It seems like something the city would have forgotten about long ago – the “least fashion-conscious” in America. The only reason I bring all this up is because people still talk about it – like, all the time – decades after USA Today made the accusation. When I moved here four years ago, I heard it so often I assumed it must had been written, you know, sometime this decade. Not nearly 30 years ago.
But there’s a reason why it has stuck. Because it’s entirely true. And it’s completely false. And how we talk about it says more about Durangoans than any label USA Today cooked up.
Let’s set aside issues of methodology – this was not a scientific study worthy of such scrutiny. It was likely a conclusion reached by one to three people based on flimsy and unsophisticated evidence meant to sell newspapers and get entire cities and regions talking. Let’s indulge the assessment despite that the people who engineered it have probably died of natural causes by now.
Just consider the phrase: Fashion-conscious. What does that even mean? Whose fashion are we referring to, ours or someone else’s? How are we defining “fashion,” as if there is one definition and we all agree on it. Which, of course, there isn’t, and we don’t. And how conscious is conscious? Somewhere between indifferent and obsessed? That’s quite the gully.
It doesn’t take much looking in Durango to know that outdoor sports and their utilitarian clothes that are marketed, sold to, worn, and cherished by outdoor folks dominate closets in Durango. Go to Steamworks in a ironically named sports jacket amid a sea of North Face and Patagonia and people ask if you’ve come from a funeral. Are those khaki pants you’re wearing, kind bank employee? No, they’re a nylon blend with pockets in odd places.
Before I moved to Durango, I regularly hung out in the Western Massachusetts town of Great Barrington. Though a third of its size, GB had a lot of similarities to Durango in terms of the values, spirit, and character of the people and place. But where Durango has its outdoorwear-as-fashion, in Great Barrington it was farmers. I’d go to the co-op – the high-status place to shop for groceries for the crunchy crowd – and notice a lot of Muck boots, those three-season boots good for snow, rain or mud. Sometimes the boots would be muddy straight from the field, and sometimes complemented by L.L. Bean up top. Muck boots were utilitarian, yet they carried a sense of status with them, just like the dirty fingernails on some of those who wore them.
And that’s what fashion and style are all about: communication and status. What we wear signals what we care about, the things we do. It reflects our activities and values. In Durango, all that activewear is absolutely necessary to the lifestyles of those who wear it, but looking like you just got off the mountain, down to the messy hair if not covered by some kind of headwear, also carries status. To say that people are unaware or oblivious is inaccurate. They know, they just might not care. They may even make an effort to look like they do, the coiffed “I don’t care” look.
Fashion and style, of course, will change depending on culture and geography. The just-off-the-mountain look in Durango IS what counts as fashionable around here, but it also creates and reinforces a casual culture: I can’t imagine even the nicest restaurants in town getting too worked up about a lot of North Face walking through the door. We’re a laid-back town. But we’re conscious of that.
And that’s not the only dominant style around here. Most of the friends I have here don’t own many “new” clothes. Thrift stores and vintage shops and other second-hand outlets dominate a large sector of Durango (and look at all the choices we have ... perhaps it’s supply matching demand). They’re also some of the most fashionable and fashion-conscious people I’ve met, regardless of where I’ve lived or who’s defining the terms.
Part of me wishes this 30-year-old label would slump off into forgotten memory. It seems like too much power to be given to something as equally outdated as nonsensical. But there’s a reason we’re still talking about it: Because it actually captures a lot of the identity here, though probably not in the way USA Today meant. I believe a lot of people are just fine with it all, wearing it like a fashion-unconscious badge of honor.