Notes on Cool

Every day, there's a new message in my email that urges me to check out the latest in "cool-girl style". Others want me to "see what the cool kids are wearing." Even Saks Fifth Avenue, once a bastion of sophistication, is touting the cool girls, whoever they are.

Naturally, if a fashion site calls you a cool girl, you're anything but cool. Further, if you're looking to dress like a cool girl, you are straight up corny.
Trying to look cool is an exercise in futility in the truest sense. Like people who call themselves "classy", coolness becomes a self-negating term.

National Portrait Gallery Photoshoot. Photographed by Paul Perelka, styled by Oriana Kubinska

I came across a great essay that examined the theory of cool, and it highlighted some of my own observations about coolness. I tried thinking about the coolest person I know, who knows about everything years before you do. Much like a hipster, a certified cool person can be described as someone who is already sick of something you have only just discovered. A band, a meme, a coffee beverage....he has moved on.

In this aspect, coolness is aspirational but unattainable. The cool kids are wearing Vans sneakers, but will have moved on by the time some website delivers the edict. Thinking about my coolest friend, I realize how uncool they are in their contempt for lameness. In fact, that alone makes them lame. Coolness, at some point, morphs into its opposite.

Coolness is inherent, but it shifts according to cultures and time-frames. Some icons of coolness will always be cool, or at least until they turn up on a commercial for car insurance. Jazz will always be cool. Patti Smith will always be cool. The French Romantics will always be cool. Most things that define cool were invented by Black people, from style to music to slang. Besides monetary reparations, we are indebted to African Americans for their coolness, which we all imitate constantly, unwittingly or otherwise.

Cooness map by Sister Wolf for Miista

Coolness is marketed to us everywhere we turn. No one wants to be uncool. Sometimes, coolness means using abbreviations your parents can't decipher. Even better, coolness is borrowing expressions from, you guessed it, Black Twitter and Instagram. But again, by the time white people declare that someone looks snatched or drippin,' it's on its way to being corny.

Being cool starts becoming a mandate in middle school, and for some people it appears to be a lifelong objective. Restating the fundamental problem, the more you care about it, the less your chance of attaining it, but that wisdom seems to escape the masses. One consoling note about coolness, for me anyway, is that a complete disregard for it is the coolest thing ever.

I know a guy who's been wearing mom jeans forever, with awful polo neck tops and an awful haircut. He has no idea or interest in what's cool, but he knows the best films I've never heard of and he owns a vintage priest outfit. A genuine eccentric will always be cool, rare as they are. It's a coolness born of obliviousness to others. Approval-seeking behavior is never cool, except in toddlers, where it's vital to a parent's sanity.

I'm pretty sure that genuinely cool people will deny being cool, but it's not a defining characteristic. I've come to believe in my own coolness even though I am also pretty lame. My coolness stems from not caring what anyone thinks. I truly don't care, because if you don't see things my way, you're just wrong. David Hockney said in an interview that the best thing his parents taught him was not to care what the neighbors think. I conveyed this ideal to my own kids, who incited the neighbors to call the police more than once, but that's a whole other story.

In my youth, we judged coolness by someone's record collection. If I discovered certain key albums in someone's collection, it signified an affinity of great consequence. Likewise, if their records sucked, one knew they were a waste of time. So, what I valued in friends and lovers was a coolness that mirrored my taste. In other words, someone as cool as me, who recognized my own coolness. Because isn't that the way it really works?

One of my in-laws loves Celine Dion. This is so obviously not cool that it approaches being cool...and yet no. Coolness can be ineffable, but the absence of coolness is unmistakable. Trendiness is marketed to us as coolness to trigger insecurity. It's good to clarify your own definition of cool and hopefully, to see what a nonsensical concept it has become. Unless you love Celine Dion, you're probably as cool as you need to be.