As a small and not particularly wealthy country, Bulgaria, to my greatest regret, has a rather low international profile. The average foreigner, quite alliteratively, associates Bulgaria with Bucharest. We aren’t, alas, the Switzerland of the Balkans, despite the dreams of prominent early 20th-century Bulgarians that we become one. We need a figure as big and strong as Dyadya Vanya or Uncle Sam to guide and protect us. We have an inferiority complex we hide behind a mask of machismo, and we are convinced that George Soros and NATO boss us around on the global chessboard in exchange for the occasional carrot.
We typically top global self-assessment rankings of unhappiness, and a renowned U.S. university has recently included us among the most cold-hearted nations in the world, because of our individualism and alleged lack of empathy.
However, there is one field in which I claim we have excelled, beating the creative genius of developed nations by leaps and bounds. And decades too. It is the area of fashion and more specifically, it’s our fashioning of a unisex heir to Coco Chanel’s revolutionary and multi-purpose Little Black Dress, that is close to being proclaimed the new national costume, to go with the Porsche Cayenne, the new people’s car here. I am referring, of course, to the Tracksuit.
True to the already trite claim that we Bulgarians lack a feeling of community, I actually don’t own a single tracksuit, so you would be justified in playing down my musings as lacking proper exposure to and knowledge of the subject matter. Still, I am an ίστωρ (istor) – or judge, arbiter, witness and knowledgeable individual – of the process that saw the status of the Tracksuit climb from a piece of sports clothing to everyday casual, smart casual and even formal attire that in decades past would have required anything from an afternoon dress up.
To trace the origins of this remarkable metamorphosis, we have to go back, not to Adam and Eve, but to Bulgaria’s period of communism, when only a few selected groups of society were excluded from the otherwise total ban on travel and unrestricted exchange with the world. Apart from the party nomenclature, these privileged groups included waiters and bartenders, trailer truck drivers and professional athletes. Waiters and bartenders, in high-end hotels that accommodated foreigners in particular, often acted as spies and had access to foreign currency they could sell on the black market. The same went for trailer truck drivers, who on top of that could actually travel abroad and bring their children real chocolate, Barbie dolls and other coveted Capitalist goodies.
Professional athletes were a special category, as they were intended to be a living proof to the world of the successes of socialism. Because of their often excellent performance at international sports events, they had frequent opportunities to establish close personal ties to high-ranking state officers. Bulgarian journalist, essayist, novelist and playwright Georgi Markov, target of the infamous Umbrella Murder, has an excellent essay on the regime’s drive to have people excel in sports or the arts.
When communism collapsed in 1989, and the time came for document archives to be purged and state money to be used to launch the country’s first private enterprises, professional athletes came in very handy indeed, as many of them were appointed as the country’s first private businessmen. Members of the upper tier of the youth party movement, the Komsomol, emerged from this primordial soup as the new political front, which, similarly to the newfangled businessmen, was guided by the big fish of the decades past, lurking in the backstage.
For most parts, this new social class was submissive, inexperienced, lacking cultural accruals, unused to thinking independently, totally unprepared to adequately deal with their improved financial situation and new responsibilities and environment. Pretty much all its members knew from their previous incarnations, was having grit, obeying orders and dressing in a tracksuit.
Thus, this unpretentious piece of attire, combined with an expensive car, a nouveau-riche home and showy accessories, became the new form of power dressing, ostensibly shattering old authorities, redefining the notion of occasion-appropriateness and, at a deeper level, challenging the generally accepted attributes of public and private personas. The same thing happened in the mid-1940s, when respectable clothing, hinting of personal dignity and attention to detail, started being politically incorrect as a smug and staid manifestation of bourgeois materialism.
This new form of machismo – flaunting inappropriate dress to mark yourself as belonging to a group to which rules did not apply – naturally trickled down to the young and impressionable, and bit by bit started establishing itself as the new norm. By the way, living memory still remembers how these same persons used to not take the label off the sleeves of their new Hugo Boss jackets, so that everyone could appreciate their brand. Or how we used to see bare female legs and feet in the house of parliament, until the new lady politicians learned that the parliament was not the mall, and wearing hose was kind of de rigeur.
So, to cut a long story short, Bulgarians have been frequenting public places, going to school and university, and even to weddings in the smaller towns, in tracksuits since about the 1990s. Models of more humble brands are reserved for daily pursuits, and the Versaces (or indeed, a spelling variant thereof) are kept for the once-in-a-lifetime occasions. On the backdrop of this, only recently have Western-world fashion designers started to produce high-end cashmere-and-silk tracksuits for long plane flights, and only recently has Princess Letizia of Spain appeared in clothing reminiscent of a posh version of a tracksuit. Last winter I bought a similar pair of pants, by the way, only with a black satin, and not white, rim. Also, they had an upholstered button and a zipper, not an elastic waistband. Thus, I like to think I haven’t been touched by the tracksuit bane, yet. 🙂
Jokes aside, I try to keep an open mind, here meaning not to care, but I actually do object quite strongly to this ubiquity of the tracksuit. To me, it is a blatant display of immaturity, lack of discernment and lack of sophistication. Settling for a tracksuit represents a cultural loss of the values of effort, respect for others and doing one’s best. It is a manifesto of mediocrity, which no amounts of showy paraphernalia can alter.
One can either be put together and engaged in active intellectual exchange with the world, or be indifferent to all subtlety and wear a tracksuit – the new uniform of conformity and consumerism. As the Medieval theologians said, Tertium Non Datur. No third is given or possible.
Embracing my inner bourgeois,
PS. A great piece as musical greeting for you today – Debussy’s Arabesque n.1. Good luck listening to this in a tracksuit. I adore it, it is pure liquid happiness to me. Its softness and iridescence gather tension and at a certain point culminate in the most delightful anti-climax that I’ve heard. Listen for this moment if you’d like, I’m sure you would easily identify it and would appreciate it very much too.