The limits of Ultimatism

Below-the-bum trousers express the wearer's contempt for others.

Andrew Calcutt

Topics Politics

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I suddenly realised that the state of undress I had observed was by design, not accident. Wearing tracksuit bottoms actually under the bottom is not just a case of snapped elastic but a new variation on the pimp roll, a whole new meaning to moon walking – simultaneously walking and mocking your own gait, and half-mooning at everyone else.

I had been shopping in the Asda superstore in Beckton, a regenerated but far from gentrified part of east London. For the third time in as many days I noticed a track-besuited youth with the elasticated ‘waist’ of his trouser-bottoms hanging underneath his buttocks, thereby offering a display of next week’s washing. This was more than the high-street fashion for men and women to wear trousers and skirts low, revealing midriff with or without bulge. Here hip had gone beyond hipsters to become bumsters, thereby curtailing the leg movements of the wearer almost as much as the bondage straps worn by punks, giving two fingers, in the shape of buttocks, to passers-by, and bearing witness to a fairly new trend in urban deportment: ultimatism.

Thank goodness none of the youths I saw were wearing thongs.

Ultimatism is going all the way all the time, taking what we look like to the nth degree, and not only on exceptional occasions. 24/7 fancy dress. Carrying on like a Carry On film. It’s discernible in the proliferation of men’s shaven heads (once confined to Yul Brynner and Klaus Kinski); in women wearing virtually-no tops (everyone a Windsor); in the veil (the same women on different days: who can tell?); and in the growing preference for elephantine 4x4s – the most appropriate vehicle in which to drive to see Sin City, where both characters and the physical features of the actors playing them are extrapolated to comic book proportions.

None of these is entirely new, but shaven heads, veils, and hectares of cleavage used to represent extremes of, for example, violence and victimhood, chastity and availability; and 4x4s were as exceptional and exceptionable as the landowners and tank commanders who drove them (the same men on different days?). Ultimatism refers to such extremes but rewrites them as commonplace. In turning day-to-day living into a facsimile of cartoon fantasy, it tells overlapping stories of how we tend to belittle ourselves today, even – or especially – when we ‘big up’ or are keen to be seen ‘having it large’.

If you can only see yourself as a forceful individual if you shave your head like a stormtrooper, it means you cannot really see yourself as a strong character. Lack of self-conviction is then compounded by the patent superficiality of the references being made: of course, I’m not really a stormtrooper; only joking; only me. Today the sight of so many shaven heads bobbing up and down in the tidal wave of commuters coming over London Bridge into the City of London each morning, suggests that the masturbatory mix of frustrated desire and self-mockery which expressed itself in the New Laddism of a decade ago, has now spread to the post-lads and dads among the wider population.

Alongside self-mockery there is also contempt for others. In many cultures, it is insulting for young people to allow themselves to be seen naked by their elders. Similarly, for a young man to affect to have forgotten to pull his trousers up before leaving his house and entering the street, is in effect to turn his arse to face other individuals and the public space which we jointly inhabit. Meanwhile, the baring of so much female flesh seems to recall the stripper’s contempt for the johns who have become no more than their desire for her.

Thus ultimatism, while by definition expansive, is also the latest if not the last word in belittling ourselves and each other.

Andrew Calcutt lectures at the University of East London and is the author of Brit Cult: An A-Z of British Pop Culture, Prion Books, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics


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