Constant teenage titillation

Which begs the question—how does it work?

The critics have a ready answer—a culture-wide race to the bottom, with several “bottoms” thrown in along the way. Sex sells. There’s something to this complaint. Virtue tends to lose to vice, particularly among those who view the vice as compellingly forbidden. To buy the A&F catalog, I visited a store filled with 12-year-old girls daring each other to buy short shorts and giggling about the spring break signs saying “Share your towel. Oil your neighbor. Remember her name.” Anonymous spring break flings are one thing for college students to be fantasizing about. They’re another thing entirely for the preteens who flock to A&F stores. The catalog is certainly part of the constant teenage titillation today’s culture provides, from the booty-shaking videos on MTV’s Total Request Live, to The Thong Song’s lyrics, to movies that sneak by with PG-13 ratings.

But unlike those examples, you do have to be 18 to buy the A&F catalog, and none of the articles in the Spring 2008 issue are more risque than articles in Cosmo or Maxim, which carry no such age restrictions.

Desiring a different world

So beyond the titillation, there’s something else behind Abercrombie’s success—namely, the human need for fantasy. From the daily grind of work or school to the tedium of commutes, bills, and boring families, life can serve up much that begs for escapism.

Not so long ago, this need for escapism came wrapped in high art. Passages of D.H. Lawrence are hotter than anything Abercrombie’s ever cooked up, but no one reads about Lady Chatterley when a more easily understood Carson Daly’s on the tube. Wagner’s searing duets are more passionate and sensual than Sisqo moaning to let him see that thong. But in today’s pre-professional college world, accounting books are shoving aside great literature in pursuit of practicality. Music history is frequently a “gut” class to be slept through, the great works ignored in favor of more accessible tunes on the radio. Sure, you could spend days drifting off with the restless journeys of Jack Keroac. But when hours of economics problem sets, soccer practice, dorm committee meetings, and job interviews are calling, it’s easier just to glance at the A&F quarterly version of the road trip.

So now, mimicking Milton’s image of Adam and Eve discovering each other in the Garden, we have two half-dressed Abercrombie models staring at each other through the leaves. Our escapist art now comes in a clothing catalog, and instead of inspiring the mind to deep thoughts, it inspires the viewer to find his Visa card.

Perhaps someday, Abercrombie’s collegiate clientele will rediscover higher-brow ways of drawing the mind away from the drudgery of daily life. But until then, shirtless men will frolic on Abercrombie’s soccer field, eyelet-lace wearing girls will stare longingly off camera, and an eager public will lap up the catalog while A&F’s executives smile all the way to the bank.

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