After last season’s wave of lectures as performance – e.g. Alexandre Singh, Terence Koh, Bruce High Quality – self-conscious as they were – a satirical response is long overdue.
Part of the “Free” exhibition and program at the New Museum, curated by Lauren Cornell, dis magazine commissioned artist and musician David Riley to present “Elastic Youth: Interpreting the Scrunchie.” Outside of his scholarly pursuits, David is half of the band Mirror Mirror.
As a reminder, the Scrunchie is the donut-shaped, frilly, elastic band for consolidating long hair when its voluminous cloak is unwelcome and temporarily preferred bound and out of the way.
Attendees learned from David that the Scrunchie was invented by Rommy Revson, popularized by Debbie Gibson, distributed to teens through shopping malls, and collectively discarded around 1994. It became accessory non grata for ten years, and has recently experienced an afterlife for the careering, cosmopolitan woman who is just too busy to care if you don’t like it.
Women have all the fun. Men can’t wear scrunchies and men have no analogous accessory. Males could wear scrunchies, just as they could wear heels – but that’s talking about sex, not gender. Gender conventions determine that a man wearing a scrunchie would be abnormal; a man seeking a Scrunchie would have already breached theterritories of traditional masculinity by growing his hair long.
And though men have bandanas, caps, and sweatbands, men lack their very own counterpart of the Scrunchie. Brimmed hats, like Scrunchies, are functional, but hats are prophylactic against rain, sunshine, and eye contact. They are also a standard with more than a century of cultural precedent. The bandana denotes a social class, just like the scrunchie, but the bandana is an appropriated handkerchief, and not a discrete product. Sweatbands are just plain gross and categorically inappropriate unless you are running – and winning – a marathon. But even then, everyone will be looking at your chafed nipples and not your sweaty headwear.
The gender imbalance was not part of David’s lecture, however. Instead, David retraced the Scrunchie Spirit through teen girls, music videos (Debbie Gibson), film (Heathers), sports (Shannon Miller), celebrity sightings (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and an uneasy relationship with Sex and the City (taboo unless haute couture and huge). He examined the semiotics of “Scrunchie” from Prototype to Used and sited the Scrunchie market as coincidental with the growth of the American shopping center.
One success of the Scrunchie, we understand from David’s lecture, is how Rommy Revson nailed it on the first try. First, the Scrunchie is inimitable, because anything similar invites lawsuits that will make her richer and richer. Second, its simple, general form is purposeful beyond improvement. Indeed, subsequent attempts to market the Scrunchie with zippers and even-more-decorative shapes seem laughable, if not desperate. Finally, the Scrunchie is so close to universal that it passes as both fashion and “un-fashion,” for lack of a better term.
Let’s hope this lecture engenders a lineage of future endeavors that simultaneously mock American consumerism while using the consumable product as a portal to social and economic dynamics. Silly Bracelets? Pogs? Fanny packs? Laser discs?