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Panama's Definitive Wardrobe

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Written by Matt   
Friday, 11 September 2009 08:31
I'm on Panama detox and on a flight from Boston to San Francisco I sat next to an A-list actor who I wouldn't have identified had several people not approached during our flight to ask for autographs. If I wanted to prove myself, hospital I could have said it was his Taliban-like beard or oversized sunglasses that were disguising. He was wearing grungy pants, pharm a ripped t-shirt, and the type of flimsy leather sandals one might expect from a Thai rice farmer mid-season. This was a celebrity, diagnosis I'd go on to find out later, who recently earned six digits for singing happy birthday at a girls bat mitzvah party or something.  As I sat down, the celebrity told me we were lucky. "Just got back from Africa," he said unprompted. "Shit those people have it bad. Sewage and shit in the streets, all these little huts and skinny-ass dogs. Saw so many flies crawling all over people's faces. Damn! People was eating mud, at least that's what it looked like. But now this here," he said, reclining his seatback and motioning to the extra legroom. "I tell you what. This here's the shit!"  

Are you talking to me?
I wanted to say. This was an incredible soliloquy. I mean, one of the funniest, most peculiar things I have ever heard come out of a stranger's mouth. Had the same scenario played out in a less prescribed place, like a street corner for example or a pub, I'd disregard the person as mental. But this was on an airplane. Only people with money ride on airplanes.

And so is the problem in the USA. Rich people don't always dress the part. There are stores, magazines, and experts dedicated (it seems) exclusively to dilapidated clothing. Hats so frayed and shirts so tattered that you'd think they were wrestled directly from the jaws of a feeding lion. Excuse me, I sometimes want to ask. Do you think you could just take this pair of jeans one step further and incinerate them for me? Nah, I won't be needing a bag.

In Chicago, I wandered into one shop selling a rack of scarves that more resembled partially torn bee nests, each on sale for $92 (down from $212!). In New Orleans, I attended a fashion show with a motif that, had I not been briefed, I would have described as hobo meets tramp. My favorite was how these clothes were marketed under the word distressed as if they had real beating hearts. If any emotional state was appropriate, I thought to myself, suicidal would be much more appropriate.
When I pass someone in Panama, I look at their outfit and draw a little picture for myself about their life. I like to think I'm usually pretty accurate with these profiles or, as I call them, my vignettes. I like being able to look at the man in the suit on Calle 50 at lunchtime and pin him as an assistant bank manager. I like seeing the elaborate old lady outfits destined for Punta Pacifica or the blue-collar apparel heading home, no doubt, to La Chorrera. There is a certain cheer in passing through Chorillo and knowing confidently that after the man on the corner shits in a bag, he'll probably go on to spend the rest of his day doing crack in a corner. In Panama, clothing is clairvoyant. It is definitive. Like a little well-organized play, people dress their role. There's none of this impostor trend. One way or another, you find things out about people and in Panama, I take pleasure in simply knowing sooner rather than later.

Comments (1)Add Comment
Great writing Matt
written by SteelyDan , September 11, 2009
Love your articles. I too cannot for the life of me understand the way people dress in the States. I need to get down to Panama more often smilies/smiley.gif
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