have learned something new on your style path.

The last thing that Kerouac can teach us concerns the way he wrote about himself, his friends, and his journey. There is no lie in the novel, every dark and unmentionable detail is not avoided. His world is full of tired and broken people, destroyed backpacks, shattered bottles, fragmented letters, cold trains, crushed dreams and beaten destiny. Kerouac develops an aesthetic of authenticity. It does not mean that you should get your clothes on a junkyard, but I think that in a sense Kerouac shows us that beauty and aesthetic are found in things that are true and inartificial. There is beauty in a well-worn pair of shoes, in the patina of a Barbour jacket, is the wrinkles of a linen suit. Beautiful clothes wear the scars of time.  A tie perfectly knotted without any dimple looks lifeless, uninteresting too perfect, too smooth. There is a kind of beauty found in imperfection that perfection lacks, this beauty comes from the aesthetic of authenticity. To be stylish try to be as authentic as possible be yourself and remember that a stylish personality is transferred from the wearer to the clothes not the other way around.